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Sunday, July 27, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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What do we do with John Mathers?

Seattle Times staff reporter

MCNEIL ISLAND, Pierce County — John Mathers needs to get a life, and the state of Washington is eager to help.

A vocational specialist helps the sex offender look for a job, and state real-estate brokers are house hunting. His probation officer offers her golf clubs. His therapist is giving advice on dating.

It's not going well.

Every time he ferries over from McNeil Island's Special Commitment Center, he has to tell prospective employers that he's a sexually violent predator. He must recite his convictions for child molestation, rape and serial escape, crimes that have kept him behind bars most of his life.

He has no job, no money, no house, no life, and none of this is good for the program to treat and return high-risk sexual predators to the community. When he leaves the island, Mathers is a pariah, living in a cocoon of round-the-clock guards and unblinking electronic eyes. The stakes are high: He risks spending the rest of his life in detention if caught so much as gazing at a school bus.

Over the past 13 years, the McNeil Island center has held Mathers and 190 other men who have served their prison time but continue to be held under the state's sexual-predator law. They live with only a distant promise that through treatment they might earn their way out. The federal courts, however, have demanded the state provide these men an exit door.

The center is working feverishly to build a release program first promised four years ago. If it fails to show progress by this fall, the state will face more than $7 million in fines. Even worse, it could be forced to cut loose Mathers and others without the guards or cameras.

Mathers is one of the first to crack open the exit door after graduating from treatment. If he is able to take the next step and move to the mainland, the intricate web of security around him will cost the state nearly $740,000 the first year, making him one of the most costly men in state custody.

Can a sex predator return to a society that reviles his type? Can any level of security ensure the public's safety? And how much is too much to pay?

"To be really honest with you, when we put together the law, I'm not sure anyone thought beyond the Special Commitment Center and the probability of them getting out," said Ida Ballasiotes, a former state lawmaker from Mercer Island who helped craft the law.

"I don't think the community will ever be happy about one of these people living nearby. It's a problem I'm not sure we have any solution for."

'Modern-day lepers'

A year ago, Mathers became only the second patient to move from the center's secure main facility into the small, drab rooms in an on-island halfway house.

The house, which Mathers shares with three other men, is the first step in the release process. He has more freedom but is in legal limbo: He served his prison sentence but remains in state custody. He can take escorted walks on Tacoma's Ruston Way but is under orders to avert his eyes if a child walks by.

He has spent months job hunting. If he's lucky enough to land a job, he will have to pay 15 percent of his paycheck to help defray the $272,600 it now costs the state to feed, house and watch him each year.

Twice he was hired but then lost janitorial jobs when TV news reporters showed up for his first day of work. A third job, cleaning a gas station, evaporated after his boss got cold feet.

Mathers needs to work to ease his fear of life outside detention, and research shows ex-cons with jobs commit fewer crimes, said Mark Davis, a retired Special Forces sergeant who runs the island halfway house.

"When John looks over there (to the mainland), it's a scary place for him," Davis said. "It's ironic that a guy who has gone so far in treatment and made so many productive changes is identified as a pariah. And that's what these guys are: modern-day lepers and pariahs."

Finding him a job may be easy compared to getting him a house.

The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) has tried to build a halfway house in King County for four years to comply with the federal court. Mathers could be one of its first residents.

But each time the state suggests a site for the house, neighbors rise up in anger, demanding it be located elsewhere. The Legislature gave DSHS broad power to override local zoning laws, but the search had been held up by lawsuits from irate neighbors.

The slow progress in finding Mathers a job and a house alarms DSHS Secretary Dennis Braddock.

"It's a fundamental weakness in the program if he can't get and keep a job," he said. "I'm still concerned that the federal court won't just get sick and tired (of the delays) and throw out the whole program."

Raised by the state

Mathers, 51, weathers the setbacks with the patience of a lifetime convict. He was first arrested for setting his school on fire at age 8 and has spent nearly 40 years behind bars.

He talks barely above a whisper, seeming weary except when talking about the sisters he reconciled with recently. He granted The Seattle Times access to his case file and psychologists to try to show that he is a changed man.

"I'm tired of hurting people," said Mathers in a flat tone. "It's really the furthest thing from my mind when I leave the island."

Mathers resisted treatment at first but said he had a midlife crisis of sorts after a heart attack. He is now considered a model patient, passing polygraph after polygraph to show he has willpower to avoid deviant fantasies.

According to psychological reports, Mathers' crime cycle was fueled by a "horribly abusive childhood" in Everett and acerbated by a loner's depression. A sister, Jeri Eller, said their father was a violent alcoholic who once tried to shove Mathers into a hot stove. Mathers says he also was sexually abused.

Mathers got much of his schooling behind bars, shuttled to a series of institutions for stealing a car and being implicated in three arsons. "Johnny was basically raised by the state," Eller said.

In 1972, Mathers, then 20, dragged a 12-year-old girl into the woods near Everett and forced her to give him oral sex. Two weeks later, he did the same to an 11-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister who were delivering newspapers in Everett. He stole $5.87 and ordered them to bring more money the next day.

