By SHARON ROZNIK
USA Today Network-Wisconsin
FOND DU LAC, Wis. (AP) — Sean Erickson is a convicted sex offender who cannot escape his past.
The 44-year-old Fond du Lac man served five years in prison for sexually assaulting a former girlfriend in 1991. He was 19 years old when he forced her to have sex with him, court records indicate.
Erickson said the incident started as an argument, then took a terrible turn.
“At that age, and the way I was thinking at the time, I only knew one way of trying to gain control,” Erickson said. “I wanted to see my daughter and basically gave (the woman) an ultimatum.”
Twenty-five years later, the shadow of the incident still darkens his life, USA Today Network-Wisconsin reported. Being labeled a sex offender has hurt his relationships, employment opportunities and caused him deep despair.
Erickson is now married but does not live with his wife, even though the Department of Corrections has placed no restrictions on where he resides other than reporting his address. The mobile home his wife owns is located on rental property, and the landlord allows Erickson only to visit, not reside there, because of his criminal past.
“People don’t see me,” Erickson said. “All they see are the words ‘sex offender’ and they judge me. Employers hold it against me. How can I get a chance to show people I have changed? I am a different person now.”
Equally aggravating for Erickson and others on the sex offender registries is that, besides being stigmatized for a lifetime, the chance that a convicted sex offender will re-offend after prison is less than 5 percent, a rate lower than any other type of criminal offender, according to a recent study.
“We let our emotions take over and people have gone overboard thinking that every sex offender is a boogeyman,” said Joe Harber, a state-licensed independent counselor who has worked with some 9,000 sex offenders over the past 25 years.
The crimes of people on the sex offender registries vary extensively. On the list in which Erickson’s name appears are teenagers convicted of consensual sex with an underage partner (known among caseworkers as “Romeo and Juliet” cases), perpetrators of violent sexual crimes in which a person tried to kill his or her victim, serial pedophiles and people convicted of date rape after a he-said-she-said jury trial.
Once on the list, offenders can expect police in many communities to send out a media release stating where the offender lives if he or she is new to a community — information that is often reported by local media. Citizens and employers also can view the registries online.
Most of these people remain under scrutiny the rest of their lives, and lately in Wisconsin, state services have struggled to find areas to place them after they have served their time. Many state officials have passed ordinances restricting sex offenders from living in cities and counties.
In 2014, Milwaukee passed an ordinance that limited where they could be placed to a handful of pockets in the city. With few areas in Milwaukee open to offenders, officials started looking to other Wisconsin counties for placement.
Over the past two years, the state has initiated 11 statewide searches to place the offenders, nine of whom lived in Milwaukee County before serving time, according to the Department of Health Services. Nearing the end of their sentences, the offenders are legally designated as violent and must live in a supervised setting.
Placing Milwaukee County offenders in other Wisconsin counties is a new phenomenon. In the four years preceding 2014, no statewide searches were conducted, according to the DHS.
Not in our town
Last November, placement of two high-risk sex offenders in Brownsville near a home where two young children live caused an uproar and packed a town hall meeting. Residents in Brownsville, backed by Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt, were so up in arms a judge reversed the decision and removed the sex offenders from the home.
Four months later, no viable options have been found in Dodge County for housing the two men.
In December 2015, Manitowoc and Two Rivers approved ordinances that ban the placement of sex offenders who lived outside the cities before they were sentenced. The move came after Mark Rickert, a Milwaukee-area offender, was placed in Manitowoc the month prior.
Also that month, Fond du Lac County Sheriff Mick Fink fought against the placement in the town of Eldorado of Clint Rhymes of Milwaukee. He is 51 and was convicted in 1988 of raping a woman, beating her with a tire iron and leaving her for dead.
About 200 citizens packed into the town’s community center to voice disapproval of his living in the area.
“I can’t guarantee your safety,” Fink told an agitated crowd. “On a good night we have six deputies on patrol. I can’t promise you anything.”
The sheriff was so incensed, he was ready to take a busload of residents to a Milwaukee courthouse to fight the decision. Around the same time, the town of Eldorado board quickly passed an ordinance prohibiting placement of sex offenders who weren’t residents of Fond du Lac County.
Once again, a judge reversed the order. Rhymes is still awaiting placement.
Fink has no problem having sex offenders from Fond du Lac County placed back in the county after prison. Also, he said, it wasn’t sex offender hysteria or fear that drove his reaction to the potential Eldorado placement of Rhymes.
