Eli Sanders

[Originally published in The Stranger, March 29, 2007. Photo by Malcolm Smith.]
The Offender
The Life and Letters of Jefferson County's Only Level 3 Sex Criminal

1. Asking for Attention

Erik Mart is writing a novel about his life as a sex offender.

It opens in Hollywood, far from his current home in a trailer on the Olympic Peninsula. The year is 1993. A tall man, 26 years old with "doe-like brown eyes," sits in a bar working on a short story. He has ordered coffee, but it's difficult, Mart writes, for the young man to be "the only person not drinking, the only person paying attention to a list of lonely words instead of all the beautiful women." As if on cue, two lovely women arrive beside him at the bar.

"Are you some kind of writer?" asks the brunette.

"Yeah," the young man says. "Some kind."

"What's your subject?" asks the redhead.

"The glamour of illusion."

They flirt for a while, but the two women end up rejecting the young man, a largely autobiographical character created by Mart in an attempt to tell the world about what, in real life, happened next: a series of "boundary crossings" that Mart believes caused him to be wrongly labeled as a sexual criminal and, ultimately, to be publicly announced as the only Level 3 sex offender in Jefferson County, a loosely populated slice of the Olympic Peninsula that includes the marinas of Port Townsend, the peaks of Mount Olympus and Mount Constance, and a long stretch of rugged Pacific Coast beach.

The young man in the novel starts drinking heavily after the women reject him, heading to seedier bars that will serve a man who's drunk on arrival. He begins introducing himself to "any woman available, any woman that seemed the least bit attractive." A bartender finally cuts him off.

He stumbles home, to an apartment he's sharing with a woman he met through an ad in the LA Weekly. The young man—the fictional Mart—grabs a beer from the refrigerator. "I don't know how the thoughts began exactly," the young man in the novel narrates. "I was thinking about my beautiful roommate. I was looking at her bedroom door. I was thinking there was still a chance for some action after all."

He sets the beer down and heads for her bedroom.

"Warm light fell over her bed as I opened her door quietly. The sheets were tangled, bunched up around her. Her smooth, tanned legs were protruding from the covers.

"Had I been forthright, things might have worked out. Had I been brave enough to simply knock on her door and tell her the truth—that I was profoundly lonely, profoundly drunk, and profoundly hopeful of sleeping with her that evening—everything could have turned out different.

"Instead, I went to the foot of her bed, dropped to my knees in erotic worship, and began gently kissing her thigh. It was a moronic way to ask for attention. No more than a heartbeat passed before she woke, bolted upright, and screamed loud enough to wake the whole building."

Mart was charged with sexual battery, pleaded guilty on the advice of his public defender, and was sentenced to a year in the Los Angeles County jail.

2. Jacob, Megan, Jessica

With that, Mart became a convicted sex offender, a broad designation whose meanings, and attendant consequences, have been in considerable flux in America over the last few decades. The trend has been toward harsher punishments, closer tracking of sexual criminals, and increased public notification. The problems are many: No one knows if this more punitive approach is working, no one agrees on exactly which types of sexual criminals deserve which types of harsher punishments, and, more fundamentally, no one knows what causes sex offenders to offend in the first place or how best to change their behavior.

A federal push to get tougher on sex offenders began in earnest in 1994, with "Jacob's Law"—formally the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. The act, signed by President Clinton, was named for an 11-year-old boy from Minnesota. One evening in 1989 Jacob Wetterling was on his way home from a convenience store with his brother and a friend. The three boys were on their bikes when a man wearing a mask stopped them and told them to throw their bikes in a ditch, switch off their flashlights, and lie facedown on the ground. The man told Jacob's younger brother, who was 10, to run away and not look back or he would be shot. Next, the man looked at the faces of the two remaining boys. He told Jacob's friend, who was 11, to run away. Jacob Wetterling was never seen again.

During the police investigation, it was discovered that halfway houses in the boys' town were housing recently released sex offenders, unbeknownst to local authorities. Jacob's Law was meant to ensure that law-enforcement officials were never again left unaware when a sexually violent predator moved into their jurisdiction. The law has since been expanded, most significantly in 1996, after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl from suburban New Jersey, was lured to a neighbor's home with promises of a puppy. The neighbor, unknown to Megan's parents, had already served time for sexually assaulting a child. He raped Megan and then murdered her.

