The Predator Next Door

In January, a sexual predator moved to Tanglewood Lane. The neighborhood hasn't been the same since.

Sex Offenders: A Colony of Outcasts

Since the mid-1990s, it has become harder for convicted sex offenders to blend into unsuspecting neighborhoods and befriend future victims. All states now have some form of Megan's Law, which requires the registration of sex offenders and makes that information available to the public.

But notification laws have had a downside as well. Across the country, they are making it more difficult for sex offenders to find housing. In Washington, tent cities of sex offenders have sprouted up in parking lots. In Ohio and other states, offenders live in shelters, temporary housing and on the street, where they often don't register with authorities.

"It's extremely difficult to find stable, long-term housing for sex offenders," says Loretta Ryland, coordinator of the Cuyahoga County Council on Sex Offender Issues. "And anytime someone doesn't have housing, it puts them at risk for doing whatever."

It doesn't matter that predators and other sex offenders have served their sentences. The belief that they will reoffend is ingrained in the American psyche. In fact, sex offenders, as a group, are among the least likely to reoffend, says David Berenson, director of sex-offender services at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. (Murderers actually have the lowest recidivism rate.) An ODRC study released in 2001 followed sex offenders released from prison for 10 years and found that 34 percent of them returned to prison, but only 11 percent went back for sex-related offenses.

These numbers do little to console a public disgusted by anecdotal reports of repeat offenders such as Jesse Timmendequas, the twice-convicted New Jersey child molester who raped and murdered 7-year-old Megan Kanka (the inspiration for Megan's Law), and Joel Yockey, who raped and murdered a teen-age neighbor just months after being released from an Ohio prison. Last fall, 11-year-old Shakira Johnson was murdered in a part of Cleveland packed with sex offenders. Her accused killer also awaits trial on charges of sexually assaulting his young cousin.

Although great efforts are made to comply with notification laws, their social consequences aren't lost on law-enforcement officials. To help counteract them in Cuyahoga County, the sheriff's department is planning to give out even more information. Soon, it will be organizing public meetings through the school districts, according to Ryland. Representatives will go into neighborhoods where they will discuss how to keep children safe, as well as the limitations of the law, including the answer to the frequent question "Can you run this guy out of town?"

The answer, as long as the offender stays out of trouble, is no.

"All I can do is point to the Constitution," says inspector Doug Burkhart, who runs the Cuyahoga County Sheriff Department's Sexual Offender Unit. "We can't keep these people in prison forever."

At Parma's Pinetree Estates, an 82-house subdivision with five cul-de-sacs and more than two-dozen basketball hoops, residents wave at passing cars, welcome home newborns with signs and greet new neighbors with batches of cookies. Until recently, some say the biggest threat to child safety was an outdoor hot tub, and the closest thing to conflict was the debate over who put up the best Christmas decorations.

Last January, things changed when 22 families received stationery-type envelopes in their mailboxes. A 13-year-old girl opened one of the letters, thinking it was a party invitation. What she read was something else.

Dear Neighbor —

I am writing this note to inform you that my son, Michael, will be coming to live with us. On Jan. 25, he is being released from the Madison Correctional Institution and he has been labeled a preditor [sic].

If you would like to speak to me by phone or in person, please do not hesitate to call or stop by.

Thank you,

Brian Koch
8235 Tanglewood Ln

Reactions varied.

The girl's mother wanted to move. Frank Sara, the father of a 6-year-old girl and a baby, wanted to investigate Michael Koch's case. Tamarah Slack, the mother of two teen-age boys and an 11-year-old girl, had one thought: I have to talk to my daughter.

The Slacks live two doors down from the Kochs. At the time, the self-proclaimed "overprotective mother" knew nothing about Michael Koch's crimes, only that they must have been horrendous enough for a judge to label him a sexual predator. According to Ohio law, that brand is reserved for the worst kind of sex offender: one likely to engage in future sex offenses. Every 90 days for the rest of their lives, sexual predators must report their addresses to the local sheriff. Whenever a predator moves, sherifA's deputies notify residents living within a 1,000-foot radius.

