Bonnie G. knows now serious sexual assault is—she was date-raped by an acquaintance at age 21.
A few years later she met Russell, who was four years older than her. They fell in love and decided to get married a few months later. But he had a secret to tell her.
He’d made a big mistake ten years earlier. While working at a grocery store as a 21-year-old in 1997, he got involved with a co-worker who told him she was 18. It turned out the girl had lied to both her employer and to Russell—she was only 15 and an undocumented immigrant. When Russell found out, he ended the relationship.
But the girl’s sister knew how to twist arms. She called Russell and threatened that if he didn’t marry the girl, she’d go to the police about their sexual relationship. If they married, she’d say nothing—and her sister would get citizenship.
Russell refused, and the sister made good on her threat. The police arrested him, and the district attorney threatened Russell with 10 years unless he took a plea. So in 1998, he pled guilty and spent 5 years on probation. As part of the deal, he’d agreed to a classic poison pill—he’d have his name put on the sex offender registry for life after he got off probation.
Bonnie completely understood and thought that was no reason not to get married. In 2008, they did.
Bonnie got pregnant. They decided to buy a house to get a bit more space. That was when they got their first surprise. They found a place they loved and put in an offer, along with a thousand dollars of earnest money.
Just to be sure there’d be no problems, Russell called local police to tell them their plans. But the officer he talked to had bad news—the town had just adopted residency restrictions, and the house was in a banned zone.
When Bonnie and Russell told the sellers, the sellers were shocked—they were still interested in keeping their end of the contract. But the police said there was nothing they could do. Bonnie and Russell lost their earnest money.
Since being placed on the registry in 2003, Russell hasn’t been able to get a steady job. He took classes to become an insurance agent and passed the test easily. But then the company who’d wanted to hire him found out that he had a sex offense on his record. They dropped their offer. He last worked in 2009.
Now Bonnie is the only one supporting them and their three children on an income of just over $20,000 a year that she makes as a consultant.
They feel trapped—they rent a house that’s adequate. But Bonnie says they’ll never move because where they live, the neighbors know his past but aren’t bothered by it. In another neighborhood that could well change.
Their oldest daughter entered kindergarten not long ago. Bonnie says her daughter hasn’t had any trouble yet as a result of her dad being on the sex offender registry. But Bonnie has heard horror stories of children with a parent on a registry being teased as they get older. Bonnie says she won’t tolerate that—“I will pull her out so fast and home-school her,” she says.
There’s no reason the family should be haunted by a mistake that Russell made at 21, she says. Since then, he’s had one offense—a speeding ticket in 2008.
The whole experience has completely changed Bonnie. “I used to think that the majority on these sex offender registries were bad people—predators,” she says. “Now I know that lot of people who just made a single mistake are caught in the system,” she says.
“Heck, when I was 16 I had a 20- year-old boyfriend,” she says. If we had the system then that we have now, that could have ruined his life.”