Between the pig races and pie-eating contests, the roller coasters and rock concerts, visitors to this year’s Los Angeles County Fair can check out whether their neighbors are convicted child molesters.
At a booth set up by the state attorney general’s office, nine computer terminals allow fairgoers a chance to peruse California’s list of 64,000 registered sex offenders. So far, the attraction is a smash. With assistant chief Randy Rossi working the aisle like a carnival barker (“Come on, you wanna check it out?”), scores of people lined up on opening day to plug in their ZIP codes and gape at the names and faces on the screen.
“It’s strange to be doing this here, because you think of a fair as more arts and crafts and entertainment,” said Millie Eberhardt, a nurse whose North Hollywood ZIP code turned up 59 sex offenders. “But this is serious. I’m shocked to see so many of them in an area with so many grade schools and high schools.”
Along with Eberhardt, 463 people viewed the CD-ROM computer disk on opening day, when admission to the 18-day fair was reduced to 75 cents from $9. Their interest turned up six “hits” - people who were recognized as sex offenders working or living in situations that put a child or an adult at risk. Among them were a children’s shoe salesman, a convicted molester with a 5-year-old living in his house, and a man who hangs around young girls with mental disabilities.
Attorney General Dan Lungren, a gubernatorial candidate who put in an appearance at the booth on Thursday, said the “hits” are proof that the fairgrounds are an ideal setting for the CD-ROMs. The display is a good way to advertise the program, he said, and shows people how easy it is to access the list of offenders. Viewers can obtain information by name, county or ZIP code. More specific details on individuals can only be released at the discretion of local police departments.
“It’s an experiment, and it’s working,” Lungren said. “I expect that we’ll be doing it at some other places, too.”
Critics countered that a county fair is an inappropriate and exploitive setting that could lead to vigilante-style attacks based on sometimes inaccurate information. They prefer that people view the list at their local police stations, where an officer might be able to provide details about recidivism rates for individual molesters or rapists.
“You can imagine the lines snaking down the midway and an air of voyeurism that doesn’t mesh with the seriousness of the information,” said Elizabeth Shroeder, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “The whole thing is designed to draw people in and to scare people in order to drum up business for this new technology.”
Law enforcement officials say that relatively few people have signed onto the database at police stations and sheriff’s departments since it became available July 1. As a result of Megan’s Law - named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, Megan Kanka, who was sexually assaulted and slain by a paroled molester who lived nearby - convicted sex offenders must register with authorities.
Before accessing the addresses, as well as physical descriptions and sometimes photographs, viewers must show their driver’s licenses and sign a statement saying they will not use the information for retaliatory or other illegal purposes. Viewers are allowed to take notes, but no print-outs are available.
“We’re going to drink beer, go on rides, see the animals and have a hell of a time, so I was like, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I do this?”’ said Rick Rivera, a UPS truck driver and father of two young children from San Dimas. “It’s kind of weird, but what if he’s living next door? That’s really trippy to think about.”
Like Rivera, viewer after viewer expressed concern about his or her own children - a reaction that is expected to make the booth the most popular at this year’s fair in Pomona, about 50 miles inland from the coast.
In August, when the attorney general set up at the State Fair in Sacramento, 3,667 people logged on to five computers. In all, 417 of them recognized convicted sex offenders, 57 of whom were in situations where they posed a risk to a child or an adult. They included a Little League coach, a Bible school teacher, and the father of a Boy Scout who frequently accompanies his son on outings with the troop.
Rossi said “hits” were passed along to law enforcement agencies and that, in certain cases, the attorney general’s office itself contacted schools, sports teams, or youth groups.
“It freaked us out,” said Leonard Weinberg, an aerospace engineer from Duarte, a city of 28,000 where 45 registered sex offenders live. “Half of them didn’t have photographs, so you just have to wonder.”
“This booth will definitely be the one that gets the attention,” said Sid Robinson, spokesman for the county fair, which is expected to attract 1.3 million people before it closes Sept. 28. “Last year, it was a building full of interactive exhibits. In that case it was games that got people’s attention. This year it’s child molesters.”