Slack, 36, knows who lives in almost every house in Pinetree Estates — if not by name, at least by the owner's occupation and number of children. She notices everything in this small strip of suburbia, from when the buds first appear on the trees lining the sidewalks to which school-bus drivers make driveway pickups in bad weather.

She has been teaching her children how to protect themselves since they were in preschool. Back then, she explained the difference between good touching and bad touching. She sent them to Safety Town and repeated every mother's "Don't take candy from strangers" speech.

But those talks were different, the equivalent of a school fire drill: She hoped her children never had to use the information, but she wanted them to be prepared just in case. Now, suddenly, a potential enemy to her children's safety had materialized. Not only did he have a name, he was moving into the neighborhood.

The protective mother became even more so. She braced herself for a new kind of safety talk.

Slack and her husband warned their children about their new neighbor. Their sons, ages 14 and 16, reacted like typical teen-age boys. (Their response was something like "Aw, he's not going to mess with us," Slack recalls.) Their daughter listened quietly, then she asked what he looked like and where he lived. As soon as the sheriff posted Michael Koch's picture on the Internet, the Slacks made sure their children took a good look at it.

Slack told her daughter, especially, to study his image. "I want you to be able to describe him to me," she said.

Michael E. Koch is 43, tall and wiry. He has short, cinnamon-brown hair and long arms that often fly into awkward, jerky gestures. He looks like the kind of person he used to be: the guy you call to fix the air conditioning. In fact, Koch once had his own heating and cooling business. It financed a life very much like his new neighbors' lives. One with a wife, a house, even a sailboat he used to race.

Then, that life began to unravel. He drank. His business partnership faltered. He developed financial problems. His relationship with his now ex-wife, Theresa Pogozelski, was strained by his insecurity and distrust, according to court documents filed by his former lawyer.

Koch's only emotionally satisfying relationship in the family — with a stepdaughter — turned into the most dysfunctional when he began to touch her sexually.

"I can't justify what I did," he says. "But that state of mind I was in, I was just totally lost."

Pogozelski says she thought their marriage was fine until about 1995, one year after Koch stopped molesting her daughter and one year before her daughter reported him to the authorities in Lake County, where they used to live. Pogozelski found out about the sexual abuse when someone from the sheriff's department showed up at her house, looking for her husband.

"I was totally devastated," she says. "I couldn't believe that he had done it and she hadn't told me about it." Pogozelski says the revelation ended their marriage.

In November 1996, Koch was indicted on two counts of rape, two counts of sexual battery and eight counts of gross sexual imposition. Initially, he confessed to having had some sexual activity with the victim. But she alleged more than he was willing to admit. Rather than fight the charges all the way to court, Koch agreed to a plea bargain in March 1997. He admitted committing seven felonies, including two counts of sexual battery and five counts of gross sexual imposition.

"There was no penetration and no physical, vaginal contact," he says now, fresh from a prison term cut 3 1/2 years short for good behavior. "I did touch her breasts periodically over a year-and-a-half time period." He admits to touching his stepdaughter near her vaginal area as well.

Koch claims he sexually abused her when she was between the ages of 14 and 16 years old. But the charges to which he pleaded guilty stemmed from incidents that occurred from 1989 to 1994, when the victim was between the ages of 10 and 16, according to the indictment.

The victim herself said the incidents began when she was 6 and continued for 10 years. Her statements to the authorities remain under seal at the Lake County Court of Common Pleas. However, she did share her version of events in court, during the hearing at which Judge Paul Mitrovich sentenced Koch and designated him a sexual predator.

