Registered Offense

Posted on 10. Dec, 2011 by in Features

Hotel Duncan is tucked discreetly next to Yale University’s campus, on Chapel Street, across the street from an art school building. It is marked by a tall vertical sign with golden letters that no one seems to take the time to look up at. The hotel’s own Web site calls it “eccentric.” Online reviews of the hotel either excoriate its noisy heating system and stained amenities, or forgive the hotel’s drawbacks in view of its prices (around sixty dollars per night). The hotel claims to have the oldest hand-cranked elevator in the state of Connecticut.

And according to the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s sex offender registry, the Duncan also currently serves as a permanent residence for seven convicted sex offenders. (I later learned that one of them had moved, but the registry had yet to be updated.)

Phillip Palmieri lives there. On July 14, 2006, he was convicted of second-degree sexual assault for having sex with a minor. The girl was 14 and he was 32. I met with Palmieri in the hotel’s lobby, because he felt uncomfortable speaking about the topic in a coffee shop or in any other public place. I knew his basic measurements from the state registry—the 40-year-old Caucasian male stands at a modest five-foot-seven and weighed, when the information was last updated, 180 pounds. He was released from prison on June 17, 2008.

In person, Palmieri looks leaner, younger, and better groomed than in his photo on the registry. His hair is dyed jet-black and he wears skinny jeans. As we spoke, his ice-blue eyes were animated and his tone was energetic.

I had never met a sex offender before this encounter. I knew the story of Megan Kanka: on July 29, 1994, in a town in New Jersey, Jesse Timmendequas lured the seven-year-old girl into his house across the street from hers, raped her and then strangled her with a belt. Timmendequas had had two previous sex convictions, but the Kanka family was never informed of this about their neighbor. In response, national and state governments made major changes in the way they legislate where sex offenders can live and how specific information about these crimes is relayed to the public.

But there are still problems with the system. Because the state registry does not provide detailed information about offenders’ crimes, I assumed Palmieri had forcibly raped his victim. The idea of seven convicted rapists living only a tenth of a mile away from my dorm room sounded to me, a 20-year-old woman studying at Yale, like the premise of an improbable horror film. The scariest aspect of the situation wasn’t their crimes, but the fact that I didn’t know enough about them to be able to judge the level of potential danger for myself.

Palmieri says he “fucked up.” He had just come out of a divorce after a five-year marriage with a woman seven years older than he was. When he met the 14-year-old on a “Gothic” social networking site, he was in bad shape, he says, “at the bottom of the barrel.”

The legal age of consent in Connecticut—and in most other states—is 16. Palmieri says he thought the age of consent was 15 years old, a “misguided conception” based on the fact that a few of his friends at the time were dating 15-year-olds without any trouble. But the girl was not even going to be 15 for two more weeks.

The relationship was consensual, Palmieri says.

“I hate to break anyone’s heart, but no, I didn’t hold her down and put a knife to her throat. That’s what people think. It’s a hard stigma to break free from,” he says. Palmieri, as the registry indicates, was convicted of sexual assault in the second degree, which does not involve force in Connecticut law.

The state is in the process of complying with a federal mandate to include more information on the state registry, which will help clarify individuals’ crimes and separate higher-risk sex offenders from those less likely to harm their communities after incarceration. As I listened to Palmieri’s stories as well as those of two other sex offenders, however, I realized that the proposed legislation will not resolve major problems in the way our system treats sex offenders. The failure to distinguish between low- and high-risk offenders is not limited to the registry, but affects the entire system. It’s a system, I became convinced, that is counterproductive, preventing many low-risk offenders from reintegrating into society, increasing the likelihood that they will commit crimes and putting the rest of us in greater danger.

There is no law in Connecticut regulating where sex offenders are allowed to live. Instead, the Court Support Services Division in the state judicial system oversees probation officers who create customized plans for individual offenders once they are released from prison, explained the division’s director, William Carbone.

