Treatment Without Parole: No way out of the system?The Minnesota Sex Offender Program's St. Peter facility offers hope to clients in the final stages of treatment, but some say the threat of a relapse is too high to ever let offenders go free.
Two bulletin boards full of pictures in the main hallway of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake present offenders glimpses of a better life.
One picture is of a man proudly displaying a fish he caught. Another shows men sitting around a picturesque breakfast table, smiling, as the sun beams down through skylights.
Like the men at Moose Lake, they’re all civilly committed sex offenders. But the men in the photos have advanced to the latter stages of MSOP’s treatment.
“I call these the ‘moon landing pictures’ because still we have clients who believe these are all staged,” said Jannine Hebert, MSOP’s executive clinical director.
The residents are real, as is the place where the photos were taken — St. Peter, a city of 11,000 in southern Minnesota just north of Mankato. Almost 150 sex offenders are civilly committed there, many of whom have advanced past the treatment at Moose Lake.
While no offender has been permanently released from St. Peter, seven have advanced to the point where they can live outside the main razor wire-rimmed building where most of the offenders live. They can walk around the sprawling campus as they choose. Their only monitors are ankle bracelets, which alert security if the wearer leaves campus.
Four offenders live in a townhome-like setting called Green Acres, complete with a living room, kitchen and small dining room looking out to a wooded area. Razor wire is nowhere to be seen.
The three who have advanced furthest in treatment live in “Halvorson House,” a single-family, Tudor-style home on the St. Peter campus that the residents have helped refurbish, MSOP leaders said. With the exception of a flat-screen TV and video gaming equipment in the family room, and a 24-hour security counselor in residence, the home seems like something out of the 1920s, with wood-trimmed arches between rooms and reading areas with built-in bookshelves. The kitchen looks out at a line of trees, and beyond that, a sign of normal civilization — a highway.
‘evil’ to rehabilitated?
It’s a home where 55-year-old convicted murderer and rapist William Sargent of Warroad hopes to live one day. If he makes it, it would be a long way from where he was 11 years ago, when he told prison counselors he was a “sick and evil person” and that he would be unable to change because “I was born this way.”
It’s not hard to see why. Sargent has spent most of his adult life incarcerated for heinous crimes. Among those, according to records: In 1973, when Sargent was 17, he raped and beat a 14-year-old girl. In 1976, Sargent, then 20, raped a 16-year-old girl. To cover up the rape, he took her to a river and beat her to death with a rock.
He was released from prison eight years later and, in 1986, when he was 30, Sargent violently raped a 31-year-old woman at knifepoint. Sargent later admitted that the terror in the woman’s eyes “excited him.” He said he intended to kill the woman and hide her body, but stopped when she said she had children.
He was sent back to prison, where he became more involved in sex offender treatment therapy. Progress reports showed that he met or exceeded expectations of treatment, but as his release neared in 2004, the county petitioned to have him civilly committed.
In an interview with News Tribune in early May, Sargent’s calm tone and demeanor never gave a hint of his violent past.
He said when he was committed to MSOP he saw it as a hopeless situation and, like many committed sex offenders, initially tried to fight it through the courts. He said he now realizes he was wrong.
“There was a great risk for me to reoffend at the time,” Sargent said. “I wasn’t really looking at that. I was only looking at them punishing me more for something I had done. It took me a while to realize they were right. At the time of my commitment, there was a great risk for me to reoffend.”
Seven years later, Sargent is in an advanced phase of treatment in St. Peter. He said he believes he’ll be released sometime in the next three to four years.
Why should the public believe that he won’t reoffend?
His response is that treatment has given him tools to stop himself when he’s having sexually deviant thoughts.
“I take a timeout, ask myself what I’m doing with these thoughts, where I’m going, is this healthy for me?” he said. “Is this healthy for other people, and look at what it’s done to me in the past, and look at where I went to in the past with those thoughts.”
Another technique he’s been taught is to think about an adverse scene when he’s having deviant thoughts.
“The scene for me that works the best is the scene of my mother as she was on her death bed from a fire, wrapped in white gauze, and her asking me what I’m doing,” he said. “That stops me. It helps take away the power and to realize that even though she’s not with me, physically, spiritually she’s still there and cares.”
He also blames his crimes on a deep sense of shame and thinking of himself “as a monster.” The more his shame grew, the more crimes he committed, he said.