“Of course we will take our own because they have done their time,” Fink said. “I have always said that and sometimes it did not make me popular. But we don’t want somebody else’s. That’s what caused the dust-up.”
Sex offenders are generally placed on extended supervision, parole or probation after release. Services available may include offense-related counseling, employment services and other programs that have the overall goal of reintegrating them into society and minimizing recidivism, said Jeff Grothman, director of legislative affairs for the DOC.
A September 2015 DOC report of sex offender recidivism rates indicates a 40 percent decline between 1992 and 2010, which might be due to better rehabilitation programs. Moreover, their recidivism rates are lower than the overall offender population, such as people who committed robbery or assault. The report looked at 12,849 sex offenders during that time period and found that 4.9 percent ended up re-offending sexually.
Harber, the state-licensed counselor, believes that when communities tell an offender he can’t live there, it adds gasoline to the fire. Currently, there are 3,000 homeless sex offenders in the state because of prohibitive ordinances.
“How safe is that? I would rather have a sex offender living in a supervised location, getting the support they need, than living out on the street angry, with no hope,” Harbor said. “Lifting restrictions can help them be empowered to change their life.”
After conducting a study of his own Milwaukee program over 10 years, Harber found a 2.6 percent recidivism rate. Most sex offenders knew their victims, he said, don’t have significant criminal histories and are not pedophiles.
“Some I know have committed crimes when they were 14 years old, and that is ridiculous to label them for life,” Harbor said.
Under Wisconsin’s Chapter 980, people like Rhymes, convicted of a sexually violent crime, are committed to DHS supervised care at the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston. Those who complete treatment and are deemed safe for release are placed in supervised-housing communities, which include GPS monitoring and constant supervision, even when offenders leave the house.
Between 2009 and 2013, 114 offenders were released from involuntary commitment at Sand Ridge, according to a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism analysis. The increasing number of individuals on supervised release is explained in part by recent research that has determined that certain types of offenders are less likely to commit additional sexual crimes.
From 1994 through March 2010, the state discharged 67 sex offenders from Sand Ridge. Of these, 49 did not commit new crimes within three years, the standard time used to track recidivism, a state audit found. Of the 18 people who did re-commit crimes, five were sexual in nature.
Regarding the Rhymes case, Fink said, “A lot of experts have different opinions on whether or not you can cure a sex offender. I wasn’t given enough information about whether or not I thought (Rhymes) would re-offend, and it wasn’t about him personally. It was on principle.”
Eugene Nell, 85, lives on a mile-long rural road in Eldorado, a few houses down from a mobile home shrouded by tall evergreens. Rhymes was going to be placed there with other offenders in a supervised-housing setting.
Men have been living there for several years, Nell said, but he hasn’t seen or heard any trouble. Sometimes people in state-owned cars park in front of his house and appear to watch the residence, he said.
“It really doesn’t bother me,” he said, before adding that sometimes he’s concerned for the children living in the house next door.
Another neighbor, Nancy Carroll, said that, though she never sees the mobile home residents or has been given any reason to fear them, she still wrote a letter last year to the Milwaukee judge deciding on Rhymes’ placement.
Carroll took action because there are many senior citizens in the area with visiting grandchildren, she said.
Sean Erickson of Fond du Lac checks in with his probation officer on a regular basis and has found a part-time job to help support his family. He wants a normal life without being held back by something terrible he did a quarter of a century ago, he said.
Currently, he’s speaking with lawyers about the property manager refusing to allow him to live with his wife in her home. But so far nothing has changed, he said.
“By the time I had notified the state of my plans to move in with my wife, and was ready to fill out an application with the landlord, she had already received a notice in the mail saying she was going to be evicted for having a sex offender living with her. She has so far gotten three letters in the mail,” he said.
According to Louise Gudex, executive director of the Fond du Lac County Housing Authority, landlords can refuse to rent to registered sex offenders. In fact, the U.S. Department of Urban Housing and Development prohibits sex-offenders from living in HUD-owned properties. When contacted, the property owners for the land where Erickson’s wife’s home is said there are strict policies in place for applicants, including criminal background checks.
In a recent email to the USA Today Network-Wisconsin, the property owner said Erickson didn’t go through the application process to live on the premises.
The owner also said that while a felony conviction does not automatically disqualify someone from living on the property, convicted felons are a legitimate safety concern.
“The distortion out there is that there is no hope for these men, that they are social outcasts,” Harber said. “Our goal in treatment is to give them hope. A more common-sense approach on where they can live is needed.”