“Finding a place for a sex offender to live is always difficult, he said. The state employs what Carbone calls a “containment model,” in which a probation officer, treatment clinician, and an advocate for the victim collaborate with each other and the offender to determine the optimal post-incarceration plan. This includes determining where the sex offender is allowed to live. The ultimate decision on where offenders are allowed to live rests with the probation officer.

Usually an important part of each plan is preventing the offender from living in close proximity to those under the age of 16, in order to prevent the offenders from committing another crime, Carbone said. Because of this requirement, many sex offenders end up living in shelters until the state can find housing for them. This effect may be mitigated to some extent when Connecticut’s first residential treatment facility opens in Montville, Connecticut, in a few months, after a long battle between legislators and angry community members. The facility will help sex offenders readjust to life outside prison. But the facility only has twenty-four beds, not nearly enough space for all the offenders who might need it. And when they leave the facility, those offenders will still have to find homes, which can be difficult for anyone with a sexual assault charge on their record.

Hotel Duncan is not an anomaly in its housing seven sex offenders, Carbone said, though he did not know of the hotel specifically. There are many reasons why probation officers might direct offenders to the hotel, he said, including that it is not in the immediate vicinity of minors. Officer David Hartman of the New Haven Police Department said the department does not pay close attention to specific residences on the registry unless there is reason to do so. There been no cause for concern at Hotel Duncan, he said.

Palmieri has lived at the Duncan since he was released, because it was the cheapest place he was allowed to live. He is unemployed, collecting odd jobs here and there from employers willing to overlook his felony charge. He had his own place before the conviction but couldn’t afford it after prison. He also considered moving back in with his parents, but there were minors living in the apartment complex, so he wasn’t allowed.

“It was either this or the homeless shelter,” he explains. Palmieri has seven more years on probation.

Although finding a new place that probation will approve seems like a matter of sheer luck, getting out of the hotel is not impossible. In the past year, there has been some turnover as three offenders moved out and one moved in, according to my perusals of the registry since last winter. Edward Boppert used to live in the Duncan but moved six months ago to West Haven, to an apartment his brother helped him find. Compared to Palmieri, Boppert seems deflated when I meet him, like something’s been beaten out of him. He’s 68, a retired multi-machine operator now settled with a pension and Social Security. He seems determined to hold on tight to what he has, simply by being unassuming, and he takes pride in his success so far.

Boppert urges me to talk to the manager of the Hotel Duncan, his former landlord, as a “reference.” His reasons for speaking to me are clear: he has been convicted of a crime and wishes to change society’s negative perception of him.

“He’ll stick up for me. He’ll say that I always minded my own business,” Boppert says earnestly about his landlord.
In the letter I originally sent to Boppert requesting an interview, I made no promises. I explained I was looking for an account of his experiences reintegrating into society since he was released from prison. In order to make my request seem more palatable, I asked for the parts of his story he was willing to share—the details he was not willing to share, he could omit. I don’t want to believe that the details of his or the other two sex offenders’ stories were false, but at the same time, I don’t know what they chose not to tell.

When I ask him to explain how he got into trouble in the first place, Boppert gets quiet. “It was—” He looks around the Starbucks to make sure no one is watching and then cups a hand beside his mouth and leans toward me. “It was just computing,” he whispers. I press him for details.

“Computing,” he whispers again, then feels obliged to elaborate. “Porn.”

“Like…children?” I say. Of course, I already know most of Boppert’s story from the registry. He was convicted of five counts of illegal possession of child pornography on August 31, 2007, and he was released on January 28, 2010.

“Yes,” he responds, and looks disappointed with himself. He tells me he was caught while in the process of moving residences—the pornographic pictures he’d found online blew out onto the driveway. The movers found them and turned him in. It’s good that it happened, he says, because it made him stop looking at child pornography earlier than he would have otherwise. He has nine years of probation left to go. According to the registry, he’s the same height as Palmieri. I can’t see it under his red-and-white flannel shirt, but I know he has a three-inch scar on his right shoulder.