The New Jersey legislature passed "Megan's Law" that year, requiring not just the police, but also the public, to be notified when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood. Congress followed suit two years later, expanding Jacob's Law to include a Megan's Law component.

It is impossible to know exactly which forces in American culture aligned to produce, within the span of a few years, a huge shift in the way the government deals with sex offenders—a term that includes not just violent child rapists such as the man who killed Megan Kanka, but also nonviolent exhibitionists, pedophiles, molesters, people who violate age-of-consent laws, rapists, and people like Mart, who don't seem to fit neatly into any of these categories. It is certain, however, that child abduction and child rape did not begin in 1989 with Jacob Wetterling, or in 1994 with Megan Kanka. What distinguished those two cases from other previous horrific instances of child mistreatment, and caused them to become inspirations for new federal laws, may have been simply the amount of airtime they received.

The rise of the 24-hour cable news network tracks neatly with the rise in public concern over violent sexual predators. For those creating a 24-hour news product, child abduction stories are attractive because they create hugely compelling suspense narratives that need constant updating. Likewise with stories about sex crimes against children, which offer a deep vein of horror for reporters to mine. The fear and outrage these stories create then begins to drive policy.

The media fascination with violent sex offenders shows no sign of abating. Bill O'Reilly is championing "Jessica's Law," named after a Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford, who was raped and murdered in 2005. Jessica's Law sharply increases the mandatory minimum sentences for adults convicted of sex crimes against children. NBC's Dateline recently scored a ratings hit with its "To Catch a Predator" series, in which would-be child predators are lured to a home, confronted on camera, and then arrested.

3. End of an Era

When Mart was found guilty of sexual battery in California, he received a punishment typical of the era before laws named after abducted and murdered children. He served his time in the Los Angeles County jail and then left, without a label attached to him or an announcement by the government, and without a duty to register his future addresses with the authorities. He wasn't given a classification level—1, 2, or 3—based on his perceived risk of reoffending. He was a free man.

He headed to Colorado.

In Denver, Mart worked as a portrait photographer and managed an apartment building. He continued to abuse alcohol, and he blames that, in combination with his troubled relationship to sex, for his second "mistake."

In May of 1997, Mart started to become friendly with a woman in the apartment building he managed. She had him over for dinner one evening, and after dinner, he says, he gave her a brief back massage. Nothing overtly sexual happened, and the woman made it clear to Mart that she had a boyfriend. Nevertheless, he became "a bit obsessive" about her. He would look in her window to see if she was home. One day, drunk, he stood under an open stairway, positioned so that he could look up her skirt as she walked above him.

"I probably seemed pretty creepy to her," he says.

Not long after that, Mart let himself into the woman's apartment late at night, using his manager's key. He says he was drunk, and thought she would respond positively. "I was turned on by the boldness of it," he told me. "The passion that would ensue by taking a big chance, and maybe getting a big payoff."

The woman called the police.

Mart was charged with attempted sexual assault, and again pleaded guilty on the advice of his defense attorney. When Mart admitted guilt in a sex crime for his second time, he did so in a new era, the era of stricter federal laws. Thus he ended up, based on his two convictions, with a lifetime duty to register as a sex offender wherever he lived.

Mart claims he never intended to hurt the woman in Denver, whose name has been redacted from public records. "If I'd wanted to do harm," he told me, "I would have done it."

But the incident in Denver makes it hard for most people to see Mart in the way he would like to be seen—as a guy with a rough past who just made two bad decisions under the influence of alcohol.

To authorities and "the treatment providers," as Mart calls them, the Denver incident suggests a pattern of sexually offensive behavior. It also suggests a reason for Mart's decision to set the first chapter of his semiautobiographical novel in 1993, when in fact his original L.A. sex crime occurred in 1991. Mart intends to leave his second sex crime out of his book entirely. This omission makes it easier for Mart to cast his L.A. offense as an anomaly, a single incident that, while never repeated, left him tagged unfairly for life.

