STOP SEX OFFENDERS | CO: Vigilante tracks sex offenders - Woman's database born of obsession.
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Vigilante tracks sex offenders - Woman's database born of obsession.

October 29, 2000

Laura Avant knows she can be overbearing, even annoying, at times. But she likes it that way.

Using a list of sex offenders she's gotten from Denver police over the last 19 months, the 57-year-old has spoken to countless city residents and passed out hundreds of fliers in pursuit of her own brand of vigilante justice.

She's stalked the sex offenders at their homes, driving by on weekends to see if anyone is moving in.

After her husband, Chris, goes to bed, Avant sits at her computer, working on the database she created and mapping where the city's sex offenders live.

She prints out specialized lists for residents who have small children, telling parents where offenders are in their neighborhoods. She even sends lists to city schools, alerting them to convicted sex offenders who live within four blocks of the school. That list has grown to 94.

When she tried to get sex offender information from Lakewood, she was told that only city residents could get the registry.

The next day, she wheeled her 85-year-old mother-in-law into a Lakewood police station so the elderly woman, a Lakewood resident, could buy the $5 list.

"I have to think (Avant) is a little overly compulsive," said Sally Holloway, director of the Denver Children's Advocacy Center that provides therapy for sexually abused children. "At the same time, you have to take her seriously because she's so dedicated and methodical in the way she goes about things."

It's tiring work, Avant acknowledges, staying up until 1 or 2 a.m. nearly every night working on her maps in her Park Hill home and keeping her one-woman campaign, Community Notification Project, afloat. With more than 900 people on the sex-offender registry, she isn't getting the sleep she needs to fully recover from brain surgery done six years ago to remove a growing cyst.

Avant's drive stems partly from her own experience. When she was 4 years old, living in Oregon, a man living down the street molested her once and threatened to kill her 6-year-old brother if she told her family.

She blocked the incident from her memory and spoke to no one about it for 23 years before asking her sister if it really happened.

"She was like, 'Oh, yeah. I remember that,"' Avant said. "It was just so painful to think about it that I didn't want to bring it up."

Avant underwent counseling for several years and considers herself recovered.

Few people notice her work. She is deeply in debt incurring at least $1,500 in expenses for her printouts, envelopes and postage and says she will quit by late fall if she doesn't get help.

Even her husband has almost given up on the work.

"He thinks I'm naive," Avant said. "But I'm doing what I'm doing because I like to think I'm helping someone out there."

She does not have nonprofit status and does not accept monetary donations.

Avant doesn't hide her disdain for those convicted of sex crimes, especially against children. One time, while staking out a home for several convicted molesters, she saw a bumper sticker on one of the men's cars that read: "Kids Need Dads, Too."

"I felt sick," she said. "I wanted to pull out my .357 and show him what I thought of him. That makes me want to work even harder."

Avant owns a .357 Magnum handgun but keeps it in her home.

The list she relies on so heavily is anything but completely accurate and up to date.

For one, many sex offenders don't tell authorities when they leave the city, resulting in addresses where law-abiding residents might live. Avant has been yelled at on more than one occasion for giving out an address where a sex offender doesn't live anymore.

Offenders also purposely have given wrong information, or list themselves as transients. By Avant's count, there are more than 50 inaccuracies on Denver's current list.

Convicted sex offenders are required to register with local authorities under Megan's Law. The law is named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and strangled in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender. No one in her neighborhood knew of the man's record.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a measure requiring all states to adopt Megan's Law.

An adult sex offender who lives in Colorado and is caught failing to register gets a mandatory 90-day minimum sentence on the first offense. Juveniles receive a 45-day minimum, according to the state Judicial Department.

On the second offense, adults receive at least a year in prison, and juveniles are given a minimum one-year, out-of-home placement.

Probation officers do the best they can to ensure sex offenders are registered, said Ed Mansfield, chief probation officer with the Second District Court in Denver. He said it still helps to have people like Avant on the job.

"Laura can be a real pain in the butt, but you really appreciate that she's trying to make sure everyone knows about the sex offenders they live near," said Mansfield, whose office supervises more than 200 sex offenders.

"She's holding our feet to the fire and demanding that we listen."

What Avant is doing is not new, though. Over the last few years in Colorado, neighbors have organized against sex offenders, especially when they live in groups.

Those efforts have led to some residents being evicted and a number of cities banning group homes for adult sex offenders. But this type of vigilante justice is making it harder for sex offenders to stabilize their lives, treatment experts say.

Eventually, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, sex offenders become so tired of being pushed out of communities that they never register their names again.

"Sex offenders don't need turmoil, they need a place to be where others can watch them," Silverstein said. "This kind of work doesn't do any good."

Copyright 2000 Denver Rocky Mountain News, by Robert Sanchez.