Neighbors fear sex offenders will move into Everett mansion
Everett neighbors were alarmed to learn that 48 registered sex offenders were living in one city block near downtown. The same property owners have now purchased a mansion in another residential neighborhood, and residents fear another large concentration of rapists and pedophiles. The city of Everett says there is little it can do to restrict where sex offenders live.
Times Snohomish County Reporter
EVERETT — As Valerie Steel walks her Bayside neighborhood, past turn-of-the-last-century bungalows and millworker cottages, past tired-looking apartment buildings and a nearly windowless modern multiplex, she points out the homes where sex offenders moved in and those where families with children subsequently moved out.
In one city block, 48 registered sex offenders live in 11 rental houses and apartments owned by Everett real-estate investor Mike Westford, a family member or his business partner.
In June, the business partner bought a neglected mansion in Everett's Riverside neighborhood and moved in a high-risk sex offender, raising fears that the three-story, 16-room home would become Westford's next boardinghouse for convicted rapists and pedophiles.
The sex offender violated his probation and was returned to prison. The outcry from neighbors and scrutiny from the city now has Westford hedging his public statements about his plans.
Still, Riverside residents worry that their neighborhood, which over the past decade has seen an influx of young families, could eventually be home to a concentration of sex offenders like Bayside has. They also learned the city has few options to prevent that from happening.
"Why should any one neighborhood have to absorb all of that?" asked Steel, a real-estate broker and neighborhood activist.
Westford says he is providing needed housing to people who are trying to turn their lives around, and says the community is safer if police and corrections officers know where ex-offenders live.
State corrections officials largely agree. They say Snohomish County lacks the housing options of denser areas such as Seattle and Spokane. They point to the case of David Torrence, a Level 3 sex offender — the most likely to re-offend — who in April was fitted with a GPS tracking device and released to live under a Snohomish bridge when the state Department of Corrections (DOC) could find no place for him to stay.
"Given the choice of a roof over their heads versus under a bridge, I'd rather have them in a stable location with a known address," said Ric Rosales, community-corrections supervisor with the Everett office of DOC.
Anmarie Aylward, a program administrator with DOC in Olympia, said the department considers the number of offenders in one neighborhood when developing release plans for felons. But, she said, "The reality is, there's such an infusion in one location because we have nowhere else to go."
Law applied unequally
According to the Snohomish County sheriff's Office, 1,622 registered sex offenders live in the county, with 350 of them in Everett.
Everett officials say a state law passed in 2006 forbids cities from restricting where sex offenders live, except that those sentenced after 2006 must live more than 880 feet from schools. Federal law prohibits housing discrimination against recovering drug addicts or alcoholics. Attorneys are unsure whether that would apply to sex offenders who are also recovering addicts.
But the state law doesn't seem to apply equally. University of Washington President Mark Emmert last year appealed directly to Gov. Christine Gregoire to remove registered sex offenders from a neighborhood north of the UW. Emmert cited concerns for student safety. At the governor's request, DOC forced 11 offenders to move out.
And in Vancouver, DOC agreed to limit the number of registered sex offenders in one house after neighbors complained about six living in a rental house in a residential neighborhood. Stefani Meusborn-Marsh, DOC field administrator for Southwest Washington, said her office agreed to place no more than three Level 2 offenders, or two Level 3 offenders, in one home.
Everett police say there hasn't been any increase in crime or other problems associated with the convicted sex offenders in the Bayside neighborhood.
"We haven't seen anything," Sgt. Jerry Strieck said.
Everett City Attorney David Hall, in a recent presentation to the City Council, recommended that the city work directly with DOC to address the concentration of sex offenders in one neighborhood. Mayor Ray Stephanson is forming a task force to look into issues surrounding sex-offender housing.
The City Council also said it would consider licensing rental properties to ensure living conditions meet city codes for crowding and safety. About 55 percent of Everett's housing stock is rentals.
