By Erin Sherbert
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If you were to track the location of the GPS unit cinched to Mr. C's ankle on a recent Thursday at dusk, the red dot would veer northeast on Market and then head north on Grant. At Broadway, the dot hooks a U-turn — with all the street's porn shops and strip clubs, he knows he shouldn't get caught there — and finally stops in Union Square.
Mr. C settles onto a bench to rest beside the plaza's ice rink. Chatting about the reason he's tracked by satellites, he doesn't seem to notice a cheery announcer welcoming people to "kids' night out at the skate rink!" As he surveys the skaters, he notices a girl pulling herself around the rink's wall. With a red duffle coat and a brown bob framing ruddy cheeks, she could have been plucked straight from a Gap Christmas commercial. She looks to be about 11.
"People like that — I stay away from," Mr. C says. "Don't even want to look at 'em. Taboo."
Mr. C, now 61, used to love all things "taboo," be it European child porn he locked away in a chest in his Outer Mission garage, or the Israeli and Hungarian semiautomatic weapons he stowed in his bedroom. Then there was the girl.
She was 8, from a family whose older members considered him a friend. "I started to like her a lot, like fall in love kind of thing. ... Somehow you lose track of reality." He knew he shouldn't have "kissed her and touched her" while he was supposed to be babysitting. He knew he shouldn't be taping nude videos of her, directing the smiling girl to stroke one of his weapons, footage even his defense attorney calls "a little sickening." (Mr. C, like most sex offenders SF Weekly interviewed for this article, doesn't want his name printed for his safety.)
So when the cops rang his doorbell early on a December day in 1998, he was ready. He walked into the bathroom in his pajamas, shoved his 9 mm Browning handgun into his mouth, and, when police knocked on the door telling him to come out, he pulled the trigger. Bullet fragments blasted out his teeth and mangled his face. He woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. During the preliminary hearing, he drank a glass of green antifreeze. ("Tastes kinda sweet," he recalls.) He passed out, but survived again.
So Mr. C accepted fate. He pleaded guilty to continuous sexual abuse of a child and spent the next nine years in prison. Considered a "high-risk sex offender," when he was released on parole two months ago he agreed to stay 100 yards away from any place children might gather. That meant no pools, parks, or schools; ice rinks didn't make the list. Yet there's a reason Mr. C is sitting in Union Square insisting on his lack of interest in young girls, rather than at one of the motels where parole officials used to house guys like him.
He's homeless. Californians voted for him to be.
In 2006, voters passed Jessica's Law, a tough-on-crime ballot measure promising to better track people who'd committed sex crimes. Such people would permanently wear GPS devices and be banned from living in "predator-free zones," 2,000 feet from a park or school. In densely populated San Francisco, that basically means the approximately 70 paroled sex offenders in the city can't live anywhere at all. (Although the city is home to 1,100 registered sex offenders, the residency rules are currently enforced only for those released on parole after the passage of the law.)
Some psychiatrists, social workers, police officers, and attorneys contend that Jessica's Law makes everyone less safe. The tumult of transience increases the risk of parolees reoffending, falling into addiction, or going missing altogether. Attorneys and parolees alike complain that the law doesn't merely net child molesters like Mr. C, but also those whose offenses occurred decades ago for sex crimes that had nothing to do with children and were sometimes as minor as indecent exposure.
The state Supreme Court is reviewing a challenge to the law's constitutionality, and will decide by the beginning of February to whom — if anyone — residency restrictions should apply. Until then, those paroled to San Francisco and across the state will remain banished as they have been for the last three years — lone rangers on the fringe.
Mr. C is determined not to go back to prison. While California prisons offer no sex-offender–specific treatments, he swears he's cured and will never reoffend. "I'm really good at turning things off in myself, if I feel that it's gonna do more harm," he says, scanning the skaters gliding by. "Even if I look and saw [them], I don't care. Just like everyone else rolling around, [the girls are] meaningless to me." Out on the street, he gets many chances to prove that every day.
At 8 a.m. sharp each Monday, Mr. C walks up to the parole office in a red building on Mission Street in the shadow of the Central Freeway. Checking in on transient sex offenders, many of whom can't afford cellphones, would require parole agents to hunt them down all over the city. So, every week, parole officers make the homeless come to them.