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Debate renewed over sex offender registration

Tomas Alex Tizon Los Angeles Times

BELLINGHAM – The three men who lived in the light-green house on Northwest Avenue hardly ever spoke to neighbors, but the neighborhood knew all about them: their names, backgrounds and crimes.

The men were registered sex offenders.

Police had notified residents when the first of the men had moved into the quiet Columbia neighborhood, north of downtown, about three years ago. Schools handed out fliers warning students of their presence.

Late on Aug. 26, two of the men were shot to death in their home while the third was away at work. Police say the killer, still at large, had knocked on their door and claimed to be an FBI agent warning of an Internet “hit list.”

Last Wednesday, the local newspaper received a letter from someone claiming responsibility for the slayings and threatening to kill all Whatcom County sex offenders designated as Level 3, considered the most likely to commit similar crimes again.

Now, as Bellingham police investigate what appears to be a case of vigilantism, local leaders and activists have renewed the debate over the 1990 state law requiring sex offenders to register their addresses.

The two victims’ address had been posted on the city’s Web site.

“If this is a case of revenge or vigilantism, then it brings to light the question: ‘Are there unintended consequences of this well-intentioned law?’ ” said Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson, an attorney.

Washington was the first state to pass such a law, which is intended to help the public keep track of dangerous sexual predators. In 1994, Congress mandated that states create registers of sex offenders. Now, all 50 states have their own version of Washington’s Community Protection Act.

Such monitoring and public notification have made it difficult for many sex offenders to find a place to live after being released from prison. In one highly publicized Western Washington case in 1993, a sex offender notified authorities of his plan to move into a family home in Snohomish County. But before he could move in, someone had burned the house to the ground.

Many databases provide the general location of sex offenders, but Bellingham’s and Whatcom County’s Web sites provide exact addresses with photos of the offenders and descriptions of their crimes.

Whatcom County, a mountainous, mostly rural region about 75 miles north of Seattle, has 31 registered Level 3 offenders. Bellingham, the county seat with a population of 71,000, had six Level 3 offenders.

Among them were Hank Adolf Eisses, 49, convicted of child rape; Victor Manuel Vasquez, 68, convicted of child rape and molestation; and James Russell, 42, released a month ago after serving time for child molestation.

Eisses owned the house on Northwest Avenue and rented rooms to the other two men. The house is a boxy cottage with a white picket fence and a well-tended yard. Across the street is a home turned into a law office.

Police said the three men had been law-abiding since moving into the neighborhood. Neighbors said the men kept to themselves.

“Everybody knew they were there, but they didn’t talk to us and we didn’t talk to them,” said Angel Gonzalez, 16, who lives with his mother two houses away. “I always saw them walking by. That’s my bedroom; I see everything that passes my window. They’d walk by and then come back holding (grocery) bags.”

Gonzalez said there was talk in the neighborhood about “something happening to them,” but he said the murders shocked him.

It was a quiet Friday about 9 p.m. when a white man in his late 40s wearing a blue jumpsuit and black baseball cap with an FBI logo knocked on the door of the house, according to police.

The man said he was there to warn the three about the hit list. Soon after, with the man still at the house, Russell left for work. When he returned about 3 a.m., he found Eisses and Vasquez dead of gunshot wounds.

Police have discounted Russell as a suspect because it has been confirmed that he was at work at the estimated time of death. Neighbors also reported seeing the man with the FBI cap at the house.

Both Eisses and Vasquez had committed their crimes in Whatcom County, and some city employees speculate that one motive could be revenge rather than random vigilantism. Police have refused to disclose more details of the case.

“We haven’t ruled out any motive,” said Lt. Craige Ambrose.

At the same time, he said, the department is warning all local Level 3 sex offenders of the death threat relayed by the Bellingham Herald newspaper.

Earlier last week, Police Chief Randall Carroll told the Seattle Times, “If sex offenders were targeted and attacked because of their offense, the Legislature could decide it could repeal our sex offender notification law.”

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