Using the addresses on the registry, I attempted to contact the five other offenders, besides Palmieri and Boppert, currently living in the Hotel Duncan. The hotel’s receptionist told me that one had moved out about a year ago, though the change had not been updated online. Another, the only one living at the hotel with a federal conviction, had been recently changed on the registry to “non-compliant”, meaning he had not checked in with probation for more than three months. He did not respond to my letter or calls. Three declined to be interviewed.

The last sex offender, James Szelest, 38, said at first that he would only talk to me on the record if I omitted the hotel’s name and address. If people read my article and found out there were sex offenders living there, customers might stop staying at the Duncan. If enough people were turned away, he explained, the hotel might go out of business.

This put me in a difficult position. On the one hand, Szelest’s address was public information, easily accessible with a few quick online searches, and I could not omit it from the article. But on the other hand, he had a good point—my article could deter potential clients, put the hotel out of business and send him, along with the others, to a homeless shelter.

The state’s probation system essentially forced the offenders to aggregate in one place. And not just any place, but a hotel on a busy street right next to an affluent university, sure to garner attention. In publicizing this information, the state registry, a tool meant to ensure community safety, could actually be responsible for putting them all on the street. The overall system seemed inherently faulty, dangerous and unfair, for the sex offenders and for the communities where they live.

Two years after Timmendequas raped and killed seven-year-old Megan Kanka, President Bill Clinton signed Megan’s Law, requiring each state to register sex offenders and to publish personal information about them. As long as these two basic national requirements are met, each state has authority over its own version of the registry. It is more recent legislation, passed in 2006, that requires registries to categorize offenders by the level of risk they pose, but Connecticut has postponed updating its registry for budgetary reasons.

It is a problem that Connecticut’s current registry does not provide much information that could help viewers understand the level of risk that individual offenders pose, said Mike Lawlor, a former state representative and now the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice and planning. On December 5, there were 564 sex offenders in 449 locations within five miles of my zip code, 435 offenders in New Haven, and seven in the Hotel Duncan, according to the registry. It gives physical information, conviction and release dates, addresses, and the degree of sexual assault for each individual, but not, for example, whether the individual has assaulted males or females, adults or kids, strangers or acquaintances.

The state has a system to determine whether sex offenders pose high, medium, or low risks of recidivism and harm to the community, but the information is used exclusively by probation and parole officers and is not even publicized on the registry, Lawlor said. He also, controversially, argues that some low-risk offenders should not be on the registry at all, including some who were convicted for statutory rape.

“For example, a high school senior who takes a high school freshman to prom. The classic case where the parents call the police. O.K., that’s what the law says, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the guy who had sexual relations with this girl is a high-risk pedophile,” he said. Ideally, the state would establish a board responsible for determining risk specifically for publication on the registry.

Most people perusing the registry in its current form will assume, as I did, that all of the sex offenders living in the Duncan pose a high risk to the community. Most people would probably be afraid of what might happen at the Duncan. Lawlor said if the state added risk categories notifying the public whether or not there are high-risk sex offenders living in the hotel, this clarification would help assuage these fears. But I’m not sure that solution alone would solve some of the major problems with the system.

A few weeks after our first phone conversation, Szelest called me back and left a message apologizing for his earlier resistance to being interviewed.

“It’s hard enough being published already,” he said, referring to the registry. Unlike Palmieri, who will only be on the registry for a total of ten years, a standard amount of time for sex offenders, Szelest said he will be on it for life, because of the court ruling on his case.

He was worried about losing his home at the Duncan if I published the story, he said, but decided he wanted to “get his side out.” He was arrested for the possession of child pornography, according to the registry and corresponding court records. He said he turned himself in to the police after his wife found the photos on his computer.

Szelest said he “disgraced” his country by his actions. He is an Army veteran and has been threatened by his neighbors in the Duncan and by other veterans. Although an expanded registry would help the public determine the risk offenders pose to those around them, Szelest added in a later interview, he is put at risk by the fact that his legal status is public. More information is not necessarily better for his safety.