He developed a pattern of walking away from work release or probation; Mathers estimates he escaped more than 100 times. Granted a four-hour pass from a Tacoma work-release program in 1981, he met a 19-year-old woman on a bus, talked his way into her apartment, stabbed her in the stomach with a screwdriver, then raped her.

As he neared release again in 1989, he walked away from a work camp. He lived in San Francisco for two months on public assistance but grew so depressed that he turned himself in.

As Mathers was nearing release for the felony escape conviction, he was considered a huge risk to reoffend. A Pierce County jury in 1997 recommended he be sent to the Special Commitment Center.

Freedom, with conditions

The rules of Mathers' reintegration plan fill three thick folders on Linda McGrann's desk in the Lakewood Department of Corrections office. The gravelly voiced community corrections officer — along with Mathers' therapist in Lakewood — shape his new life.

Most of McGrann's rules are simple. Mathers must have at least one guard in tow when he leaves the island, and must wear a GPS tracking device. If he does something stupid — touches a woman's arm in a grocery — McGrann can send him back to the center indefinitely.

If he runs, it's a third-strike life sentence.

The rules eased a bit in the past year as McGrann grew to trust Mathers, who, unlike others in the release program, isn't chemically castrated. But he still must avert his eyes if a Disney commercial featuring children flashes on TV, and he turned over to his therapist an unsolicited copy of the soft-porn magazine Maxim.

"Every one of our conditions is geared toward the maximum of community protection while getting them out into the community," McGrann said. "It has been a daunting task."

Mathers' desire to join a church illustrates the delicate balance between freedom and protecting society. Mathers found a minister willing to take him in, but before he worships, McGrann must scope out exits so that Mathers can avoid women and children as he leaves.

He also will likely have to tell the entire congregation about his past. "They will hear that label — sexually violent predator — and it's very difficult to get beyond that," McGrann said. "I understand that. I'm a parent. But if anyone should offer you a chance, it's people in church."

The state deserves these contortions, say critics of the commitment center.

"We created this statutory system that is inherently inflicting fear on society," said Seattle attorney John Phillips, whose federal lawsuit helped create the release program.

"We describe them as dangerous sexual predators, and they do have terrible criminal histories. But we build up this sense that they are ready to reach out and grab people. What I hope is, the more people are out there in the community, the more normal it will be, like people coming out of prison into halfway houses."

Treatment skeptics

Is society safe from John Mathers? Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg — a former prosecutor — thinks not, particularly because Mathers' guards are armed only with cellphones and two-way radios.

"It's somewhat of a false sense of security because it relies on the individual not wanting to escape," Ladenburg said.

And he's not convinced that the commitment center's treatment killed that desire. "If you didn't have the guard and GPS system, they'd be reoffending right away," he said.

There is little track record to draw upon. Six men have left the center since 1995, all before it created the on-island halfway house, and none has reoffended. Nor have any of the 37 patients on conditional release from Arizona's sex-predator program, which has the country's largest release program.

Research is unclear. Behavioral-modification treatment — the type Mathers received — cuts sex-crime recidivism nearly in half, according to a review sponsored by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

But predicting Mathers' behavior is "in the end, all unknowable" because the risk won't be known until security is loosened, said Roxanne Lieb, director of the nonpartisan Washington Institute for Public Policy.

"Monitoring someone closely is not the hard part," Lieb said. "The hard part is letting loose some of the holds, and seeing if that reduction doesn't pose unnecessary risk."

The proposed mainland halfway house would be equipped with one-to-one staffing during the day, alarm systems throughout the building and on the property lines, and electronic monitoring bracelets for each offender.

For now, there is no plan to ease Mathers' monitoring.

Hopes of a girlfriend

From her A-frame house in Granite Falls, Eller argues her brother is now a good man who found religion in jail. "I'm worried someone will kill him when he comes out," she said, crying. "I'm worried someone will be so close-minded they won't give him a chance."

Mathers' treatment is now focused on his social skills. He sees therapist Mark Whitehill 3-1/2 hours a week. "He's spent virtually his whole life in lockup, and needs not resocialization, but socialization," Whitehill said.

Their sessions are as unusual as Mathers' life. He asks for permission to watch the film "Get Shorty," and confesses crushes on local TV news anchorwomen.

That's fine with Whitehill, as long as the fantasies don't involve children, violence or escape. If unconvinced, Whitehill can give Mathers random polygraphs or plethsymographs, a test to measure penile arousal.

At Whitehill's prompting, Mathers earlier this year wrote what he calls a "relationship blueprint" — a detailed daydream of a potential date.

In it, Mathers works in a warehouse where co-workers whisper about him after he discloses his history. "I don't let it trouble me," he wrote.

But an imaginary co-worker named Denise, a Rene Zellweger look-alike, is friendly. He tells her he makes candles in the shape of hearts or kittens. She accepts his offer of a walk. There's no mention of guards.

"It's better when you have someone to walk with," he writes.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jonathanmartin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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