Through history, rogue governments have kept hit lists of those they want to terrorize or kill for political reasons. In today’s America, our government doesn’t keep track of enemies of the state to physically intimidate or eliminate them (at least that we know of).
But officials do carry on a practice that’s arguably more sinister because its results are less predictable. State governments are now into their third decade of publicizing the personal details of people who have been punished for sexual offenses. Every day, those on state sex offender registries are at risk of being terrorized by vengeful, mistaken, or unstable members of the public.
The threat isn’t theoretical—every year, registrants and their families are harassed, assaulted, and murdered. Their property is damaged and their homes burned. And occasionally a bystander—say, someone mistaken for a registrant or who bought a home from one—gets caught in the crossfire.
Government facilitates those crimes in two ways, First, the public display of registrants’ personal details—photos, names, addresses, make and model of vehicles, employers–implies that we should consider registrants an ongoing threat. (In fact, their re-offense rates are lower than nearly all groups of ex-offenders.) Second, the public display of their details makes it easy for those bent on doing harm to track them down.
Here are the cases that came to light in 2017. (Most were highlighted on the Sex Offender Research Blog—the only source out there that pulls together in one place news stories about vigilante attacks on registrants and their families.)
-Hopkins, MN: In the early morning of August 25, 24-year-old Mitchell Hoogenakker allegedly used an ax to chop through the front door of 67-year-old registrant John Gallagher’s home. Hoogenakker is accused of then dragging Gallagher out of his house and hitting him repeatedly in the skull with the ax, killing him. Gallagher had told police he feared for his safety after repeated threats from Hoogenaker, and police had issued a restraining order. Hoogenaker’s roommate told police that after the killing Hoogenaker said, “Yeah dude, I killed my pedophile, I killed him, I did it.”
-Decatur, IL: In January, cops arrested a man for teaming up a few months earlier with two others to assault a 53-year-old registrant. They kicked him, knocked him down, and then when he was on the ground, punched and kicked him repeatedly. The attackers told a bystander they’d gone after the man because he was a “sexual predator.”
-Hudson, NY: Registrant Brandon Langel was sleeping in his apartment when Brad Couet-Kamrath, who lived in his apartment building, broke down his door and used the blunt end of an ax to attack him. Couet-Kamrath told police that he’d tried to kill his neighbor because he was angry about nothing being done about sex offenders living in his building. The attack came four months after a story in the local paper highlighted Langel’s move into the building and noted that three other registrants lived there. It was the second time that Couet-Kamrath had attacked a registrant.
-Bay City, MI: In January, 34-year-old Justin Aikens was sentenced to probation for trying to run over a man he accused of being a sex offender. Aikens was driving his van when he spotted the victim walking his dog. Aikens stopped, rolled down the window, and shouted at the man that he knew he was a sex offender. Aikens then drove over a curb straight at the victim, who escaped only by leaping onto a porch.
-Robinwood, AL: On July 31, 35-year-old Jessie Lessley allegedly set fire to the house belonging to the mother of registrant Raymond Martin. Martin had moved in with his mother months earlier. (Alabama has one of the most draconian residency restrictions in the country for registrants, who can’t live within 2000 feet of a school or daycare. That makes living with family often one of their only housing options.) The July fire was the second at the house in less than a year. The previous fall, one of Martin’s neighbors had posted a billboard-size sign in his own front yard publicizing Martin’s status as a registrant.
-Fresno, CA: In January, the trailer home that registrant Jeffrey Snyder was about to move into was burned down in a suspicious fire. It was the second house that the state proposed to move Snyder into after his release from the state’s civil commitment program—the first was scrapped after neighbors complained. Neighbor Lonnie Work said of the fire, “I think it was terribly timely.” She’d been organizing a petition drive to keep Snyder out of the neighborhood.
Studies show* this list represents a fraction of the number of cases that actually occurred this year—it stands to reason that most don’t get reported to cops or the media, especially since many victims fear coming forward for fear of provoking further attacks. Many others are never documented because they don’t rise to the level of violence but still terrorize their targets—slashed tires, shouted threats, menacing visits from neighbors.
If you know of a 2017 episode that I’ve missed (or have experienced harassment or violence personally and have a story you’d like to share), please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ping me through the comments section.
*In a 2005 study by University of Louisville criminologist Richard Tewksbury in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 47 percent of 121 sex offenders reported they’d been harassed as a result of being on a state registry, and 16 percent said that they’d been assaulted. In another study of nearly 600 immediate family members of offenders that Tewksbury and Lynn University researcher Jill Levenson surveyed, 44 percent said they’d been threatened or harassed by neighbors as a result of their relative’s sex-offender status, 27 percent that their property had been damaged, and 7 percent that they’d been physically assaulted or injured.