Meanwhile, recent research questions whether the registries really increase community safety across the nation, said Randall Wallace, program director of the Center for Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior at nonprofit The Connection. The organization oversees treatment for all offenders in the state of Connecticut and will oversee the treatment facility in Montville once it opens. Although Wallace said the most effective registry would categorize offenders by risk level, he added that research shows no significant correlation with registries and reduction of risk of recidivism for the offender. In fact, some experts say, registries can decrease community safety by causing members of the public to focus on offenders who are strangers to them. Most victims of sexual assault, however, know their assailants. In relying on the registries for information, the public may be ignoring threats from people who are closer to them.

Why did this ineffective system develop? Possibly because early research on sex offenders made conclusions based primarily on studies on high-risk sex offenders, instead of distinguishing them from offenders who did not pose a high risk of harm to the community, according to David D’Amora, an academic expert on sex offense at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The way academics view sex offense today is very different from the way they thought about sex offenders a few decades ago. Early studies focused only on the highest-risk offenders, suggesting that sex offenders were drastically different from other criminals, D’Amora said. Sex offense was treated like an incurable behavioral problem that could only be managed, such as substance abuse, instead of like a curable disease.

“The person is responsible for their behavior and needs to be held accountable, but that got turned into, ‘Oh my goodness, they can’t ever change,’” D’Amora said. “We went too far in trying to think about it.” Academics reached conclusions about basic characterizations of sex offenders that were inconsistent with the reality of the situation.

But Wallace said he “adamantly” disagreed with the idea that some offenders can be cured, adding that the reality was more nuanced. Many sex offenders have specific incurable problems closely related to their sexual crimes, such as anger management and alcoholism. During the treatment process after incarceration, Wallace said, the state system determines which problems are linked with the offenders’ crimes and then creates a therapeutic plan to manage them long-term. But both agreed that there was a population of offenders at low risk for recidivism who should be cycled out of the system as soon as possible.

Research shows that only a small minority of sex offenders recidivate and that the majority who do actually commit non-sexual crimes correlated with factors such as lack of employment and housing, D’Amora explained. So Szelest’s worst nightmare, being kicked out of his home at the Duncan, could mean trouble for the rest of the community as well, since many of the offenders in the Duncan aggregation would become homeless.

Indeed, there is a group of sex offenders more dangerous than the rest, whose crimes are symptoms of incurable mental problems. The issue is that many laws in states across the country have been developed based on this small subsection, instead of based on empirical studies of the larger population, D’Amora said.

“In fact, when we over-respond to low-risk offenders, we actually increase their failure rate, which does not increase community safety,” he said. This over-response could deprive low-risk offenders of stable housing and jobs, making it more likely that they will fail to integrate completely into society. Sex offenders living in unstable situations are more likely to commit crimes that may have nothing to do with their original offenses, endangering the community.

There is a new trend at the federal and state levels toward developing policies that are based more on what the evidence says works, instead of on a “knee-jerk response,” D’Amora said. It’s important for low-risk offenders to be able to develop appropriate skills, behaviors, and relationships in order to properly reintegrate into society and avoid recidivism.

Boppert and Szelest both lost their marriages to their mistakes, and both live alone with only minimal contact with their families and former friends. Palmieri is convinced that the system is attempting to ruin his relationship with his boyfriend, Sucre Romero, 21, whom he met after being released from prison and coming out as bisexual.

Romero is a drag queen performer at York Street Café and Palmieri often went to his shows to help out backstage. But last spring, Palmieri was assigned a new probation officer who banned him from attending, saying it was sexually stimulating and therefore inadvisable. When Palmieri complained to the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, he claimed his probation officer changed her reasoning for the restriction, instead saying it was justified by the presence of alcohol at Romero’s performances. She put a GPS tracking device on his ankle to prevent him from going, and then several days later she wrote up a warrant that said he had violated his probation. Palmieri, who spent twenty-two days in prison because of the warrant, said there was no basis for it. He said the probation officer had falsely accused him of possessing pornographic videos of his boyfriend performing in the shows. Palmieri added he was fired from his job as a bellhop at Hotel Duncan because he had to miss work while in prison.