He said he hasn’t talked with the victims of his crimes and worries that the shame would return if he does. But he said he believes that support from MSOP and other groups would keep him from reoffending.
“And when I’m at my worst, and not doing treatment, and not doing the things I need to take care of myself, then yes, I can go there. I know I can,” he said.
Some believe sex offenders like Sargent never should be released. Paul Knochenmus, the now-retired Roseau County Sheriff who investigated Sargent’s murder, said he doesn’t believe Sargent can ever be successfully treated.
“He’s a danger to society. He should never be let out,” he said. “He had no qualms about the murder he committed.”
Knochenmus said he believed it would only be a matter of time before Sargent committed another sex offense.
“I don’t think they can rehabilitate any of them,” he said. “And I don’t think the public should be subjected to someone like that out in their midst.”
faking their way?
At Moose Lake, Christopher Ivey, who has been a civilly committed sex offender since 2003 and tried to escape from the facility with three others last year, gave a chilling explanation for why some offenders have been able to advance through treatment while the overwhelming majority have not: They fake their way through it.
“A lot of the guys progressing through treatment are clinical psychopaths because they’re willing to do whatever,” said Ivey, who is not in treatment at Moose Lake. “Stab somebody in the back. Lie, cheat, steal, manipulate staff, do whatever it takes to get through the program. A lot of those guys that make it through have the highest psychopathic level.”
It is possible for a sex offender to fake his way through treatment, said David Prescott, the former clinical director for MSOP.
“I have seen people with high scores (on measures of psychopathy) who turned out to have engaged in covert illegal behavior for years while appearing to do well in treatment and advancing to a high level,” he said. “There are no foolproof measures for assessing whether or not someone has actually changed. There are some measures, such as the polygraph, that can help find deception, but there are still a lot of unknowns.”
In reviews of client records, the News Tribune found one case of a man who had been convicted of molesting girls ages 4 to 15 and repeatedly raping an adult woman. A psychologist later reported he believed the client was trying to fake his way through MSOP treatment. His release was eventually rejected.
Executive clinical director Hebert dismisses the possibility of offenders being able to fake their way through treatment, saying clients have to pass tests such as polygraphs and responding to sexual images.
The head of MSOP, Dennis Benson, said advancing through treatment requires more than just passing tests.
“You just can’t fake it,” he said. “(The offenders) are into victim empathy; they talk openly about what their risks are, what their triggers are, their concerns about when they go into the community. We have them go back to group and talk very openly about how nervous they were when a little girl approached them, or when a female made a comment to them. And they process that, and that’s what’s going to keep them out of trouble.
“That’s as good as it’s going to get for these people,” he added. “They are always going to be a sex offender. They are always going to have that label — it’s managing that.”
That test could be coming for one sex offender, John Rydberg, who’s one of three to advance the furthest in the MSOP and has petitioned for his release. Rydberg, 69, who has been committed to MSOP for 18 years, has more than 90 admitted sex offenses, including escaping from prison, breaking into the Wisconsin home of Janet and Tom McCartney in 1975, tying both of them up, and then raping both at gunpoint.
At a hearing in March, the McCartneys and the attorneys for the county that committed him pleaded with a three-judge panel to reject Rydberg’s release.
Tom McCartney told the News Tribune that he feels no one from MSOP should ever be released.
“These types of people are not able to be rehabilitated,” McCartney said. “They’re psychopaths. When you talk to people that treat them, people that try and deal with them, they’ll all tell you the same thing — they will reoffend.”
“Somehow they feel they’ve earned a right to be released into society?” he added. “I don’t think so.”
Rydberg’s case is being closed watched by all affiliated with MSOP — administrators and clients alike — for many of the same reasons. If he’s released, Benson said he believed it would encourage more offenders to embrace treatment.
Offenders said it would give them hope that they, too, could gain freedom.
And if Rydberg isn’t released?
“It’s a hard picture to look at,” Sargent said, “because that gets me back to the hopelessness, that gets me back to the not caring, and I don’t want to do that.”
Benson said he believes an offender eventually would be released. But he cautioned that there’s no guarantee that anyone who is released won’t reoffend.
“We’d love to be able to guarantee public safety to that degree,” he said. “But like I used to say when I was a prison warden, the only way you can really do that is if you hang them by their thumbs and keep them in prison forever.”