4. The Spectrum

It's clear that people like Mart weren't the original impetus for the huge shift in how this country deals with sex offenders. The laws that went on the books between Mart's first and second offenses were created during storms of controversy following high-profile child rapes, abductions, and murders. Mart has never been accused of raping a child or abducting anyone. At the very worst, he has been described as a thwarted adult rapist, but this is based on what he could have done when he entered the two women's rooms, not on what he actually did. At the very best, he has been described, in his own words, as a recovering alcoholic and drug user whose past is shot through with personal difficulties and errors in judgment.

But the adulthood of Mart, and that of his fictional alter ego in his novel, coincided with the heightened public focus on punishing and preventing sex crimes against children, and with an era in which the term "sex offender" came to be synonymous with "child predator." It's a focus that is now being criticized by some experts in the field of sex-offender treatment, and even by some law-enforcement officials. They say it uses an exceptionally horrific but relatively uncommon type of sexual offense—the rape and murder of children—as the starting point for discussions on how to deal with all types of sexual offenders. Placed on a spectrum from least violent to most violent, sexual criminals can now include the public urinator charged with indecent exposure, the flasher, the voyeur, the public masturbator, the teenage couple who find themselves on opposite sides of the age of consent, the pederast, the pedophile, the lover of child pornography, the stalker, the groper, the rapist, the child rapist, and, ultimately, the child rapist and murderer.

In a sign of the current alarm over sex offenders, the latest federal law to deal with people like Mart was inspired by a crime that was never conclusively linked to a sex offense. Adam Walsh was abducted in 1981 from a department store near his Florida home. He was 6 years old at the time. His severed head was found 16 days later in a drainage canal more than 100 miles away. Although it cannot be known whether Adam Walsh was the victim of a sexual assault before he died, his father, John Walsh, the host of America's Most Wanted, championed another federal law designed to protect the public from sex offenders. Last year, President Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which requires the creation of a national sex-offender registry, a federal list filled with all the information about sex offenders that Jacob's Law and Megan's Law required individual states to collect and make public.

The Adam Walsh Act also makes failing to register a felony for sex offenders, and requires all states to use a three-tiered system for classifying and publicly identifying sexual criminals—the same system that a number of states, including Washington, employed well before this law took effect last year.

5. The Treatment Providers

When Mart was sentenced for his Denver sex offense, the judge gave him a choice: 90 days jail time or treatment. Looking back, Mart now wishes he'd taken the jail time. That route would have been quicker and cheaper, he reasons, than treatment, which ended up lasting two years and costing him around $10,000—money he had a hard time scraping together, especially after losing a job at a local photography studio, an event he blames on being required to disclose his sex-offender status to his employer as part of treatment.

But at the time, Mart had no interest in going back to jail. He enrolled at Denver's CareNet Counseling, Inc. in the spring of 1999, and thus he entered the relatively new, and, some argue, unproven, world of sex-offender rehabilitation.

People who would meet the modern-day criteria for sex-offender status have been around for a long time, perhaps as long as human society. In a 2003 paper published in the journal Sexual Abuse, Dr. William Marshall, a professor of psychology at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, along with a colleague, offered a brief history of approaches to dealing with sex offenders. They traced the modern understanding of the sex offender back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beginning with the 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, by the German psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, who offered in his book the first comprehensive catalog of deviant sexual types. (Krafft-Ebing is the man who coined the term "sadism," inspired by accounts of the Marquis de Sade.)

Early approaches to dealing with sex offenders included punishments rarely used anymore (execution and forced castration) as well as many now-discarded therapeutic approaches (including forced vomiting, electric shocks, and organized humiliation). These discredited approaches also included, in the group of people they targeted for rehabilitation, homosexuals—a class of people who today are no longer seen as sex offenders.

"Society evolves all the time," Dr. Marshall, the psychology professor from Ontario, told me recently in a phone interview. "I'm not going to say that we've got the accurate handle on what constitutes sex crimes now, and that it's not going to change. But at the moment, the definition most people rely on is the notion of consent."

