March 20, 1995 12:00 PM

LAST JULY 29, 7-YEAR-OLD MEGAN KANKA, AN exuberant first-grader from Hamilton Township, N.J., was walking home after playing at a friend’s house. She had almost reached her front door when Jesse Timmendequas, 33, a landscaper who had lived across the street for about a year, invited her over to pet his new puppy. When the little girl followed him inside, he led her to an upstairs bedroom, strangled her unconscious with his belt, raped her and asphyxiated her to death with a plastic bag. Timmendequas then placed Megan’s body in a toolbox, drove it in his pickup truck to a soccer field 2½ miles away and dumped it in some bushes. “Megan had a big heart; she was a great, great little girl,” says her mother, Maureen Kanka, her voice rising in anger. “And he discarded her like she was a piece of trash.”

Megan’s ghastly death sparked an explosion of outrage around the state. What made the murder especially infuriating was that unknown to the Kankas and their neighbors, Timmendequas, who confessed to the killing, had already served six years in prison for aggravated assault and attempted sexual assault of a child. What’s more, his two housemates had also done time for sex crimes. “I knew nothing about him,” says Kanka, 44. “None of us did. If I had been aware of his record, my daughter would be alive. I would never have allowed her to cross the street.”

For 16 quiet years, Kanka, a homemaker, had lived with her service-mechanic husband, Richard, 43, in what they thought was a safe enclave of modest split-level homes about 52 miles from New York City. Aside from Megan, Kanka had borne a son Jeremy, now 9, and another daughter Jessica, 12. But with Megan’s murder, the couple almost immediately transformed themselves into public figures. Joined by many of their neighbors, the Kankas led an angry grassroots campaign—replete with T-shirts, bumper stickers and pink-ribbon emblems—for tougher legislation against sex offenders. Above all, the crusade was designed to promote the right of communities to know whether sex offenders are living in their midst. Along the way, the Kankas gained a powerful ally in Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, with whom they spoke last August at an emotionally charged rally of 7,000 people, held during a thunderstorm at Hamilton Township’s Veterans Park. By October their efforts had paid off: Whitman signed a bill, hurried through the New Jersey legislature, that was known almost from the start as Megan’s Law. Among other measures, the statute mandated that all recently released sex offenders register with local police and that police, in turn, inform residents, schools and youth groups of the names and addresses of high-risk—meaning habitual or characteristically aggressive—offenders.

Megan’s Law is only the latest in a wave of similar bills passed in 40 states so far. They have been inspired by some chilling numbers: Experts say that anywhere from 40 to 75 percent of convicted sex offenders strike more than once. Recognizing that, Attorney General Janet Reno affirmed last month that President Clinton “is vigorously supporting” community notification. And just last week, two legislators announced they would push for such a measure in New York State.

The legal onslaught against sex offenders is not aimed solely at people who prey on children. In Vermont, a sweeping bill advocating tougher sentences as well as community notification has been introduced by State Senator Susan Sweetser, 36, who was raped 14 years ago.

Clearly, few public officials would want to be perceived as “soft” on sex criminals. But, as many legal experts have pointed out, the recent spate of laws—so often passed hastily in a spasm of public anger—raises a host of practical and ethical problems. “Does notification really achieve security?” asks Phil Gutis, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Why notification only about sex offenders—why not murderers and robbers?” Also, what about offenders who have long since paid for their crimes and had been successfully rehabilitated? Should they now be ousted after having been clean for years? With such issues in mind, U.S. Federal District Judge Nicholas Politan of Newark, N.J., dealt Megan’s Law itself a crushing blow last month. While upholding the requirement that sex offenders register with police, Politan ruled on Feb. 28 that community notification is unconstitutional. Likening it to “the mark of Cain,” he maintained that it would prevent offenders who had served their time from ever returning “to a normal, private, law-abiding life.” Maureen Kanka isn’t convinced. “In my heart, I know the law is constitutional,” she says. “I’m tired of the pedophile’s rights being put above our children. We can’t protect our children if we don’t know where the danger lies.”

Those sentiments are widely shared in the state of Washington, which in 1990 adopted the Community Protection Act, the first bill of its kind in the country. The law compels freed sex offenders to register and permits local police, at their discretion, to alert neighborhoods to the presence of high-risk rapists and pedophiles.

The catalyst for the legislation was a career sex offender named Earl Shriner. In a working-class neighborhood of Tacoma on a warm, late-spring Saturday evening almost six years ago, Shriner, then 39, was lurking in an overgrown lot thick with thorns and blackberry bushes, crushed beer cans and discarded syringes. As Shriner knew, it was also a mecca for children, who liked to ride bikes along the maze of paths snaking in and out of the shrubbery.