“The twenty-two days I spent in prison when she violated me, twenty-two days away from [Romero]—I was a basket case,” he said. “And they say they want us to have healthy, consenting relationships.” He is now involved in a court case related to the incident and was the subject of a June 30 article in the New Haven Register. In that article, he was quoted as saying, “You can’t keep me from getting sexually aroused…Be happy, I’m getting sexually aroused by adults.”

In early November, Romero tagged along during one of my interviews with Palmieri at the top level of the store Gourmet Heaven. There were a few other tables occupied, but Palmieri seemed less worried this time about being overheard.
It was easy to see the tension in their relationship. Romero lives in New York, and Palmieri isn’t allowed to leave the state without checking in with his probation officer in advance. Sometimes Romero makes plans for long-distance trips with his friends, and both in the couple are disappointed when Palmieri cannot get permission to go in time. The relationship confused me—I’m less than a year younger than Romero and getting past a potential partner’s sexual assault charge would be difficult for me. I asked Romero what his reaction was when Palmieri first told him about his legal status.

“It was unexpected,” he said, when Palmieri revealed the information to him after a few weeks of dating. But by that time, he had already gotten to know his boyfriend and realized that he was a good person. That made it easier to forgive his mistakes, Romero said.

Not everyone in Palmieri’s life has been as understanding. One of his probation officers once told him that his relationship with Romero was unhealthy, because he said Romero looked like a 14-year-old. One of Romero’s friends told Romero he would rather date a murderer than a sex offender. Comments like this upset Palmieri—people make assumptions about him because of his charge, before they know anything else about what he did or who he is.

He once read an article in a local paper interviewing a man released from prison after serving more than twenty years for killing his wife “in a crime of passion.” Palmieri says the article praises the man for starting his own business and turning his life around after being released.

“Never in anybody’s lifetime will we see an article like that about someone with a sex offense…I can’t be around minors, but does this guy have any restrictions about getting married again? It’s ridiculous,” he says.

The stigma also harms the people who were victims of the original sexual assault crimes, said Tina Greaves, director of victim advocacy at Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services. Victim advocates are involved in the probation process after a sex offender is released from jail. Their job is to make sure the victim’s perspective is represented in the decisions made about where the offenders can live and work. A large percentage of sex offenders know their victims, so if an offender were to commit another sexual crime, it would probably involve someone they already know. Offenders that are better integrated into society after incarceration are less likely to commit another crime, so it is safer for the victim if the offender has a more stable life.

Last winter, before I had even met Palmieri or the other offenders, I visited the Duncan to talk with the hotel’s manager, Richard Longo. I told him what the interview would be about before I got there, but he seemed shocked and defensive when I brought up the topic in person.

Longo said he hadn’t been aware that there were, at the time, nine sex offenders living in the hotel, adding that he didn’t “keep tabs on it.” This seemed unlikely to me, especially since at the time Palmieri was also employed there as a bellhop. Longo said he had no idea whether the hotel’s other patrons were aware of the fact, unless “they are savvy with a computer” and he refused to comment on whether patrons should be told about their offending neighbors when moving in. I tried to get him to elaborate, but he effectively sent me packing.

I called Longo again this fall, equipped with notes from my research and interviews. But he again refused to comment, even when I informed him I would publish the article either way. I understand why he was defensive. He probably felt as though I was threatening the hotel’s future, although he is doing the community a service by taking in the sex offenders, whether or not that is his intention.

