Officials Place Sexually Violent Predator in Small Town

Desert Center, Calif., asks why sexually violent predator was moved to town.

April 27, 2010 — -- 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."

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

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

"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."

Beech leads the community effort to get Willett out of Desert Center. His property borders the trailer where the state of California pays about $2,000 a month to house Willett.

"Here he is, nobody wants an individual like this as a neighbor, but that can't really be the issue," said Beech. "The issue is what does he need to have the best chance of not hurting someone in the future? And he's clearly not getting that here."

Willett spends almost his entire day inside his trailer. He wears a GPS monitoring device, and is not permitted Internet access. Under the terms of his civil confinement, he may not leave this property without the supervision of his mental health care providers, who drive for hours each time they take him to therapy.

"I would say this is the newest house that's in the area," said a woman of the house the government rents for Willett. "He's living better than what the rest of us are out here."

But what does he do all day?

"He reads, he cooks, he watches TV and I guess he talks to people, his family on the phone, and writes letters and that's about all he can do," said Beech. "But he has no friends here. He has no job here. He has no community involvement. ... What were they thinking then when they put him here?"

In fact both the California Department of Mental Health and Liberty Healthcare -- the state contractor that provides Willett's treatment -- opposed Willett's placement in Desert Center, noting that the remote location would be an obstacle to his treatment.

Sex Offender Relocation: 'Of Course It Scares Us'

In Desert Center, there is no shortage of skepticism that any kind of treatment can prevent Willett from offending again.

"I have personally read step by step what he did to these girls," said Magsam. "Of course it scares us. We don't want anybody like that living here. He should not be here."

"He's not going to change his stripes," said Pacheco. "He's not going to become a lamb. He's a tiger, and he's going to act like a tiger. And that's who Willett is. He's a sexual predator."

Fred Berlin is the founder of the Johns Hopkins sexual disorder clinic.

"He's been seen by not only doctors who have decided it's not an unreasonable risk to the community, but a judge who has a responsibility of protecting the communities," said Berlin. "This decision hasn't been made in a cavalier fashion."

Berlin says that with proper treatment -- including medication, psychotherapy and supervision -- even violent sex offenders like Willett can be reformed. (Berlin has not seen Willett or reviewed his case specifically.)

"We could talk about putting them all in prison forever, but the truth of the matter is we're not even talking reality there," said Berlin. "There aren't enough prisons to hold them, and so we have to do everything we can given the fact that some of these folks will be in the community. We can't just punish away, or legislate away, a sexual disorder."

Magsam had a different take: "Lock your doors, don't leave your kids in the car, don't leave your wives or girlfriends in the car."

The concern in Desert Center extends beyond what Willett might do. Residents here worry that he will not be the last sex predator the county will send to their desert.