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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.