Today, sex crimes begin where consent ends. Rapists ignore whether or not a partner has given consent, thus they are criminals. Children are unable to give meaningful consent, hence sex with them is a crime. Public masturbation ignores the lack of consent by passersby, making it punishable by law. And kissing a sleeping roommate's thigh without her consent, as well as breaking into a woman's apartment without her consent in the hopes of having sex with her, are both crimes.

Dr. Marshall believes that people like Mart, as well as people whose sex crimes have been much more violent, can and should be treated. But Dr. Marshall admits that the modern discipline of sex-offender treatment, which only dates to the 1970s, has a long way to go, both in refining its approaches and in proving its effectiveness. One long-term study of sex-offender treatment in California showed that treated sex offenders were more likely to reoffend than those who got no treatment. But, Dr. Marshall argues, "It would just be silly to say, 'Okay, treatment to date hasn't worked and so we should abandon it.'"

Beneath the question of whether treatment works is a more fundamental question: What creates sex offenders in the first place? No one knows the answer. Theories abound, however, and they include exposure of a fetus to abnormal hormone levels in utero; the idea that some offenders, such as serial rapists, are a product of natural selection because of the genetic advantage conferred upon them by their behavior (although, Dr. Marshall points out, in the case of child rapists, "it's a bit hard to see what genetic advantage there would be to having sex with children"); and environmental factors, particularly having suffered physical or sexual abuse as a child, which is a common trait among sex offenders.

Another unanswered question: Why are the overwhelming majority of sex offenders men? No one is sure.

"These guys are engaging in a behavior that most of us think is abhorrent," Dr. Marshall told me. "There must be something bloody astray with these guys to take risks like that. Something's gone wrong here. Whether it's a messed-up childhood, a screwed-up adulthood, or just a lot of things that have happened to them to make them mad as hell at the world—who knows?"

6. The Child Is the Father to the Man

Mart has a theory about what went wrong. He had a difficult childhood, the worst of it being the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. Public records show that Mart once wrote in a journal about a night when his father "came to tuck me in." In the entry, he reconstructs dialogue from that night, beginning with a bedside question from his father:

"Do you know what a blowjob is?"

I had a faint idea.

"Yes," I said.

"Do you want one?"

Something told me this was not right, but I trusted my dad to know whether it was or not.

"I guess so," I said.

He put his mouth around my penis.

Erik Mart's father, [redacted 12/8/09 at the request of family], was never charged with molesting his son, but he admits he did sexually abuse Erik. "I have terrible regrets," [redacted] told me recently in a phone interview from Glendale, California, where he now lives. "I was young and stupid. It's just very unfortunate.... I'd rather not go into it, but essentially, I always felt it was more like showing him it was okay to enjoy your body. I never thought of it as really dirty. It was more a loving thing, but misguided—looking back on it, it was horribly misguided."

Erik Mart's mother, Bonnie Fritz, who has a doctorate in education and works as a community-college administrator, also confirms that her son was abused by [redacted], whom she divorced in 1982. "I feel so stupid," she told me, speaking from her home in Omaha, Nebraska. "I did not find out about the sexual abuse until after I left him. Obviously, I'm not Dr. Fritz if I'm stupid, but in this case I was very stupid."

Erik Mart says being the son of a sex offender threw his understanding of love and sexual boundaries into major disarray. When he was arrested in L.A. for sexual battery, Mart told me, a bitter thought came immediately to mind: "This is my father's fault, too."

7. Significant Disturbance

By all accounts, when Erik Mart entered treatment at CareNet, he was treated like any other client who presented a similar background of sex offenses. And by all accounts, Mart's main problem was that he didn't see himself as a sex offender at all.

Mart had admitted guilt to two sex crimes because he felt he had no choice, and had entered treatment because he thought it would be easier than jail, but once in treatment, he found himself in what he describes as a Kafkaesque nightmare, unable to explain the shades of gray he saw in his case to the treatment providers, who were convinced it was all black and white.

Sex-offender treatment can be a lot like treatment for alcoholism, in that it is predicated on a person's ability to first admit he has a problem. Mart had a difficult time with this step, and he still remains so convinced of the uniqueness of his situation, and the grayness of his case, that he signed a waiver of patient confidentiality allowing me to talk to his doctors at CareNet about his time there.