The victim said the molestation started with Koch putting a pillow over her face and fondling her on the couch, then progressed as she grew older. Eventually, he started putting his hands in her pants, laying her on top of him and pressing his penis against her vagina through her underwear. He burned her legs and buttocks with a heated massager. When she was 15, he orally raped her. Despite her protests, he wouldn't stop.

"You were my father figure," she told Koch in court, reading from a letter she had written. "I was supposed to respect and obey you. You were supposed to be a role model and support for me. Instead, you were the one who tore me apart. You took my innocence and exploited it--

"I'll never be able to forget what you did to me," she continued. "My thoughts were and still are dominated by what you put me through. I have to relive every incident every time I close my eyes•"

Koch says her statements in court stunned him. So much of what she said never happened, he maintains. Ten years after the last offense to which he pleaded guilty occurred, he is full of denials. In addition to disputing the age at which he molested his stepdaughter, he says he thought he pleaded guilty to five counts instead of seven. Although he signed a confession soon after he was arrested, in which he admitted to performing "cunnilingus" on her, he now claims he didn't know the meaning of the term.

Still, Koch acknowledges the psychological trauma his actions caused his victim. "I agree there was some damage there," he says. "I feel horrible about the whole situation."

Pogozelski says her daughter still suffers from what Koch did to her. "When she found out he was getting out of prison, she had an anxiety attack," Pogozelski says. "She will probably never get married. She has determined she will not have children. He has totally ruined her life."

A year before Michael Koch was released from prison, he and his father had been planning to send a note to the neighbors, says Brian Koch, a tool-and-die machinist who rides a Harley and looks especially fit for a 61-year-old with a pacemaker. They both thought handwritten notes would ease the neighbors' minds better than the sheriff's notice that would follow.

Soon after delivering the notes, Brian received three phone calls from neighbors thanking him for the disclosure. Then, the calls stopped. Although Brian didn't realize it at the time, he had set off a chain reaction of fear throughout the neighborhood.

Residents called their councilman, Tom Mastroianni, the schools and one another. They stuck Michael Koch's picture on their refrigerators and gave copies to bus drivers. Someone put up a sign at the Pinetree entrance warning that a sexual predator lived in the neighborhood and listing the Koch address.

About that same time, Mastroianni scheduled a public meeting to discuss the issue. He sent notices to every resident of Pinetree Estates — every resident, that is, except Brian Koch. (Mastroianni says he didn't know how the residents would feel about him being there, given the fact that the neighborhood "was in an uproar" over his son.) A different sort of letter ended up in Brian's mailbox.

Some of the neighbors are in receipt of your post card stating that your son who is labeled a sexual predator is coming to live with you. Although the legal system says he can live where he wants, I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision to allow this...

Children are upset, mothers are scared, and fathers are wondering out loud. We urge you to please reconsider your decision and keep you and your wife's friendships and reputations in this neighborhood intact, and look for alternate means of help and housing for your family.

Sincerely, Pine Tree Estates [sic]

The letter didn't upset Brian. He understood his neighbors' feelings. "I would be concerned too," he says. But the behind-his-back activities of some Parma public officials — the meeting to which he wasn't invited and what he perceived as their courting of the media — disappointed him, especially since he went out of his way to be open.

Some neighbors who did talk to Brian quickly realized that he wholeheartedly supports his only surviving son. (His younger son was hit and killed by a train one month before Michael was indicted.) Brian has been to every one of Michael's court hearings and spoke on his son's behalf at the sentencing. He knows all the parties involved in the case and doesn't believe the victim's version of events.

"If I thought for an instant that [Michael] was a guy that needed this label, he wouldn't be here," Brian says.

But to his neighbors, he is just the father of a sexual predator. Of course he doesn't want to believe what the victim said about his son is true.

"I feel bad for Brian as a parent," says neighbor Cheryl Koncz. "But I would hope I wouldn't take my kid [if he was labeled a predator] back into a neighborhood densely populated with children."

