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Part 1: It’s Someone You Know

This is the first part of a three part series chronicling my family’s experience with a potential child predator. Parts two and three will be posted within the next few days.

It was late on a Friday afternoon in February, and I was packing. We were set to leave on a vacation to Disney World the following morning, and there was still a lot to be done. I was surprised to hear the doorbell, and glanced out the upstairs window. There were two cars in the driveway. Two men were standing in the drive. Four more were on the front porch.

The detective showed me his badge. “Is there somewhere we can talk?” I put on some shoes and joined them on the porch. “We have reason to believe your daughter may have been a victim of a sexual predator.” I realized the shaking may not have been entirely due to standing out in the cold without a coat.

135276_b8940d5c3a[1]It took a couple hours, but we finally determined that it was very unlikely that either daughter was actually a victim. Still, they seemed to know quite a lot about our neighbor, and we tried to help them fill in some of the gaps.

He lives in the house behind us. His property is higher than ours, and from his house and second-floor deck, he has a great view of the back of our house and our entire yard. He and his wife moved in during the summer of 2009, and we finally got around to introducing ourselves on Halloween as the kids were trick-or-treating. He’s retired, in his mid 70’s. He and his wife recently moved back to Ohio from New Mexico. He’s an amateur painter. He loves rocks and geology.

He had a lot in common with the kids. Our older daughter loved painting, and had taken a few art classes in the area. Both girls were interested in rocks, and had recently joined the local Geo-Juniors lapidary club. Neither my wife nor I shared this passion, but our neighbor was just as excited about looking for fossils and cracking geodes as the kids were.

It wasn’t long before we discussed painting classes. He had previously taught painting, but didn’t have any students at the moment. He had a studio in his basement, and was more than willing to share his passion with a budding young artist. They started simply, and within a few months my daughter was producing astounding artwork. At age eleven, she was learning the fundamentals of color, texture, lighting, and composition. She soon outgrew acrylics and moved on to oils.

We dropped in on her classes occasionally, always unannounced. Usually, they were working. Sometimes they would be playing or doing other things. We talked about safety with our daughter. She would let us know if he ever made her feel uncomfortable. We made sure that his wife was always home whenever there was a painting lesson.

Because he had much more of an interest in rocks than we did, he would often accompany the girls to lapidary club meetings and gem shows. We were only too happy to let him share his interest with the kids. He soon became a fixture at club meetings and took an active role working with the children.

Sometimes, he would buy them gifts. Usually, they were small things. Maybe a couple rocks from the gem show, or a hot dog from the concession stand. He bought most of the painting supplies, and wouldn’t accept reimbursement for them. He’d give the girls candy and other treats. Christmas and birthdays would not pass without a gift.

By the summer of 2011, he was a regular fixture in the girls’ lives. Whenever they went in the back yard, he would be around. They’d share stories with him and he would show them his garden and let them play with his cats and dog. The paintings were getting better. When the older daughter enrolled in a virtual school, he offered to help out with her art classes. He took the lead on working through the curriculum and completing the projects with her.

Still, something wasn’t quite right. The kids were getting very close, and our unannounced visits during her lessons were less welcome. The time off task was becoming more frequent, and we would hear stories of tickling and roughhousing that didn’t seem appropriate for painting lessons.

We tightened the reins. We moved the art classes to our house instead of his, a move he wasn’t at all happy with. We made sure a parent was always home whenever he was over. We still gave them some privacy — they worked in the basement — but there was always someone upstairs. Meanwhile, the involvement in the lapidary club continued.

In the winter of 2012, he held an exhibition at a local library, and invited his two students to show their work as well. Each girl showed a handful of paintings, and we held a reception for visitors when the show opened. He also encouraged them to enter competitions and helped them select and display their best work.

As the girls got older, they started using online media more and more. In our house, our children’s use of social media is monitored. We see copies of incoming email. Chat sessions are logged. This data would become very useful later.

By the fall of 2012, the online communication had become excessive, and we stepped in. There were chats with the 13-year-old as early as 6:00 in the morning, and after 10:00 at night. Some of these messages contained veiled innuendo, most of which went over her head. There were emails and chat messages when she should have been doing schoolwork. In one case, he encouraged her to lie to her mother about what she was doing online.

