Nowhere to turn
Sun., Nov. 4, 2007
In a dingy studio apartment in the city’s downtown, Robert Kenneth Leavitt began with a confession.
“I am a level 3 sex offender,” he said, holding hands with his fiancee, leaning a tattooed forearm on his knee. “I’m not going to try to deceive you. I’m being straight-up honest. I look back at the man I was, and I see a darkness that I would not want in the man living next to me. I know you don’t find too many people who will give you a second chance.”
Today, the 54-year-old ex-convict lives in the Otis Hotel, where renovations will soon begin to transform the building into sleek stores and possibly apartments. With the eviction deadline passed, the halls are mostly empty now, and only a few unplaced residents still pad to the communal kitchens and bathrooms.
“I want to be a contributing part of society,” said Leavitt, who was convicted in the 1980s of raping two girls and molesting a third. “But my transition is stopped when I can’t find no place to live.”
The boom in upscale condominiums and renovations in the city’s downtown has displaced hundreds of low-income residents in recent years, including dozens of sex offenders who require supervision and specialized housing.
These renovations have unearthed a familiar storyline: Like most urban counties in Washington, Spokane has long been a magnet for sex offenders who needed counseling, treatment and housing.
Yet in the past five years, under public pressure, correction officials have more tightly scrutinized placements in Spokane. During that time period, the county received only 8 percent more sex offenders than it placed in the prison system, according to The Spokesman-Review’s analysis of data from the Washington Department of Corrections.
“We were fortunate to have the resources that we had here,” said Todd Wiggs, DOC supervisor in Spokane. “That didn’t mean we needed to open our doors to every offender who wanted to release here just because we had a room available.”
Spokane continues to deal with the legacy of sex offenders placed in the past decade, as many have found jobs, friends and homes here. In the Otis alone, nearly 30 sex offenders rented apartments until eviction notices were posted this fall.
In the past decade, Spokane County received 502 sex offenders from prisons across the state, or about 47 percent more offenders than the county sent into the state prison system, according to data from fiscal year 1998 to 2007. Most of those arrived from 1998 to 2002 – before corrections officials changed their approach.
Today, both housing advocates and law enforcement officials agree that housing is crucial for ex-convicts. It not only reduces the likelihood they will re-offend, according to officials, but also makes it easier for supervisors to monitor them.
The question, though, is whether that housing should be located amidst downtown’s renaissance, where granite counters and marble bathrooms have altered the once-soiled rows of apartment buildings. Still, nearly two-thirds of downtown’s units qualify as low-income, according to city data.
“People often say that it needs to be downtown because that’s where the services are,” said Marty Dickinson, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, which represents businesses. “But you’re asking for inexpensive housing to be built on the most expensive real estate in the county.”
Counties fight relocations
Clay W. Hines is one of a long list of sex offenders from other counties who were released here.
In 1995, the 56-year-old from Pend Oreille County lived in an apartment in north Spokane. He had been convicted of molesting an 11-year-old girl in the rural county and had also served nine years on California’s death row for first-degree murder before the state abolished its death penalty.
While Pend Oreille County had relatively few resources, Spokane offered housing, counseling and corrections officers who could keep a close watch.
“Not only do you assess the risk to the public, you assess the needs of the offender,” Wiggs said. “Are we going to release these persons homeless in Pend Oreille County?”
In Spokane, Hines remained under tight supervision, and a corrections officer kept tabs on him.
According to court documents, Hines fantasized about skinning his girlfriend. He stalked a disabled woman. Obsessed with girls, he identified which ones would be easiest to victimize.
In April 1995, alarmed by the Spokane reports, a Pend Oreille judge sent Hines to prison to serve the remainder of his term. After his release in 2001, Hines returned to Spokane, and a corrections official says they have no record that he has since re-offended.
The Hines case was an example of how close monitoring can raise early alarms, but it was also an incident where Spokane County bore the risk of an outside offender.
It is not a rare phenomenon: Of the 227 sex offenders under active DOC supervision in Spokane County this fall, about 40 percent were convicted elsewhere, according to state data.
“All parts of the state have really got to step up and do their fair share of the burden,” said Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, who authored a provision this year that offenders should be returned to the county of their first felony. “The solution cannot just be doing what we have always done and burdening counties like Spokane, Pierce and King.”
