KASOTA — Voices were raised, tears flowed and tensions built.
And in the end, there was a very happy ending for a room full of people who want absolutely nothing to do with Gregory Eugene Ward and his potential for harming children and women.
Ward is the level three sex offender being released from prison next week. Originally he was going to reside in Mankato, but those plans fell through. Then, earlier this week, it was announced Ward would be residing in rural Kasota. And, as the Minnesota Department of Corrections does in all communities that receive level three offenders, they held a public meeting.
That was Thursday night. And after an hour and a half of emotional testimony from neighbors and area residents, Ward’s would-be landlord announced he had a change of heart. He won’t be renting to Ward after all, and the Department of Corrections will need to find him somewhere else to live.
Michelle Murphy of the Minnesota DOC has presided over more than 200 meetings where communities are notified that a predatory sexual offender is moving into town. Never once, she said, has the placement of an offender been reversed, canceled or nullified based on the discussion held at a community notification meeting.
The DOC will have to scramble now to find a residence for Ward, who is scheduled to get out of prison Monday.
Ward has a history of sex offenses dating back to the 1990s. They include fondling children he knew in Scott County and attacking a woman he didn’t know on the Sakatah Trail in Blue Earth County and attempting to force her to have sex. Ward was wanted by police for 14 years before he was arrested in Mankato in 2010 on a tip he was in the area visiting his mother. He was sent to prison to serve a sentence stemming from the Scott County offense.
Thursday’s meeting began like any other notification meeting. Murphy explained the sex offender classification system, and talked to the group about how many people with the potential to commit sex crimes aren’t registered sex offenders. Moreover, there are many more level one and level two offenders most of the community knows nothing about — 64 in Le Sueur County alone.
Eventually, though, the meeting arrived at the question and answer portion. And it didn’t take long for the debate to get heated.
The first person to spoke questioned the DOC’s placement of Ward in an apartment complex that was close to where children live.
“It is not an ideal placement,” one DOC official said. “We recognize that.”
Then it was Jen Letts’ turn.
As a mother, she said, Ward’s presence horrifies her. Even though the DOC said they’ll have GPS monitoring on Ward, have law enforcement and DOC officers keeping an eye on him, and threaten reincarceration even if he violates a minor provision of his parole, that won’t put her mind at ease when he’s there, and her kids are around, and there isn’t a squad car to be seen.
“We have to change the way we raise our kids,” Letts said to Murphy. “I can’t let my daughter run through the woods anymore. Would you let your daughter run through the woods alone?”
“I wouldn’t let my daughter run through the woods alone even if there wasn’t a level three sex offender there,” Murphy said.
That remark, clearly,
didn’t sit well with a crowd that was already antagonistic with the entire DOC staff.
From there, dozens of questions followed, each with the common theme of “how could this man be allowed to live here?”
Le Sueur County Sheriff Tom Doherty and Murphy tried to explain to the crowd, which was growing restless, that state law mandates that, when a person has completed their prison term, they get to leave. And there aren’t restrictions on where they can live.
“Who is letting this person move in here?” one person said.
“Is the landlord here? Maybe we should hear from him,” said another.
And the landlord was there.
In the center of the room sat a burly man with white hair and a healthy beard who raised his hand when someone questioned whether he was here.
Gene Lewis is the landlord. The DOC came to him for help in finding a place for Ward to live. Lewis, owner of dozens of rental units in the area, thought he was doing the DOC a favor. And he thought he was doing the right by providing a place for the people no one wants to provide a place for.
The problem, however, was that there are children who live close to that apartment. Lewis says he didn’t know about that. And in the face of one neighbor after another giving impassioned testimony that they didn’t want him renting to Ward, Lewis — who appeared visibly moved by the drama — did what Michelle Murphy says has never happened before at a sex offender notification meeting.
He changed his mind.
He’s been getting phone calls, he said. Some of them pretty nasty. A quick check on the Craigslist.org site for Mankato, in the “rants and raves” section, shows someone, on the day it was announced that Ward would be residing in Kasota, posted Lewis cell phone number and home phone number. In the past few days, Lewis says he’s received many phone calls. Some have been reasonable. But others ...
“There’s been a hundred calls, many of them rude, some didn’t leave their name,” he said. “There have been threats to my family.”
Lewis looked across the room at a man who, before the meeting, raised concerns with him about the safety of his children, about how his kids can sit on their swing set and see the property where Ward would have lived.
That affected him, he said.
“I do not want to rent to this man,” he said.
Lewis’ relent was what everyone in the room had waited to hear.
A standing ovation followed.
It’s unclear, Murphy said, what the implications of this meeting will be. One thing is clear: the people of Kasota proved that, if a community tries hard enough, it can keep anyone out.
As soon as the DOC finds Ward a new place to stay, it’s likely a third meeting will be held to warn residents of some other community that he is coming.