Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

How Did We Get Sex Offender Registries Anyway? How the Wetterling Act Got Hijacked (Part 2 of 2)

Barbara Lee Drive in the suburb of Hamilton Township outside Trenton, New Jersey, attracts families with its flawless lawns like thick carpets, American flags, and asphalt driveways.

In 1994, Richard and Maureen Kanka lived at number 32 with their two kids.

The Kankas knew a lot of their neighbors, but they’d never met the people across the street at number 27.

That would cost them dearly. It’s where 33-year-old Jesse Timmendequas lived with two friends.

In 1979, as an 18-year old living in Piscataway, Timmendequas had lured a 7-year-old girl into the woods by asking her and a friend if they wanted to help him go find some ducks. Something about the situation scared one of the girls, and she ran off, screaming for help.

But the other girl remained, and Timmendequas molested her, clapping his hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t call for help. Before he could assault her further, a neighbor came to the rescue.

Police soon arrested the attacker. In court, the judge gave Timmendequas a suspended sentence with the requirement that he attend therapy. He never did, and after 9 months in jail, he was back on the streets.

Only a few days after his release in 1981, Timmendequas was living in Dunellen, not far from Pisacataway. One July day, he saw two 7-year old girls walking in the street. He told them he had some firecrackers to share.

One of them got scared and ran for help, but he walked with the other down into the woods, where he molested her. Then, afraid she’d tell someone, he put her hands around her neck and squeezed until she turned blue. And then he ran.

Neighbors alerted her parents, who found her in the woods unconscious, but alive.

Police caught up to Timmendequas again. This time he got a 10-year sentence.

But he got credit for good behavior and served less than 7 of the 10 years. While in prison, he attended therapy classes at the state’s Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center. But as one therapist later said, he never seemed to participate.

So in 1988, he was released yet again. For two years he lived in San Diego with someone he’d met at the treatment center who’d been convicted of sexually abusing boys.

Then in 1992, the two moved to Hamilton Township into the house owned by the mother of another man they’d met in treatment. The second roommate had been convicted of raping a 5-year-old girl.

Timmendequas was a bomb waiting to go off. On the afternoon of July 29, 1994, Richard and Maureen’s 7-year-old daughter Megan walked out her front door and got on her bike. In the driveway across the street was a man cleaning his boat.

Timmendequas looked up, saw Megan, and asked if she wanted to see a puppy he’d gotten. They walked to his bedroom, where he tried to kiss her and pull down her pants. She tried to run away, but he took out a belt and started to choke her while he continued molesting her.

When she stopped screaming, he put two plastic bags over her head, put her in a toy box in his truck, drove to a nearby park, and dumped her body in a patch of weeds.

The search for Megan lasted 23 hours before Timmendequas confessed to police where he’d put her body. The officer who arrested him said that in the car, he expressed no remorse for Megan, only how much time he’d get in prison.

“All this, then you learn a neighbor killed her, and then you learn he’s a pedophile and that there are two more pedophiles living with him,” a devastated Maureen Kanka told the Express-Times newspaper years later. “You have three pedophiles living together–my God, on a street full of kids. It blows my mind. How can that be?”

The Kankas turned their grief into a hastily crafted law. They got 425,000 names on a petition for legislation to require law enforcement to release information about convicted sex offenders to the public.

Within a month of Megan’s murder, the New Jersey Assembly, without holding any committee hearings, passed a package of bills collectively known as Megan’s Law. It mandated police to notify communities when a released sex offender was planning to move into their neighborhood and to put information about high-risk offenders on the Internet.

Two months later, the New Jersey legislature unanimously voted in favor and Governor Christine Todd Whitman signed it into law.

Like the Wetterling Act (see part 1), New Jersey’s law quickly went national. By May 1996, a federal law amending the Wetterling Act had passed Congress and been signed by President Clinton.

Now the list of sex offenders would no longer be the domain only of police, as required under the Wetterling Act. States could notify the public, and now they had a powerful tool for doing so—the Internet. Today the photos, names, and addresses of those who have served time for a sex offense are put online for the world to see.

In a 2011 interview, Patty Wetterling told me that Megan’s Law in some ways “hijacked the intentions of the Wetterling Act.”

Indeed, the Wetterling Law never had the chance to be tried. The Hamilton Township police themselves didn’t yet have a list of sex offenders at the time of Megan’s murder, as the Wetterling law required.

Clearing entire forests after wildfires may sound good, but it damages the ecosystem in countless ways. Similarly, laws passed immediately after tragedies almost always go too far, creating more problems than they solve. That’s because we humans aren’t very good at objective risk analysis after a crisis (see more in this excellent Techdirt post).

Megan’s Law was an understandable overreaction that has wreaked havoc on the lives of many U.S. families. With more than 700,000 people on the sex offender registries that the law created, Women Against Registry, a grassroots group, estimates that at least a half million wives and children have been impacted. This website aims to tell their stories.

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