Vigilante Used Web Site to Find Sex Offenders

An apparent vigilante has confessed to killing two recently released sex offenders in Washington state. The man who claimed responsibility for the killings told police he found his victims using a sex offender community notification Web page run by the local sheriff's department. Martin Kaste reports.

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In Washington state, a man has admitted killing two sex offenders in the town of Bellingham last month. Thirty-six-year-old Michael Mullen turned himself in on Labor Day. Especially disturbing for the authorities is the fact that Mullen apparently picked his victims using the sheriff department's community notification Web site. NPR's Martin Kaste has more from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

The double homicide happened here inside a humble wood-frame house shared by three registered sex offenders. The murderer apparently wore a blue jumpsuit and an FBI baseball cap. Perversely, he told them he was concerned for their safety because he claimed their names had appeared on a vigilante Web site. One of the three roommates then left for work. When he returned, the other two were dead and the bogus FBI man was gone.

Neighbor Cheryl Craig(ph) says if the murderer was looking to eliminate a menace to society, he picked the wrong men.

Ms. CHERYL CRAIG (Neighbor): I think these guys in particular just really wanted to live the rest of their lives in peace.

KASTE: Neighbors say the three men had gone out of their way to put local parents' minds at ease. They even went indoors whenever children came out to play. Still, the victims were no innocents. One had raped a 13-year-old boy; the other had molested family members. But they had served their time, and their case worker praised their efforts to rehabilitate themselves.

Washington state has been at the forefront of the movement to have authorities publicize the addresses of sex offenders. Its community notification law dates back to 1990. But Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson say these murders make him wonder whether the law works.

Mayor MARK ASMUNDSON (Bellingham, Washington): I always wonder, when I look at many laws that are passed in relation to issues that are very emotional, is this a law that does good or just makes people feel like it did some good?

KASTE: Asmundson says he'd like lawmakers to take a closer look at whether community notification really deters sex crimes. John Lafond, a law professor who's written extensively on the subject, says there is no serious research backing up the laws.

Professor JOHN LAFOND: Too often, public policy is based on the latest tragedy reported in the public media and the public's understandable anger and anguish about such terrible and unusual crimes.

KASTE: In fact, media reports may have sparked the Bellingham murders. The police have indicated that the confessed killer was reacting to a recent case in Idaho in which a pedophile allegedly killed members of a family in order to kidnap two children for sex. The case got saturation news coverage here in the Northwest. But Lafond says such cases of violent recidivism are comparatively rare, and it's a mistake to paint all sex offenders with the same brush, especially when it comes to community notification.

Prof. LAFOND: There is research that shows that such laws make it much more difficult for sex offenders to obtain housing, get a job, re-establish families and resume normal law-abiding lives in the community.

Ms. IDA BALLASIOTES (Former State Legislator): I worry about kids more than I do about them.

KASTE: Former state legislator Ida Ballasiotes was on the task force that recommended community notification laws in Washington. She says the Bellingham murders do not change her mind about the need for notification.

Ms. BALLASIOTES: Considering the law's been in effect for 15 years plus, it's pretty remarkable that something like this hasn't happened before.

KASTE: Ballasiotes says she and her fellow legislators did worry about the potential for vigilantism, but she says that worry was always trumped by one simple principle.

Ms. BALLASIOTES: You know, no one wants to live around sex offenders and they don't want them in their neighborhood. However, they do want to know if they're there, and I think they should know if they're there.

KASTE: She says she doubts these murders will lead to any loosening of the notification law, but in Bellingham, there has been a change. The city's Web site used to provide sex offender's exact addresses. From now on, it will list only the street and block. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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