Everett's options are also limited by a U.S. Supreme Court case that arose in Edmonds, where city officials brought legal action against Oxford House, a group home for recovering alcoholics and drug users that had moved into a single-family neighborhood. The court ruled that the U.S. Fair Housing Act requires cities to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled and can't exclude recovering addicts from single-family neighborhoods.
Sex offenders aren't protected by that law but may be considered disabled if they are also recovering addicts, the Everett attorney said. Hall said Everett city ordinances do limit the number of unrelated adults in one house to four, or the number of disabled adults to eight. He said the mansion owners could place up to eight recovering addicts in the house without city approval.
Westford and his business partner, Alex Thole, a retired Seattle police officer, question whether the city can impose even those limits.
"This will be a family"
They say the McManus mansion, built in 1892 for Everett banker and state Sen. John McManus, could accommodate many more than eight. They note that the city can't legally limit the number of family members who live in one house.
"Can the state tell you how many children you can have?" Thole asked. "This will be a family."
Westford, 57, a Vietnam-era veteran and outspoken real-estate investor, has made a strong impression on Bayside and Riverside neighbors. He once appeared at a Bayside community meeting in a black-leather trench coat and ponytail and with a Bible in one hand. He carries a rosary and posts the Ten Commandments on the porches of his rental houses.
"He's become something of a mythic figure," said Donna Gleisner, who lives across from the McManus house.
In interviews, Westford is alternately righteous and defensive about his plans. He bought a clean-and-sober men's house in 1990 and, at DOC's request, began housing sex offenders around 1997. He now rents rooms to about 200 people in 24 houses between Everett and Bellingham.
His wife, Connie, and daughter Michelle work with him and are the legal owners of some of the Bayside properties.
Westford said finding a place to live is for many offenders the first step for many to getting a job and rebuilding their lives. He said he's motivated by his faith and tenacious enough to provide a needed service even in the face of neighborhood outrage.
"Who else is going to do this?" he asked. "I'm protecting women and children. Giving them [sex offenders] a home makes the neighborhood safer."
Short-lived test case
Thole, 62, maintains the muscular physique of his 26 years on the police force, much of it spent in drug prevention. He said he met Westford through mutual friends and bought a small apartment building on the same block as Westford's Bayside properties in October. While he is the legal owner of the McManus mansion, he said Westford will act as the "rental agent" and select the tenants.
"I really don't like sex offenders; I'm not going out of my way to rent to them," Thole said, but added that released felons have "served their time and paid their debt to society."
Westford said that when he placed the first released sex offender in the McManus mansion in July, he impressed upon the young man that his every move would be watched and that he was in a position to ease the way for others who wanted to live quietly in the big house.
The 28-year-old had been convicted as a minor for raping a younger boy and molesting two others, according to the DOC. He was classified as Level 3 offender. The test case lasted less than a month.
Neighbors reported that they heard loud music late at night and saw visitors going in with alcohol. DOC revoked the man's parole for violating the terms of his release.
Westford and Thole have since backed off from saying they plan to fill the mansion with sex offenders, instead saying they might rent only to recovering addicts or people who've served time for other crimes.
Thole notes that the mansion was already being run as a boardinghouse by the previous owner, who divided some of the once-grand rooms with wallboard and rented them out before he stopped making mortgage payments and defaulted on the loan.
M.J. Donovan-Creamer, who's lived in Riverside for 10 years, said the neighborhood has been rebounding after years of absentee landlords and run-down homes. Now, she said, she sees joggers, babies in strollers, and houses being fixed up.
"We know sex offenders have a right to live in a neighborhood. But a concentration of sex offenders on one block could absolutely destroy us."
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or email@example.com
Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this report.
Information in this article, originally published Aug. 20, 2008, was corrected Aug. 20, 2008. A previous version of this story misspelled the name of M.J. Donovan-Creamer as Donovan-Kreamer.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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