That’s when it stopped. We confronted him in a grown-ups-only meeting in October of 2012. We shared the chat and email transcripts with him. He feigned ignorance. He was just fooling around. He didn’t mean anything by it. We were taking things out of context.

We ended the art lessons. The children were not to visit his house. They could wave across the yard, but should not visit with him unless a parent was present. He continued to attend the lapidary club meetings. The little gifts continued, often left on our front porch.

Meanwhile, we started doing some research. Unfortunately, he has a very common name. A man with his same name and birthday was a registered sex offender in California, but was not registered in Ohio. Our neighbor was previously divorced, and was estranged from his adult children. He talked often of his time in the Army in the late ‘50’s, and of his travels in Europe, but rarely mentioned anything that he did in the fifty years between his Army service and the time we met him. His Facebook timeline didn’t include any of these details either. He had lived in at least four states, so we knew he had moved around a fair bit. But that was all we know.

I consulted a police officer at work, and a friend who works with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Both advised me to keep my children away from him. We didn’t take it any further than that. There wasn’t any proof that he had actually done anything wrong. But as we told him, we would rather be wrong and have him upset with us than be wrong and put our children in danger. We would err on the side of protecting our kids, and cut off ties to him out of an abundance of caution.

That was four months before the visit from the detectives.

A week after our return from vacation, we received a lengthy email from our neighbor. He explained that he had been caught in an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force operation that had occurred a year prior, and that his computer had been confiscated the previous summer. The detective had confronted him with the chat transcripts that we provided, and he wanted us to know that he knew that we knew about the investigation. He tried to explain his actions and asked for our forgiveness. We shared his email with the detective.

After nearly three more months of waiting, charges were finally filed in May. One of the conditions of his bond was that he have no contact with any underage persons without their parents present. This was an added condition due to his proximity to our children. My wife had several conversations with the prosecutor’s office before he finally pleaded guilty to two felony counts of child pornography. We were asked by the prosecutor’s office to attend the sentencing.

On August 29, 2013, he was sentenced to four years in prison for the second degree felony offense, and 11 months in prison for the 5th degree felony. These sentences were not suspended, and will be consecutive. He will be eligible for judicial release, however. Following release, he must have post-release community control for five years. As a Tier 2 sex offender, he is also required to register every 180 days for the next five years, and he is not allowed to live in a restricted zone. Since he currently lives within 1000 feet of a school, he will need to move. He must also pay the costs of the prosecution.

So for us, at least, there’s some closure. It’s pretty clear that he won’t be involved in our lives or our children’s lives from now on.  But there’s more to say about this. You can continue on to Part 2: Warning Signs and Part 3: Lessons Learned.

Photo source: Myblackrainbow on Twitter.

4 comments

  1. Thanks, John, for sharing this experience so that others might know how close these predators can be hiding in plain sight in our neighborhoods. In our country we teach our children that folks are innocent until proven guilty but sometimes that leaves our loved ones vulnerable. I know it would be easier to say nothing more about this and yet, as an educator, you know the importance of not sweeping this under the rug so I commend you for sharing it for the safely of your neighbors, the other children going to rock club, and other parents and kids in general.

  2. Looking back over the years that he spent birthdays and holiday dinners with us, I never liked him…not even a little. To me, he was an intruder. He would rarely converse with the adults, and would spend most of his time being fixated on the older daughter. In the most recent years, I sat by and silently watched as the fixation branched out to both.

    Multiple times I tried to ask him about his past, about his children. Never a word.

    For me, it was just a suspicion…just a bad feeling. I had nothing concrete to justify discussing with you whether you saw the things I saw. After all, he was your friend. You opened your house to him. You shared your family with him as if it was also his family. And me, I chose to remain silent.

    Last Thanksgiving, I was thankful that you saw, and that you took action. This Thanksgiving, I will be thankful that your swift approach prevented harm to your girls, as not all families were that fortunate.

    Aside from never being too careful, I think the lesson that I take away from this is that, as you said, it is more important to protect the children than to protect the adult’s feelings.

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