How Sex Offender Registries Can Result in Vigilante Murder
Some Canadian conservatives are pushing for more public sex offender registries. But there is a history of deadly violence associated with them.
William Elliott, 24, of Corinth, Maine and Joseph L. Gray, 57, of Milo, Maine were killed by a Canadian vigilante in 2006. Photo via CP/Maine State Police
Stephen Marshall was driving through rural Maine under the cover of night with three guns by his side and a laptop with 34 names and addresses he’s found online.
It was the early hours of Easter Sunday in 2006 and 20-year-old Marshall, a dishwasher from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia was paying a rare visit to his father in Houlton, Maine, a town near the Canada-US border. His father was asleep and had no idea that Marshall had taken his truck after quietly slipping out a window.
Around 3 AM, Marshall reached his first stop: about two hours southwest in the town of Milo, Maine. Fifty-seven-year-old Joseph Gray was in his living room asleep. He’d been up late watching Forensic Files with his wife. She was woken up by the sound of their dogs barking. Gray was shot and killed by Marshall through the living room window as she stood by, helpless.
Over the next few hours it’s believed that Marshall drove by at least four other homes, but it isn’t until just after 8 AM, that he meets his second victim.
Twenty-four-year-old William Elliott answered the door of his mobile home in Corinth, Maine after Marshall knocked. Even after Elliott crumpled to the floor, Marshall continued to shoot him. As the Toyota pickup peeled out of the driveway, Elliott’s girlfriend took down the license plate as her boyfriend lay dying.
Grey and Elliott were among around 2,200 names on Maine’s online sex offender registry in 2006. Marshall was able to access their photo, name, address, identifying characteristics—even their place of employment. And he wasn’t the only one checking them out. The registry was the state government’s most popular website at the time receiving over 200,000 hits a month.
By the end of the weekend the count of people dead at Marshall’s hand would rise to three. After abandoning the truck in Bangor, Marshall hopped a bus to Boston. Around 8 PM, as it approached its destination, the bus was surrounded by police. In his final act, Marshall put a .45 calibre handgun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was pronounced dead a few hours later.
The murders of Grey and Elliott came at a time when the internet was new enough that fears were sparked that this sort of extreme vigilantism would become commonplace. Lawmakers in Maine and other states floated the idea of taking the registries offline. Maine’s was shut down—but only for a day.
In Canada, Marshall couldn’t have committed his crime so easily. The national sex offender registry run by the RCMP, then like now, was only available to police agencies. But some politicians, including Conservative leader Andrew Scheer want to see it made available to the public. Because knowledge is equated with power, it’s long been assumed that a public registry helps keep people—in particular children—safe. But there’s a cost. The tradeoff with registries has been the harassment of those on them at their homes and workplaces.
Though Marshall’s murders made international headlines at the time, they are largely forgotten by the Canadian public. The issue of public registries is still debated, however, even though the public might not realize exactly what that entails and the ensuing harassment that might put a group of people across the country at risk. But given the attitudes towards sex offenders, the public simply might not give a damn about the consequences.
In several jurisdictions across North America, sex offender registry laws are branded with names like “Christopher’s Law” and “Megan’s Law.” Christopher Stephenson is the namesake of Ontario’s sex offender registry—the first in Canada. In 1988 the 11-year-old was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by a convicted pedophile out of prison on statutory release.
Because Christopher had been kept alive for 36 hours before he was killed, it was believed that a database for convicted sex offenders could have helped find him before it was too late. The 1993 coroner’s inquest into his death recommended starting one on a national scale. This would happen in December 2004, three years after Ontario launched their registry. Unlike those in the United States, it would remain hidden from public view, though this was overshadowed by a more controversial fact—being placed on Canada’s registry wasn’t initially automatic and wasn’t totally retroactive to offenders who had already finished serving their sentences.
A Saint John-based group called the Sexual Abuse Network of Canada created their own ersatz registered offender map using publicly available information from media reports. Over the years various other Facebook groups and websites in communities across the country have been created to share similar information. Creep Catchers groups use online stings in cities across Canada to coax alleged pedophiles out using online stings and then posting their encounters on YouTube.
This is despite the fact that most abusers are known to their victims and that the registries themselves are imperfect tools. For instance, it wasn’t mandatory to register on the national registry until 2011, meaning that thousands convicted of sexual crimes aren’t included among the over 40,000 registrants.
In 2013, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government announced legislation to have a public sex offender registry (which passed in 2015), but according to Scott Bardsley, press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness “they never actually set it up and they never funded it.”
The Liberals aren’t certain it will be an effective plan of action. The registry would include high-risk child sex offenders, but only those who are already included in local or provincial public notifications. Bardsley said in an email that this wouldn’t advance the amount of information the public currently has.
“It would simply compile information already made public by local police,” he said.
But for some concerned Canadians that won’t matter, they’ll feel safer simply having the knowledge. Recently in New Brunswick, Seniors and Long-Term Care Minister Lisa Harris said despite a case where someone on the registry was living in a special care home and sexually assaulted a fellow resident there will be no policy change to check residents against the sex offender registry. In the United States, however, public registries have made things less safe for those on the registries. American registrants have fallen victim to everything from harassment campaigns to homicide simply because their information is so easily available.