The neighborhood meeting occurred Jan. 24, the day before Michael Koch was released from prison. Brian and his wife, Michael's stepmother, crashed it. As they walked into Parma City Hall's council chambers, Brian could feel fingers pointing at them. Some neighbors looked at him as if his son's troubles were his fault.

From the comments he heard at the meeting, Brian detected "an overall feeling of deep concern" among his neighbors. Others who attended, however, felt the mood was too intense to be classified that way. "A couple of times, people shouted at the father, and we had to say this isn't a lynch mob," says Mastroianni.

Some residents wanted to take other actions, maybe picket the Koch house or plaster the fence separating the neighborhood from Sprague Road with signs. But nothing like that transpired. Already, in the interest of full disclosure, residents who want to move will have to tell potential buyers that a sexual predator lives nearby.

Frank Sara argued that media attention drawn by signs and pickets would hurt housing values even more.

No one can predict how long the neighborhood's present uneasy calm will continue. Koch was released from prison in January, long before the play-outside-all-day season to which parents usually look forward. This summer, the combination of warm weather, no school and the general unpredictability of children could make Pinetree Estates an even less hospitable place for Michael Koch.

"If a kid goes missing for five minutes," Sara says, "it's going to be pitchforks and torches in front of this guy's house."

Inside the light-filled ranch home that father and son helped build together, Michael Koch spends much of his day at the computer, looking for employment leads on the Internet, or doing odd jobs as a handyman. On many evenings, he visits his child, who was born to his girlfriend shortly after Koch went to prison.

His crimes are never far from his mind. Overcoming them seems to consume him at times. "It's like I'm climbing Mt. Everest," he says.

Koch resents the sexual-predator label.

He has apologized to his victim, served his time, examined the causes for his crimes and taken measures to make sure he doesn't reoffend, including limiting his job-seeking to new construction — so he won't have to go into people's homes to fix their heating and cooling systems — and alerting the parents of his child's playmates about his history. When talking about his life now, Koch displays both the shame of an admitted sex offender and the outrage of a man who feels he's been wronged.

"Because the judge uses his rubber stamp and finds me a predator, does that say I can't have the same liberties as everyone else?" he asks. "Where do I live? Do I have to go live in the middle of the desert where there's no one around me?"

Even his ex-wife, who thinks Koch deserves the sexual-predator label, admits she doesn't know how much of a threat he'd pose to children not living with him. "[My daughter] was a target because she was under the same roof," she says.

Koch had been hopeful the judge would spare him the sexual-predator brand. He is a sex offender, but also a victim. When he was 12, a member of his family's ski club took him on a long motorcycle ride into the mountains of Tennessee and fondled him there, he says. Around the same time, he ran away from an abusive Boy Scoutmaster who was making the Scouts strip naked in the woods and shooting bullets over their heads.

In addition, Koch's mother and father "fought violently" before divorcing when he was 16, according to court documents filed by his former attorney. Koch says it was difficult growing up in such a tumultuous household.

If his background didn't persuade the judge to be lenient, Koch thought his actions should. He admitted guilt and began seeing a social worker the day after turning himself in to the authorities. In court documents, that social worker, along with two others who assessed his mental health, indicated that he was remorseful and unlikely to reoffend. Lastly, he was an expectant father at the time, and his new family needed his financial assistance.

But Judge Mitrovich wasn't swayed. After taking into account the multiple incidents, which may have gone on for as long as 10 years, among other things, he gave Koch the maximum sentence: 10 years in prison, in addition to the sexual-predator label.

During his 6 1/2 years in prison, Koch appealed his sentence and the predator label. An appeals court reversed the sentence because the judge didn't give enough reasons for it and remanded it back to the trial court.

At a resentencing hearing in October 2002, Mitrovich upheld his original sentence. The judge said Koch "committed the worst form of the offenses and poses the greatest likelihood of committing future crimes for the reasons that the offender's action continued for a long time and consisted of multiple acts. Also, the offender's relationship as stepfather to the victim makes his actions especially egregious."

