Town worried over sex offender's release from prison

Case has focused attention on value and constitutionality of civil commitment laws

By Dave Gram
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. (AP) — The hours are ticking down toward the release from prison of Timothy J. Szad, a sex offender deemed so dangerous that Vermont authorities are taking the unusual step of not only warning the public but cautioning that blue-eyed, blond-haired boys of 12 or 13 could be in particular peril.

Some parents are worried in Szad’s hometown of Springfield — where he was planning to move in with his parents, until they backed out because of threats — and the police chief in the community of 9,000 is urging people to be alert.

But there is nothing to stop the 53-year-old Szad from walking out of the Southern State Correctional Facility a free man on Friday.

Szad, who was sentenced in 2001 for aggravated sexual assault against a 13-year-old boy, has served his time. And Vermont, unlike several other states, has no “civil commitment” law that allows sex offenders who are considered a danger to the public to be kept locked up once they have completed their prison sentences.

“It’s terrible they’re letting him out. Once a pedophile, always a pedophile,” said Jaime Hooper, who stopped to talk as she pushed her baby son, Justin, in a stroller.

The case has focused attention not only on the state’s public-notification practices for sex offenders but on the value and constitutionality of civil commitment laws, with the American Civil Liberties Union and some Vermont lawmakers saying such measures are not the way to go.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU’s Vermont chapter, said the public simply needs to accept that sex offenders like Szad get out of prison when they complete their sentences.

“We live in a society that operates by the rule of law,” Gilbert said. “Courts have determined the appropriate sentence for him, he’s served his sentence, and now he’s getting out.”

Szad declined a request for an interview, according to P. Mark Potanas, superintendent at the prison in Springfield.

Under Vermont law, Szad will have to notify the state sex offender registry of where he is living, and he can be jailed if he fails to comply. Other than that, the state will have no control over him. He will not be on parole.

Szad’s case has pointed up another dilemma: State officials say it’s necessary to notify a community when a high-risk sex offender is being released, but notification can cause such an outcry that the offender’s arrangements for living on the outside can fall apart.

That’s what happened with Szad, who had been expected to live with his parents in Springfield until they changed their minds. An elderly man who answered the door at the home of Szad’s parents Tuesday said the family had no comment.

Nevertheless, his release is “going to happen one way or the other, whether he’s homeless or they have a place for him,” said Police Chief Douglas Johnston.

Vermont uses several criteria for determining whether a sex offender is at high risk of committing another such crime, said Kris Goldstein, treatment chief for the Vermont Program for Sexual Abusers.

Among them: Is the perpetrator a man less than 55 years old? Was his previous victim also male? Was the victim known to the offender? Did the crime involve force, violence or sadistic behavior? Did the offender comply with treatment behind bars?

Szad met the boy, a stranger to him, on a riverbank in Rockingham in 2000. The boy was fishing and Szad was shooting bottles with a rifle. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Szad admitted grabbing the boy, carrying him across the river, handcuffing him and sexually assaulting him twice.

The defendant could have gotten life in prison but was offered a seven- to 20-year sentence in a plea bargain to spare the boy from testifying.

Szad cooperated with sex-offender treatment in prison but was still considered high risk, officials said. The Corrections Department warned the public that he would most likely target “male strangers between the ages of 12 and 13, in particular those with blond hair and blue eyes.”

Andy Bladyka, Springfield director of parks and recreation, said he had been consulting with the police chief and town manager about Szad’s release, but as of Wednesday, no special precautions were being planned within Springfield’s summer youth programs.

He said staff and volunteers are already trained with security in mind. For example, he said, they are told not to leave a child alone after a program but to ensure that each one has safe transportation home.

Russell Hill, an electrician from nearby Weathersfield and the grandfather of a 5-year-old, said: “Hopefully if he’s coming here, he’ll commit to living a decent life.”

About 20 states, including New Hampshire and New York, have civil commitment laws allowing high-risk sex offenders about to be released from prison to be sent to a locked mental health facility. Such laws have been challenged in court.

In a New York courtroom on Tuesday, former New York Gov. George Pataki defended himself in a lawsuit brought by six convicted sex offenders who said their constitutional rights were violated under a civil commitment law initiated by Pataki.

State Rep. Alice Emmons, a Springfield lawmaker who chairs the House committee that oversees Vermont’s prisons, said she opposes civil commitment laws.

“You’re holding someone who has not committed a (new) crime. Do we as a society in Vermont want to do that?” she asked.