Officials Place Sexually Violent Predator in Small Town

Officials Place Sexually Violent Predator in Small Town

Drive about 200 miles east from Los Angeles into the Mojave Desert and you'll find the tiny community of Desert Center, Calif. With only a couple hundred residents and one restaurant, Desert Center is a place to escape the problems of city life.

Residents say it's always been a quiet place.

"Very safe," said John Beech, a local organizer. "Everybody here knows who their neighbors are."

The Sex Offender Next Door
The Sex Offender Next Door

But one new resident of Desert Center has changed the way almost everyone here feels about their town.

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"People have been locking their doors," said Cheryl Magsam, a waitress at the Desert Center Cafe. "Our kids cannot go outside and play like they did before. ...We've been very scared."

The reason for the town's new fear is Steve Willett, a convicted rapist and child molester. Willett was placed in Desert Center last September by county and state officials, even though he is classified as a sexually violent predator, a designation reserved for only the most dangerous sex offenders -- those deemed most likely to reoffend.

The district attorney in Riverside County, Rod Pacheco, said that in photographs, Willett resembles a nice "grandfather." "He's not, Pacheco said. "But he certainly looks like one."

"He's an incredibly dangerous sex offender," said Pacheco. "He's a danger not only to children, but he's a danger to adult women, and he's demonstrated that through his convictions, and through his actions."

Willett has four convictions for sex crimes against women and a child. Since completing his prison sentence in 1997, he has been institutionalized in mental hospitals because his sexually violent predator designation meant he remained a threat to the public. But in 2007, a judge and doctor found that if Willett continued treatment, he would not be a danger to the community.

Pacheco disagrees.

"There is no good place to put him other than prison, and that's kind of the bottom line of it," the county attorney said. "He doesn't belong in society, he should not be on any kind of release, whether it be conditional or unconditional, he should be in custody. That's the only way that we're safe."

But a judge's finding that Willett qualified for a rarely used "civil confinement" program for sexually violent predators meant that Willett had to be released from a mental hospital and placed in a community somewhere in Riverside County.

The civil confinement program is meant to reintegrate sex offenders back into society, but that seems unlikely to happen for Willett in Desert Center.

Why was Desert Center selected?

"That's what we would like to find out," said Magsam, the waitress.

Sex Offender Relocation: 'The Dregs'

Residents here are outraged that they were not consulted in advance about Willett's placement in their community, where the nearest police officer is an hour's drive away.

"Does an economically depressed and politically impotent area... what happens to them?" said Stephen Wright, a Desert Center resident. "They just get the dregs of society heaped on them?"

"For our town, what are we supposed to do?" asked resident Michael Reardon. "Put a sign out, 'I'm sorry, beware, watch your children, we have a child molester in town?' Might as well say keep driving by and forget about us. Because that is what the county has done to us."

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