During his treatment, Mart was given personality tests, polygraph tests, and lengthy questionnaires to fill out about his sexual history and sexual preferences. Mart failed each of eight polygraph tests he took at CareNet, a record that alarmed his treatment providers. (He blames the failed polygraphs on his continued substance abuse.) In 2001, as Mart prepared to appeal to a Denver judge for release from his treatment obligations, his primary therapist at CareNet wrote a letter arguing against such a release, saying that after two years of treatment, Mart still had no verified sexual history and "no verification that his deviant sexual arousal has been modified." The therapist also noted that Mart had "significant characterological disturbance."

In February, I spoke to Dr. Glen Neibling, the director of CareNet, about Mart's case. "Let me tell you a little bit about what you're working with," Dr. Neibling said to me. "He has an extensive criminal history. He has an extensive drug and alcohol history. He was here. He wasn't here for a long time.... We considered him pretty high risk."

CareNet classified Mart as a voyeur, "an up-the-skirt guy," in Dr. Neibling's words.

I asked about the "significant characterological disturbance" referred to in the letter.

"When you look at his psych testing, it gets very scary," Dr. Neibling told me. "He's antisocial, he's narcissistic, and he's histrionic."

Flipping through Mart's file, Dr. Neibling continued: "A pervasively deficient social conscience," "Deceptive in social manners," "Believes normal rules don't apply to him," "Tendency is to charm and exploit others and to extract special recognition and favors without a sense of any reciprocal responsibilities," "Displays a rash of willingness to risk being caught in lies and deceptions."

In sum, Dr. Neibling said, "a guiding principal for him is probably one of outwitting others and exploiting them."

Despite the objections from his treatment providers, Mart was released from CareNet in 2001, with the proviso that his record, available to all law-enforcement agencies, would thereafter state that he was a sex offender who had failed to complete treatment.

Mart, happy to be done with a process he felt had cost him his job and wasted his time and money, headed to Washington State, his home. He knew, however, that he now had a duty to register as a sex offender wherever he took up residence.

8. Liberties

When he talks about his life, Mart tends to portray himself as a victim of grave misunderstandings. He does this in his novel as well. But he has taken significant liberties in the writing of the still-unfinished work. The police report from his California incident is at odds with his novel's portrayal of the offense as a drunken mistake that stopped as soon as his roommate objected. The report instead portrays Mart as lunging at the victim repeatedly as she tried to kick him away. And the victim herself disputes many portions of Mart's work-in-progress. When I reached her in early March, after finding her name mistakenly unredacted in a public record related to Mart's crime, she said his novel's recounting of the night in question minimizes an attempted rape.

"To hear that anyone could ever think for a moment that what he did was okay, or chalk it up to a drunk moment, is vile," she told me, speaking on the condition that she not be identified. "He is a vile human being."

From the police report:

Victim stated that suspect entered her bedroom while she was sleeping and got under the covers and put his face between her thighs. Suspect began to kiss her inner thighs. Victim woke up and kicked suspect in the face. Victim asked what he was doing, and suspect stated: "I heard you screaming and I came to your room to see if you were okay." Victim began to scream and called her neighbor on the phone for help.

The report goes on to say that Mart was kissing the woman's inner thigh two inches from her vagina. Further, the report's description of Mart creating an implausible cover story—that he'd heard screams and had only come in to see if his roommate was okay, when in fact it was his entrance that led to her screams—is strikingly similar to what happened in Denver. There, when the woman whose apartment he had broken into responded with alarm, he told her there was a water leak and he needed to check her bathroom. She didn't believe him, either.

Here is how Mart's L.A. victim described her assault to me:

"I remember exactly where I was. I was sleeping on the left side of my bed. I remember waking up to him on his knees. I was wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt. And I remember waking up with his hand and his face in an incredibly inappropriate place on my body, and I will just say it was below my belly button, and I will just say I woke up to see this and it completely freaked me out.

"I remember kicking him in the chest or the face with my foot to push him off of me. He fell backward. I remember saying, 'What the fuck are you doing?' He said, 'What? What?' I said, 'Get the fuck out of here.' He came back at me. I had my foot up. I pushed him down again. To be honest, at that point, it's very much a blank in my life."