In the past decade, Spokane received seven sex offenders from tiny Asotin County, which has nine deputies. The county has no adequate housing, and Sheriff Ken Bancroft worries about the transient and homeless offenders.
“We’re one of the poorest counties in the state, unfortunately,” Bancroft said. “The legislature keeps throwing out these unfunded mandates, and we’re left holding the bag.”
But the cost must be borne by the counties whether they are urban or rural, Carrell and others said. The legislation also established two pilot programs for transitional housing – both with far less funding than originally proposed, Carrell said.
Who should pay?
In Spokane County, both public and private money continues to help low-income people find new housing.
RenCorp plans to renovate the New Madison, where 60 tenants left last July, as well as the Otis, which had housed 100 low-income tenants.
At the Otis, RenCorp has spent $60,000 and delayed final evictions by 55 days to help tenants move. The city set aside $250,000 to help with the transition – but only a fraction of that public money has been spent, said Chris Batten, RenCorp’s principal owner.
“Dollar for dollar, I think we’ve put more money into it than the city,” Batten said. “I frankly think they should have contributed a little more to this project rather than put the burden back on the developer.”
Steve Cervantes, executive director of the Spokane Housing Authority, suggested that the city’s developers should contribute more, particularly when renovations displace low-income tenants.
“I come from places where they require developers to step up and pay their part,” said Cervantes, whose group may purchase the Turner Building, a 28-unit structure with an $1.8 million price tag, for low-income housing.
In Seattle, for example, low-income residents are eligible for $2,400 if they face eviction because of building renovation or development. Of that, the property owner pays half and the city pays the other half.
“There is not consensus that this is the way to go,” said Dickinson, who is also heading a citywide task force on downtown housing. “Honestly, it’s a great debate. What is the role of city government versus the private sector?”
Public officials agree that it is crucial to establish more low-income housing, particularly for ex-convicts attempting to return to society.
Few tenants generate as much controversy and angst as convicted sex offenders. Though recidivism rates for sex offenders are generally lower than for other ex-convicts, the nature of their crimes – and often the age of their victims – leads to increased scrutiny and, sometimes, harassment.
“This may sound strange coming from a police detective, but if they don’t have opportunity for decent housing and a decent job, what do they have left?” asked Detective Jerry Keller, with the city’s sexual exploitation unit. “If the public gives them no chance whatsoever, they are setting them up for failure.”
Otis becomes a symbol
In the last 38 years, Leavitt spent 33 years behind bars, most recently at McNeil Island, the state’s isolated and closely guarded prison in the Puget Sound.
His transition to society has been uneven. Originally released in November 2000, he lasted two months and three days before law enforcement picked him up for violating parole after he skipped a polygraph test and failed to secure a job. He also had acquired a long leather coat, raising concerns he had returned to his gang activity.
Leavitt served another five years and two months, and the state held him in custody until the maximum release date – in part, because he was unable to find preapproved housing, a not-uncommon practice, DOC officials say.
Six feet tall and 225 pounds, Leavitt’s appearance can be intimidating. His thick left forearm displays his prison number – 627850. On a recent Friday, he wore a leather vest and square-toed boots. His long, dark hair descended from underneath a black cowboy hat. He introduced himself as “Wolf.”
“I never considered myself part of society,” Leavitt said. “I considered myself a dirty white boy.”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, he racked up a dozen felonies, bouncing around courts in Western Washington. He was a noted gang member. He served 12 years for molesting an 8-year-old girl. He also had convictions for the statutory rapes of a 14-year-old and a 6-year-old.
He claims that in prison, he accepted counseling and acknowledged the incredible damage caused by his crimes.
“You have to live with the embarrassment and the shame you earned,” Leavitt said. “The ultimate responsibility, the ultimate choice is the individual’s.”
Those choices continued to resonate as Leavitt and his girlfriend, Tammie Post, walked down First Avenue to view an open apartment in Browne’s Addition. In the entryway, wood panels leaned over the staircase. A pile of dirty rags sat next to a can of paint stripper.
At $305 per month, even the cheapest apartment threatened to consume most of the couple’s budget. But Leavitt and Post saw only opportunity.
“I don’t see a school or park within my vision. I don’t see a daycare,” Leavitt said. “These are things we have to consider. Believe it or not, this is actually paradise.”
He rolled a cigarette with stained fingers, then pulled Post into his arms.
“Baby,” he said, “this is a new beginning.”
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