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When sex offenders move into the neighborhood, residents are often unaware; those who are keep a watchful eye

It's a modest duplex, a taupe cracker box with no landscaping, set in an eclectic neighborhood of blue-collar cottages and the occasional sketchy apartment house.

Across Washburn Street from the duplex are the Lahrs, who recently moved to town from Arlee. Katie Gjelten and her husband live kitty-corner, over on 11th Street. The duplex nearly abuts the back yard of the Holmbergs, Tim and Jill and their three boys over on 12th Street.

The occupant of the duplex's bottom apartment is Vallant V. Stephens. He is 41 years old, with wavy brown hair, brown eyes and a couple of tattoos, including a whale on his right leg.

If his neighbors know who Stephens is, they likely don't know his name. Most, like the Lahrs and Gjeltens, don't know him at all. Others, like the Holmbergs, know just enough to keep a wary eye on both the duplex and their children.

In years past, Val Stephens would be just another guy in the neighborhood, going about his business as anonymously as a ghost. Maybe he waves at you while you're out cutting the grass. Says hey to the kids when they ride by on bikes. Takes out the trash, goes to work, puts up his Christmas lights.

But it's not yesteryear. For men like Val Stephens, these are the post-Megan's Law years, and that means the closeted life of concealment once available to sex offenders is harder to come by.

"What happens with this sort of thing is a really interesting ethical discussion," neighbor Tim Holmberg said on a recent afternoon. "What's at issue is the individual's right to privacy versus the public's right to be safe in their homes."

Val Stephens' rights took a backseat to nearly everyone else's on April 13, 1998, when Park County District Judge Nels Swandal sentenced him to five years in Montana State Prison and 10 more years on probation for molesting a child. Stephens, who lived in Livingston at the time, had previously pleaded guilty to two felony counts of sexual assault for touching the genitals of a teenage relative in 1993 and again in 1995.

Stephens served about 2 1/2 years in prison before earning his parole, and he completed the prison's sex-offender treatment program. In October 2000, he moved briefly into a Missoula motel, then took an apartment on Southwest Higgins Avenue about a month later. In August 2001, he moved to the duplex on Washburn, where he still lives today.

Stephens, who parole officials say is doing a good job on parole and complying with all requirements, is classified a Level III offender, the highest rating Montana assigns offenders. He declined to comment for this story.

In general, Level III offenders are considered the most likely to commit more sex crimes, but that hasn't happened with Stephens.

Even so, that's exactly what Stephens' neighbors worry about, at least those who know he's there. But most don't even know he's there.

"We just moved in a month or so ago, so we don't really know much about the neighborhood," said Michelle Lahr, who has four children. "It seems like a very nice neighborhood, but it worries me now that I know there is a sex offender in the area."

Lahr, like many of Stephens' neighbors had a vague knowledge of the state law that requires sex offenders to register in the county where they live. And she knew that somewhere in the vastness of the Internet, there was a site that listed Missoula County sex offenders.

"I guess I don't really have any idea how to find the information," she said. "I guess it never really occurred to me. I'll sure try to find out about it now."

Katie Gjelten is a recent arrival from the Seattle area, and she's still delighted by the notion that she doesn't have to take her stereo out of her car every night to keep it from being stolen. With no children, she's less concerned about a sex offender than she might be otherwise, but the revelation still gets her attention.

"You know, I know about registration, but I didn't really think about it in terms of finding a place to live," she said. "I totally think it would be a different story if I had kids."

That said, Gjelten recognizes that sex offenders who've finished their prison sentences have to live somewhere.

"It's really a tough issue, because it creates a controversy that might not even be necessary," she said. "If the guy is doing well, like this guy, then it's not really a problem. But if you've set up a system that doesn't really know what most of the guys are doing, then it's a much bigger issue."

That very circumstance plays out across Missoula, as sex offenders move into and out of neighborhoods. Although more than half of the county's 190 sex offenders are still supervised in some way by state authorities, the others are not. They've finished their sentences, either in Montana or another state, and are no longer subject to any sort of state control.

"I think those are the people that you worry might fall through the cracks," said Marisa Gibbins, a Department of Corrections probation and parole officer who handles sex offenders. "Nobody really has any idea what those folks are up to."

Stephens isn't one of them. He still has requirements to fulfill, and he appears to be doing so.