She continued:

"I absolutely feel that if I was a weak person and did not have the wherewithal to kick him off of me twice, I am absolutely 100 percent certain that without taking another breath he would have raped me."

Mart doesn't make any attempt, in his book, to address or explain these differing accounts. His novel instead shows a man branded as a pariah for life based on a single "mistake."

9. No One Wants to Do It

Mart's family had lived in Port Townsend when he was a teenager, and after arriving in Washington he gravitated back to the area. He found some landscaping work, hung out in a bar called The Roadhouse, drank a lot of Budweiser and Old Milwaukee. It wasn't long before he was pulled over for driving under the influence.

After running his plates and his driver's license, the officer who pulled Mart over said to him: "You're a sex offender."

The officer asked if he had registered with the local authorities. Mart replied that he had not, because he was just visiting. The "just visiting" part was a lie.

Mart was arrested because of a warrant that was still out for him in connection with a now 24-year-old Washington robbery case from his childhood. The case involved him stealing a frozen chicken, getting caught, and then failing to do the required community service (which triggered the warrant). But while he was being held, Port Townsend detectives did some checking and learned that Mart had been in the area for just over a month. Washington law requires that offenders with a duty to register do so before a month's time has elapsed.

It was a careless and incredibly risky error for Mart to have made, and he knew it. "I did know I had to register, but I didn't want to do it," he told me. "I didn't want to advertise myself. Which is a problem across America with registered sex offenders. No one wants to do it."

Mart is right in the sense that registering as a sex offender is drawing an ever-increasing number of consequences. In Iowa, much of the state has become off-limits to registered sex offenders, who are now prohibited from living within 2,000 feet of schools, child-care centers, libraries, parks, and bike trails. One Iowa police sergeant recently told the Los Angeles Times that when sex offenders ask where they can legally live in Iowa, he replies: "Do you know anybody in Nebraska?" More than 20 states reportedly have similar restrictions. In Georgia, where a law now bars sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of school bus stops—in addition to schools, playgrounds, and churches—Republican House Majority Leader Jerry Keen told the Washington Post that his aim was essentially to banish sex offenders. "My intent personally is to make it so onerous on those that are convicted of these offenses... they will want to move to another state," he told the Post in November.

In Washington State, the laws are less stringent. But they sometimes end up punishing people who feel they don't deserve to be treated as outcasts. In 2003, KOMO TV reported on John Michael Isley, then 26, who at the age of 15 had earned a record as a sex offender by having sexual contact with his 13-year-old cousin. Isley was classified as a Level 1 sex offender, the lowest-risk to reoffend, until he decided to move to Oak Harbor. Sheriff's departments in Washington have the power to classify sex offenders, and when Isley moved and reregistered, as required, the Island County Sheriff's Department changed his classification to Level 3. The reaction of the community forced Isley to leave the area. Situations like this have given rise to charges that sheriff's departments in Washington have too much power in this regard, and that they sometimes abuse their prerogative to classify offenders as a way of keeping them out of a particular community.

After Mart was arrested for the DUI and found to have failed to register, Port Townsend Police Detective Robin Biffle secured a warrant to search his Pontiac Bonneville. In it, she found the journal entry in which Mart describes his father molesting him. She also found typed pages dealing with what she called "peeping experiences" in an area she suspected was Port Townsend.

Detective Biffle contacted Mart's last probation officer in Colorado, Anita Kline, who described Mart as "a Ted Bundy type." Kline told Biffle that in addition to the crime Mart was prosecuted for in Denver, he had a number of other "stalking" type arrests in the area that didn't result in prosecution because the victims didn't cooperate. "She said his MO was to get a job as an apartment manager with keys to all the apartments," Biffle wrote in a report filed after her investigation, "and then let himself in to young women's apartments when they were sleeping, go into their bedroom, and masturbate."

Kline declined to be interviewed for this story. However, after looking at Mart's record in the Denver area, the chief probation officer for Denver County, Erik Garcia Gillespie, told me he could find no support for Kline's alleged statement that Mart had a number of other "stalking" type arrests in Denver. "His arrest record doesn't show that," Garcia Gillespie told me.