Shortly before dusk on May 20, 1989, a blond, gap-toothed 7-year-old boy wheeled past, and Shriner tried to lure him down a trail. The boy raced away, but Shriner—on a bike of his own—chased him down in a deserted cul-de-sac. There he raped the child, strangled him with a wire, mutilated him, stabbed him in the back and left him for dead. Incredibly, the little boy survived. A neighbor found him wandering in the woods disoriented, his naked body covered in mud and blood.

“It happened over here,” says the boy’s mother, Helen Harlow, 44, pointing to an area that was cut back and land scaped by her neighbors shortly after the attack. Now called Celebration Park, its most distinctive feature is its openness, its dearth of vegetation. “This is not a place,” Harlow declares, “where someone can hide anymore.”

Especially someone like Earl Shriner, with his grisly 24-year résumé of crimes against children. In 1966, at age 16, Shriner was implicated in the strangling murder of a schoolmate, although he was too young to be prosecuted as an adult. Eleven years later he kidnapped and assaulted two teenage girls and spent 10 years in prison. The summer of his release in 1987, Shriner stabbed an adolescent boy in the arm and served another 66 days behind bars. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested for tying a 10-year-old boy to a fence post and beating him in what prosecutors suspected was a rape attempt (he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served another 67 days in prison). Once in prison he had confided to a cellmate that he longed to own a van customized with cages so that he could abduct children, then molest and kill them.

“It was incredible that this man was living down the street and nobody knew,” says Harlow, who has filed a $20 million negligence suit against Shriner and the city for not warning neighbors of Shriner’s presence. “It’s still mind-boggling.” She cringes when recalling the night of the attack and the vision of her battered son lying in the hospital. “He looked crumbled, shattered,” Harlow says. “I kept thinking, ‘How could a person do something like this?’ ”

With reconstructive surgery, the boy has made virtually a complete physical recovery; now 13, he attends private school, skis, skateboards and Rollerblades. Emotional scars remain, however. Self-conscious about showering with playmates, the boy recently stopped participating in group sports. Sometimes he breaks down crying and asks to be cradled like a small child. “He has a very short fuse,” adds his mother. “He’s punched several holes in the walls at home.” Much of that rage, of course, is directed at the unrepentant Shriner, who was convicted and sentenced to 131½ years in prison. Harlow says that she and her son “say the most vulgar, vile things about him—we have that right.”

After the attack, Harlow helped lead a citizens’ campaign for tougher measures against sex offenders. The campaigners became known as the Tennis Shoe Brigade after they dumped several thousand of the shoes—chosen to symbolize childhood innocence—at the office of then Gov. Booth Gardner. “Maybe it’s impossible to get all the offenders off the street,” Harlow says. “But the next best thing is to know who and where they are.”

Since 1990, more than 8,000 released sex criminals, about 80 percent of the state’s total, have registered in Washington (the rest have either moved, died or failed to comply). Police, for the most part, are pleased with the laws. “Because of them, this is a safer place,” asserts Seattle Police Det. Robert Shilling. “Community notification scares sex offenders to death.” Adds Det. Casey Johnson of the King County Police Department: “Offenders call me all the time and ask where to go where there aren’t notification laws. I’m always happy to give them a list of other states.”

The Washington statute has not gone unopposed. John Q. La Fond, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law, characterizes it as public branding and says, “The best crime-prevention strategy is to reintegrate the offenders into the community by helping them find jobs and become productive citizens. But that’s impossible when there is angry hostility.” Critics are concerned that, given the outrage against sex offenders, the new laws identifying them might engender a lynch-mob mentality. La Fond points to a July 1993 incident in Lynnwood, Wash., where the family home of rapist Joseph Gallardo, then 35, was torched on the eve of his release from prison. “There is a fine line,” La Fond cautions, “between vigilance and vigilantism.”

Pennsylvania truck driver Tom Vicari would be the first to agree. When the heat failed in his Allentown apartment, he and his fiancée, Barbara Keller, spent the night of Jan. 9 with her cousin John Handy in nearby Phillipsburg, N.J. The couple bunked on a living-room sofa, sharing quarters with 25-year-old Michael Groff, Handy’s live-in nephew, who slept on the floor. At about 1:30 a.m., Vicari, 41, drifted off to sleep.

Forty-five minutes later he was set upon by a burly intruder wearing a black ski mask. “You’re Michael Groff—you’re a child molester,” the man growled as he began punching and kicking Vicari. Meanwhile the real Michael Groff fled the room as another man—who was standing outside Handy’s row house—hurled a beer bottle through the window.