One of the offenders living at the Duncan is Joseph Dabrow, who is non-compliant. The registry indicates that Dabrow is guilty of three counts of sexual assault in the fourth degree, or nonconsensual sexual contact including rape. There were no more details about the crime. Though he was listed as a federal offender, his charge in federal court was not identified. But after a quick Internet search, I found an article in The New York Times from January 27, 1999, which revealed more detail: As a Boy Scout troop leader, Dabrow was accused of sexually abusing some of his scouts between the ages of 12 and 15, groping several and exposing himself to others. The federal charge was for illegal possession of pornography. He pled guilty to the federal charge and asked the judge to give him a maximum sentence in order to qualify for a sex offender treatment program at a federal prison in North Carolina, according to the article.

The law aims to target offenders who commit crimes such as Dabrow, but offenders who have committed nonviolent crimes seem to be getting caught in the legal net. I lack the information and expertise necessary to try to predict whether Palmieri, Boppert, and Szelest will commit crimes in the future. The state’s new regulations promise to make the determination of risk easier for people like me, but the next step is for the state to legislate differently based on those categories.

Hotel Duncan is striking, not necessarily as an example of an aggregation, but as an example of a place willing to house people who have been highly stigmatized in the public eye. Driving sex offenders into homelessness and into the desperate situations that often lead to crime seems dangerous, for them and for us. Low-risk offenders with homes, jobs, and healthy relationships, those who are successfully integrated into society, are less likely to resort to actions that make our communities unsafe. It is a question of pragmatism, not forgiveness. The important goal is to improve our society by lifting its most marginalized members.

Szelest, Boppert and Palmieri agreed to talk to me because they are each forced to remain at the lowest points in their lives. They are constantly looking for something else to help them pursue normal lives again, to persuade those around them that they deserve more.

Szelest—nicknamed Turtle because of his weak chin and broad shoulders—hardly leaves the Duncan. He was abused by his adoptive father as a child and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, only exacerbated by his time in the army and the harassment he has faced since prison. He’s on full disability pay and sees a clinician on a regular basis, often visiting the Veterans Affairs hospital in West Haven. Ironically, Szelest graduated from paralegal school before he was charged and said he gave out a lot of legal advice in prison, while also researching law on his own time. He wants to move on, but he doesn’t know how. He’s left with remnants of a family, remnants of a life.

“I had plenty before but I don’t have any of it now, because I’m not sure what to do,” he says.

Boppert, retired, seems like he has the easiest lifestyle compared to the other two offenders. He doesn’t have to worry about money or employment. He is working on finishing his treatment program, and although he is near its end, he says it could take two or more years to finish, depending on his probation officer.

Besides his program, he goes to church and does his “Bible stuff” in addition to reading and watching a lot of television shows. He takes things day by day, he says, though sometimes he doesn’t feel like a “normal person.”

“Sometimes I cry at night,” he says. “That’s how bad it is.”

Palmieri is being evicted from the hotel—after losing his job as a bellhop there, he won an unemployment hearing in October, allowing him to collect further compensation from the hotel. He said the eviction is probably due to that situation. I wanted to hear the hotel’s point of view on the dispute, but Longo was unwilling to speak with me.

Palmieri is not sure when he has to move out or where he will end up living, but he seems resigned to the unpredictability of his life. He is still searching for jobs, and he has only found two temporary landscaping jobs in the last few months.

Surprisingly, when I last speak with Palmieri, he seems less anxious than he’s been in past conversations. He says he tries to get out of the Duncan as much as possible by spending time with his boyfriend and with his family. He’s angry at a public that deems him perpetually guilty and a system that seems to enforce this judgment. At the same time, he desperately wants to rejoin society.

“How much more of nothing can I have?” he asks.

The state probation system aggregated him with other sex offenders in a hotel in a busy street in the city of New Haven. This factor, combined with his lack of employment, lack of stable income and the tension on his most meaningful relationship, prevents him from living a normal life. And no one seems to be helping him. National laws and public opinion treat him the same as they would a dangerous rapist—a different kind of aggregation—making it more likely that he’ll end up on the street. The main threat to the community of Yale University and downtown New Haven is not people like Palmieri, but a system that makes them more likely to commit crime.

Meanwhile, across the country, families are sleeping a little more soundly.

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