Koch has filed another appeal. While he awaits court action, he has nowhere else to live but Tanglewood Lane. The note he sent to the neighbors was well intentioned, he says, an attempt to reassure them. He hopes they remember that when they see him outside working in the yard or playing with his child.

"I think it's worse to isolate yourself and just kind of tuck your head in the sand than it is to just go out there and try to be responsible and productive," he says. "If I stayed isolated, then it instills that fear that they have of me."

On a warm afternoon in March, two brothers, just home from school, shoot hoops in their driveway. A few teen-agers walk their dogs. Slack's daughter rides her bike along the sidewalk.

Koch, driving a pickup truck, turns onto Tanglewood Lane from the subdivision's entrance. As the truck rolls slowly toward his home, Slack, standing in her driveway, glares. Minutes later, her daughter dutifully returns to the end of her driveway and yells up to her mother, "He's back!"

Sara says his daughter is afraid to get the mail by herself now. The parents of her playmate drive her across the street, so she won't have to walk near the Koch residence. Koncz says her 8-year-old son no longer wants to play in the driveway by himself while she's unloading groceries. And she now requires her 4-year-old daughter to wear a bathrobe while walking around the house, in case the blinds are open.

When another neighbor told her grade-school-aged sons about Koch, one replied, "If he touches my sister, I'm going to kill him."

"Their innocence is gone," his mother says. "Now they know there are people out there like him."

As the weather broke this spring, children came outdoors with more caution than usual. About two dozen attended DARE programs arranged in response to Koch's arrival. A Parma police officer went over strategies to stay safe, including the "no-no-go-tell rule." He told his young audience to shout, "No!" if an adult tries to touch "any part of your body that your bathing suit covers," then go tell an adult they trust.

So far, about half the homeowners have joined a new neighborhood watch started by Sara. When their children are playing outside, they find themselves lingering by windows more than usual. Several parents, like Slack, have cautioned their children to be cognizant of Koch's whereabouts at all times.

Not all the neighbors have ostracized the Kochs, however. Brian says some still wave to him and his wife. One took down the homemade sexual-predator sign soon after it went up.

The neighbors who are the most vocal on this subject say that nothing short of Michael Koch moving out would restore Tanglewood Lane to its previous state. It does not assuage their fears to know that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction placed Koch into the "low risk" recidivism category. And it does not ease their minds to know that he successfully completed ODRC's five-month educational phase of the Monticello Sex Offender Treatment Program.

"He's a monster," Sara says. "I don't like him living here."

There is much disagreement on how to keep sex offenders from claiming more victims. Residents of Pinetree Estates have voiced some radical solutions, including mandatory chemical castration and a law banishing them from any neighborhood with children. Those with more distance from the issue emphasize the importance of treatment and guaranteeing constitutional freedoms to people who already have been punished for their crimes.

One thing is certain: The number of sex offenders subject to labeling and notification is growing and with it the difficult problem of what to do with them. As of the end of March, there were 1,660 registered sex offenders, 167 of whom were predators, living in Cuyahoga County, up from 566 sex offenders and 35 predators on the same week in 2000.* The sheriff's department has assigned five deputies and a sergeant just to keep track of them and notify surrounding communities.

Although some sex offenders live in the suburbs, many tend to cluster in certain areas of the city. Recently, for instance, the Salvation Army in downtown Cleveland threatened to close in part because of the expense of sheltering an expanding homeless population of sex offenders.

Inevitably, some sexual predators will continue to move into neighborhoods like Pinetree Estates. There, the increase in parental fear has been accompanied by an increase in child-safety education.

But that hardly makes for an upside to having a sexual predator in the neighborhood.

"He brings an intimidation with him," says Slack, "and we have to live with that." n

*These were all the registered sex offenders who had come through Cuyahoga County by March 28, 2000. The actual number of sex offenders still living there at that time is not available.

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