That Stephens might be a sex-offender success story is small comfort to Tim and Jill Holmberg. They have three boys - ages 7, 20 months and 4 weeks. A while back, a neighbor mentioned to Tim that a sex offender had moved in, and the Holmbergs knew where he lived. They knew nothing about Stephens' crimes, and the state's sex offender registry doesn't really offer much in the way of details.

The online site offers basic information about an offender's appearance and some details of the person's criminal background.

About Stephens' case, you'd learn the following: that he was convicted in 1998; that at least one of his offenses occurred in 1993 in Park County; and that he had five-year prison term for sexual assault and is still on probation. There's nothing about how he committed his crime, or whether he molested boys or girls, strangers or relatives.

Not surprisingly, that's the information parents like Tim and Jill Holmberg want most.

"It really matters to me what sort of offender he is," Tim Holmberg said. "I gotta tell you, with three boys, I'm not very happy to find out that he went after young boys. Not very happy at all."

Tim Holmberg works in the cafeteria at the Providence Center, but he might just easily hold down the role of neighborhood sage. He's thought deeply about what it means to live in an age when the loss of innocence is marked by the appearance of online sex-offender registries.

And he understands the factors of a philosophical equation that seeks to balance the legally delineated rights of sex offenders with the amorphous expectation we all have of being safe in our homes.

"You have the privacy right for that individual and you have the public's safety," Holmberg said. "Sometimes it seems like we spend too much time worrying about what happens to one guy instead of worrying about the public in general."

The sex offender registry offers at least one way to look at the equation. By setting a level of one through three for each offender, the registry offers a sort of best-guess assessment of the likelihood that an offender will commit another crime. The rankings, by implication, also reference the seriousness of an offender's original crime.

"It's a way that people can at least sort of look at the registry and get some sense of the person," Missoula police Lt. Gregg Willoughby said recently. "By no means is it perfect. There's no system like this that would be perfect, because any judgment you make about these people is subjective and based on an evaluator's best assessment."

That is precisely what worries people who share their neighborhood with sex offenders.

"I understand that they have to go somewhere to live, but how do we know they're not coming to our neighborhoods and just looking for someone else to go after?" said Michelle Lahr, as her boys bike the streets outside their home. "I guess I'd like to know more about how they decide those rankings and things."

The offender levels are drawn from information gleaned before the defendant heads off to prison, as well as how he does once inside the prison. The figure offers a best guess, but it's an imperfect predictor of future behavior, police say.

But it's something.

"I think that the weapon of knowledge is one that we have to wield as citizens," Holmberg said. "The question is what do we do with it."

At least part of the answer is this: You do the things that parents have always done. Which for parents like the Holmbergs, Lahrs and other young parents in Stephens' neighborhood, means walking a fine line.

"You want them to understand the danger in the world, but you don't want them to be afraid of everything, to think that every single person is a creep who's going to try to abduct you," Holmberg said.

As Lahr's children rode their bikes, she, too, wondered about how best to explain to them the notion that the world is full of both wonder and danger.

"Sometimes you just wish you didn't have to tell them this stuff," she said.

Because the state has gone to the trouble of setting up a sex offender registry, some folks feel that a broader, more comprehensive system is in place to watch over sex offenders.

It's not. The state sends an update letter to sex offenders, and those on probation or parole have to report to their supervising officer. But there's no overarching system that watches sex offenders, and offenders who aren't on probation or parole are generally unsupervised altogether.

In fact, most law enforcement agencies in western Montana play only a minor role in dealing with sex offenders, and that role is usually reactive rather than proactive. (See related story.)

"That's really the question that we asked ourselves," said Missoula police Capt. Marty Ludemann, explaining the city's approach to dealing with offenders. "If something happens with one of these guys, we want to be able to do more than just say, 'Yeah, we heard he was on the list.' "

Both the city and the county are now tracking sex offenders, making sure they live at the addresses where they registered. That is heartening to the Val Stephens neighbors, but some still question if it's enough.

"I think it's great they're doing what they're doing, considering they don't really have to," said Katie Gjelten. "But no matter what they do, they can't make the world safe for everybody."

That uncertainty, finally, is the part of the equation that Tim Holmberg is most uncomfortable with.

"Well, we have a government that we entrust to protect us, but at the end of the day, there's only so much the police can do," he said. "There's only so much me and Jill can do. We'll do our best to educate the boys over time, but it's still sort of an act of faith to go out the front door every day."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or 370-3330, or at mmoore@missoulian.com

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