Experts say the public has 'unrealistic expectations' about preventing sex crimes

"You're more likely to get struck by lightning," he said, than to get raped and murdered by a stranger.

The arrest of a southwest Riverside County sex offender in the death of a 17-year-old San Diego County girl last week has stirred public anger over authorities' failure to prevent a known child molester from harming another teen.

In particular, the crime has raised questions about the effectiveness of the Megan's Law Web site, which is supposed to prevent sex crimes by helping police keep track of known offenders and making parents more aware of potential threats in their neighborhoods.

Outraged comments have filled Internet discussion boards -- including the Facebook page created by Chelsea King's family during last week's massive search for the Poway High School senior, whose body was found Tuesday.

But academics and law enforcement officials say the public has unrealistic expectations about the ability of tools like Megan's Law to prevent sex crimes -- especially the rare cases such as Chelsea's involving lethal attacks by strangers.

"There's no way to create a zero-risk universe for this," said Franklin Zimring, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law. "That's not merely hard, that's impossible."

What's more, there is no evidence to suggest that Megan's Law even reduces the incidence of sex crimes, said Richard Tewksbury, a professor of justice administration at the University of Louisville in Kentucky who has studied the effects of sex offender registries.
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John Albert Gardner III, 30, is the man suspected of raping and murdering King. He also is charged with attempted rape in a December attack on a woman jogging in the same park where King disappeared and was convicted nearly 10 years ago of molesting a 13-year-old girl at his mother's home in Rancho Bernardo. The conviction landed his name, photograph and home address on the Megan's Law online listing of registered sex offenders.

Megan's Law, named for a 7-year-old New Jersey girl killed by a sex offender who moved to her neighborhood, was enacted in California in 1996 to give the public access to information about such offenders. The state Megan's Law Web site was launched in 2004. More than 63,000 sex offenders are listed on the site, which receives millions of hits each year.

Sex offenders are required to update their registrations at least annually, within five days of their birthday. Upon release from jail or prison, or moving to a new address, sex offenders must register at the local police agency.

As far as Riverside County authorities know, Gardner had met all the registration requirements when he reported to the Lake Elsinore sheriff's station in January to notify officials of his new address in the nearby community of Lakeland Village. Escondido police, too, say Gardner appears to have checked in regularly until he moved in January.

Since Gardner's arrest Feb. 28, news reports have revealed that in 2000, San Diego County prosecutors allowed Gardner to plead guilty to lesser charges in the attack on the 13-year-old, even though one of the psychiatrists who interviewed him said he posed a continuing threat to underage girls. Gardner served five years of a six-year prison sentence. He was released in September 2005 and completed his parole in September 2008.

Police now fear Gardner might have been involved in the disappearance of Escondido 14-year-old Amber Dubois in February 2009 and perhaps an attempted kidnapping of a 16-year-old Lake Elsinore girl in October.

Escondido police announced Sunday that skeletal remains found in a remote area of the Pala Indian Reservation on Saturday had been positively identified as those of Dubois, who had disappeared while walking to school.

Riverside County authorities said they had no reason to be more suspicious of Gardner than any of the other registered sex offenders in the area. When Gardner registered in Lake Elsinore, authorities checked his background for red flags and found none.

There are more than 3,400 registered sex offenders in Riverside County and another 2,700 in San Diego County, all of whom law enforcement view as having the potential to commit another sex crime, said Ron Garcia, director of a multi-agency Riverside County task force that targets sex offenders.

Until last week, authorities had no idea Gardner posed a heightened threat.

"How were we supposed to know that -- that this guy is a ticking time bomb?" Garcia asked.


Zimring said that after an extreme case like King's, "there is a tendency to say, 'What were we doing wrong?' "

Legislators and voters enact "expensive and extreme" measures such as Megan's Law or Jessica's Law, which limits where sex offenders can live and mandates monitoring of sex offenders with global-positioning system ankle bracelets such as the one Gardner wore while on parole.

"How does that prevent this crime?" Zimring asked. "You know where he is, but you don't know where the victim is or who the victim will be."

Others suggest locking up the dangerous sex offenders for life.

"That would be fine," Zimring said, "if we had a good way of predicting."

Tewksbury said the focus on cases such as Chelsea King's reinforces the misconception that sex offenders tend to target children they don't know and are more likely to be repeat offenders. In fact, more than 70 percent of children molested are victimized by close friends or relatives, he said. And most sex offenders do not re-offend.

"The majority are really not that dangerous to the public," Tewksbury said, but figuring out the small percentage who are is difficult.

Treatment programs and extremely close monitoring would be helpful in determining which sex offenders might commit more crimes, but it would be prohibitively expensive given the large number of people on sex offender registries, he said.

California already has strict laws targeting sex offenders and a network of county task forces that focus exclusively on sex offenders.

Garcia said the Riverside County task force he directs is one of the more aggressive task forces in the state and has 36 full-time team members drawn from local law enforcement agencies, including the Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office and county probation. Much of their time is spent making sure sex offenders comply with registration requirements. In 2009, the task force performed 4,600 compliance checks, Garcia said.

The Chelsea King case is not the first to raise concerns about sex offender monitoring.

For years until his arrest in August, registered sex offender Phillip Garrido managed to conceal from authorities the fact that Jaycee Dugard was being held captive in his Northern California backyard, along with the two children he had fathered with her. He is accused of kidnapping Dugard in 1991 when she was 11 years old.

Statistically speaking, it might make more sense to spend limited resources not on sex offender registries, but on public safety problems that are more preventable and affect greater numbers of people, such as highway safety, Zimring said.

"You're more likely to get struck by lightning," he said, than to get raped and murdered by a stranger.

"That doesn't make us any less horrified when this kind of worst case happens," Zimring said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.