One such person was Michael Dodele. In 2007, Ivan Garcia Oliver spread word among his neighbours in a Lake County, California trailer park that he’d discovered something shocking. Dodele, their new neighbour, was on the state’s Megan’s Law sex offender website.
Oliver feared for the safety of his young son from pedophiles and Michael Dodele’s listing incensed him. It included the offenses "rape by force" and "oral copulation with a person under 14 or by force."
Dodele was only 35 days out of prison when Oliver came to his trailer and stabbed him to death. Though the intention was to protect Oliver’s son, he later learned Dodele’s crimes were against adult women.
One of the inconvenient truths about sex offender registries is that not all offenders are equally dangerous, nor are their crimes equally severe or prolific. Reasons for registration could cover, in theory, anything from groping to a violent sexual assault. With Marshall’s victims it was no different. While Grey was convicted of rape, indecent assault and battery on a minor, Elliott’s case featured a mitigating detail.
He was jailed for having consensual sex with a girlfriend who was 15-years-old after her father discovered the relationship. If they had waited longer—it’s been reported between two weeks and a few months—she would have been 16 and, though certainly morally problematic, the relationship wouldn’t have been a crime.
Stephen Gehl, a lawyer in Waterloo, Ontario, unsuccessfully challenged the Ontario sex registry in three superior courts on behalf of a client who was listed. He recalls the Marshall case and points out Elliott as indicative of one of the main problems of a public registry.
“It’s unlikely anyone would have thought this guy needs to be sent away (and) locked up forever and certainly not killed,” he told VICE.
But it’s not just Marshall and Oliver who’ve murdered someone they tracked down on an online sex offender registry.
In 2004, Lawrence Trant was charged with attempted murder. He went to jail for stabbing one man and trying to burn down two apartment buildings that had at least seven sex offenders living in them using information gathered from the New Hampshire registry.
Michael Anthony Mullen killed two sex offenders whose names he found on an online registry in 2005. His friend in prison, Patrick Drum, would murder two sex offenders known to him in Washington State in 2012. Had he not been apprehended, Drum had planned to murder further offenders he found randomly on the state’s registry.
In 2013, Jeremy and Christine Moody killed a man they found on the South Carolina registry as well as his wife, who was not a sex offender. Christine referred to her as “a casualty of war.”
Gehl is skeptical of why we need a registry at all. He says constitutionally, according to Section 7 of the Charter, that it violates your right of security of person and that it’s focused on what you might do in the future as opposed to what you did in the past. In March 2018 however Ontario’s top court ruled it was constitutional to keep offenders listed on the registry for life.
“You can’t access people’s criminal records,” Gehl says. “You can barely get their driver’s licenses. And there seems to be no value in having persons registered as sex offenders simply for the purpose of just having them named as such.”
In 2006, the same year as Marshall’s murders, Eric Janus, a professor at Minnesota’s Mitchell-Hamline School of Law, wrote a book called Failure to Protect about overemphasizing predatory strangers and how it distracts from solving issues of sexual violence.
He says the public and government response to sex offenders should be to ask what set of policies will have the most beneficial effect on reducing the level of sexual violence in society.
“That’s not what most people are asking,” he told VICE. “Most people are asking who are the dangerous people and how can we identify them and separate them from us.”
He adds that the problem with the first question is that it’s “abstract,” while the latter is “very, very interesting and exciting and simple and satisfying.”
Janus adds that while research shows that registering sex offenders has benefits, there is little or no evidence that public notification achieves a positive outcome.
Among the research on this matter, one group is largely missing: sex offenders themselves.
A 2013 paper in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science looked for the first time at Canadian sexual offenders' views on being on a registry. Examining the accounts of 30 registered offenders they learned that 48 percent of those surveyed identified registration as a "minor irritant" or "slight inconvenience." But it’s likely that feelings would be stronger with a public registry, the prospect of which still looms, ebbing and flowing with the political mood.
This past summer, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer spoke about the public registry at Question Period.
"If the Liberals have a problem with the public being informed about dangerous criminals living in their neighbourhood, then Canadian parents have a right to know," Scheer said.
Trudeau later accused the Conservatives of playing "the worst kind of crass political games" on the issue, though this didn’t result in Scheer dropping the issue.
In the intervening years since Marshall murdered Gray and Elliott, there’s been no consensus on why he did it. It’s possible if he was alive and went through a trial that we’d have a better understanding. But none of the other similar murders have done much to advance the dialogue on registries. The Bangor Daily News reported five and 10 years after the Marshall murders on how little the registries have changed.
Earlier this year, Elliott’s mother announced to the Maine media that she was working on a book called Destroying Angel that talked about the vigilante murder of her son.
"It was really horrifying just to have [him] on the registry,” she told a Maine TV station. “He was getting obscene phone calls and threats that he was going to die and people throwing crap in his yard and just harassing him to the point where he didn't know what to do."
And then because of a tragic mix of surging hormones, a vague listing and an address within a reasonable drive, Marshall would knock at her son’s door Easter morning, ready to take justice into his own hands.
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