When the dust settled and the police arrived, it became clear that Vicari had been the victim of a botched vigilante attack. Charged with burglary, assault, conspiracy and criminal mischief in the incident were the Handys’ neighbors 52-year-old carpenter Kenneth J. Kerekes—who had allegedly been wearing the ski mask—and his son Kenneth Jr., 22, a corrections officer, who is accused of tossing the bottle. They had been able to hunt down Groff—or so they thought—because of Megan’s Law. “This law didn’t stop no crime,” Vicari says. “It created crime. And what if I’d been killed? I got two children of my own. What would Megan’s Law have done for them? Nothing.”

Maureen Kanka shrugs off the Phillipsburg assault. “I think it’s an isolated incident—I don’t think people are like that on the whole,” she says. She and her husband have appeared on Dateline NBC and The Maury Povich Show and sent packets on Megan’s Law to every state senator, assemblyman and governor in the country. “I know at the end we’ll be victorious,” she says.

She can look out her window now without seeing the house where Jesse Timmendequas murdered her daughter. Last fall, members of the local Rotary Club purchased the dwelling—and on Dec. 21 they had it demolished, with plans to convert the property into a park dedicated to Megan. “We asked the crane operator to take the room [where Megan died] out first,” says Kanka. “When they broke into it, it was like ripping my heart out of my chest. But once the room was gone, it was easier. When the whole house was gone, it was a relief.”

But the rage will always remain. “She was my little girl,” says Kanka, “and she meant a lot. She was Megan Nicole Kanka, she had a life, she had a face, she had feelings. Now she has nothing. All because somebody couldn’t control his urges.”

Not every victim of sexual assault is as unlucky as Megan; some live to fight back on their own. Susan Sweetser survived such an attack 14 years ago and has become a passionate advocate of victims’ rights. At the time, Sweetser, 21, was a married senior at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt. At about 7 p.m. on the night of Dec. 7, 1980, she closed up the local general store where she worked part-time and drove home carefully in the freezing rain. En route, she saw a stumbling, scruffily bearded figure—Robert Lyle Percy—who fell into the road as her Volvo approached. “I thought, ‘My God, that man is hurt,’ ” recalls Sweetser, who pulled to a stop.

No sooner had she done so than Percy, 29, ran to the car and announced himself as an armed robber. He demanded that Sweetser drive to a deserted spot in the woods, then told her to park and kill the lights. Next, he ordered her to remove her clothes. Sweetser tried to run, but Percy subdued her. “He punched my face,” she says. “And he started choking me.”

Pregnant at the time, Sweetser says, “I begged him, ‘Please don’t hurt my baby, just don’t hurt my baby’ And he said, ‘If you don’t try to get away and if you don’t scream, I won’t hurt you or your baby’ Then he spent the next 45 minutes raping me.”

When it was all over, Percy admonished his victim as she struggled to dress herself. “You look a mess,” he said, and advised her to brush her hair. “Then he asked me if I wanted to smoke a joint to calm me down,” Sweetser says. “I said, ‘No.’ And he said ‘Well, I think you should smoke a cigarette because you’re a wreck.’ Then he told me to drive, and when we got out to the main road, he said to stop, and he got out and walked away.”

Later that month, Percy was arrested after Sweetser identified him in a photo lineup. It turned out that he had just served eight years in prison for rape. Freed on bond while awaiting trial for the Sweetser rape, Percy kidnapped and raped a second woman in Connecticut and was rearrested. Not until 1988 was he convicted and sentenced to 18 to 20 years for attacking Sweetser; two years later, he received 42 to 60 years for the Connecticut rape. “So much of the pain was not being able to let it go,” says Sweetser, now amicably divorced with a 13-year-old daughter—the child she was carrying when Percy raped her. “Having to live it again and again because of the court process.”

In the meantime, Sweetser became a corporate lawyer, founded Survivors of Crime, a victims’ support group, and lobbied for harsher penalties for violent offenses. In 1992 she ran for state senate as a Republican largely on a law-and-order platform. Though Vermont already boasted one of the lowest crime rates in the nation, Sweetser won easily. Recently named head of the Vermont senate judiciary committee, she has proposed numerous anti-crime measures, including a stringent public-notification bill. Critics call Sweetser a one-note politician. “I’m very sorry for what happened to her,” says Democratic State Senator Elizabeth Ready. “But you can’t drive public policy with fear.” Sweetser, however, offers no apologies. “I’m not going to run away from these issues just to avoid a label,” she insists. “I’ve got people counting on me, and even if I don’t succeed, at least their voices are going to be heard.”

RICHARD JEROME

MARIA EFTIMIADES in Hamilton Township, NICK GALLO in Tacoma and STEPHEN SAWICKI in Essex, Vt.

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