Mart was classified as a Level 3 sex offender by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, meaning the office considered him to have the highest risk of reoffending. The justification for Mart getting this classification is not public information, but it was likely based on Biffle's reports, including Kline's apparently incorrect statements to Biffle; Mart's own failure to complete treatment in Colorado; his further failure to register in Washington; his continued alcohol abuse; and his prior record.

In Denver, Mart hadn't been given a numerical classification because local laws at the time didn't require one. Now, classified with a number for the first time, Mart started at the top, Level 3, the level often reserved for serial rapists and child molesters.

10. Catch-22

Mart received two months in the Jefferson County jail for driving under the influence, and another month for failing to register as a sex offender. He claims he was assaulted in jail after other inmates wrote a note to the guard saying, "Get this chi mo out of our cell." (Chi mo is prison slang for child molester.)

After he was released from jail, Mart experienced a catch-22 common to convicted sex offenders: Under the terms of his probation, Mart was required to have a stable residence. But because of his Level 3 offender status, it was hard to find a place that would rent to him, or a job that would help him pay rent.

Mart decided to head back to Colorado. But when he met with authorities in Denver, they told him he would have to attend a treatment program even more stringent than CareNet's if he wanted to remain in their city. He headed back to Washington, where he was promptly arrested for missing a hearing related to one of his cases.

Mart says that this time, after he was released from jail, his probation officer, realizing he had no place to go, took him to an old log dump that looks out on Port Townsend Bay. There, two other homeless sex offenders were camping out, both of them child molesters. The next day, local authorities came by and told them all to go elsewhere. Mart camped out at the nearby Chimacum Campground, but not for long, because he was scared of someone finding out about his status, coming by when he was sleeping, and giving him "a rude awakening."

He found work doing odd jobs at the Port Townsend Boat Haven, and was allowed to sleep in one of the boats there, but then Detective Biffle came by one day and, he says, postered the area with sex-offender notices showing his face. He was forced to leave. His probation officer eventually helped him get into a local motel. But when people in the area found out there was a sex offender living in the motel, the front desk began receiving late-night calls threatening to burn the place down. He was forced to leave again. Mart was back to drinking at this point, and his probation officer knew it, so he arrested Mart for violating the terms of his probation, which required him not to drink.

The next two years followed a similar pattern. He would make some progress in finding a stable living situation and work, only to have it upended by the ramifications of his sex-offender status or by his alcoholism.

He weathered confrontations with the residents of Quilcene, where he eventually settled in his mint-green trailer, housed on a secluded piece of land he was able to buy with the help of his grandmother. He feared for his safety when he read about a man in Bellingham who, in 2005, created a hit list based on the publicly available sex-offender registry and shot two sex offenders to death before being arrested. He chafed when someone in town rehung his sex-offender posters, and responded in kind with a poster of his own, titled "This Man Is Not a Monster." Mart's sister feared that all the frustration and social ostracism might lead her brother to kill himself, and she wondered sometimes if that was the unspoken intent of sex-offender registries and restrictions.

Eventually, Pastor Becky Anderson of Quilcene's First Presbyterian Church intervened. She gave Mart some landscaping work, and made it known in the community that she found him to be responsible and not dangerous—"a great worker and a good person to be around," as she put it to me recently. That calmed things, though one man still confronted Mart and yelled at him to stay away from his kids.

11. Now and Zen

Mart became increasingly frustrated. Inside his trailer, he set to work on his novel, surrounded by Asian calligraphy and objects he'd collected as part of a "Zen" decorating motif, a serene contrast to the turmoil of his life. He grew his landscaping business, Now and Zen Gardening. He stayed sober, following the dictates of his Alcoholics Anonymous program. He made friends with people in the community, including his nearest neighbor, Stan Cupp, a retired engineer who told me that after "a kind of rough period," people in Quilcene have mostly come to accept Mart. "Everybody pretty much just thinks that he's okay," Cupp said. Pastor Anderson, of the First Presbyterian Church, told me she has even come to feel sympathy for Mart's legal predicament—though she added that she's never read the police reports connected to his crimes. "The thing that bothers me is that the Level 3 sex offender seems to have no real recourse if he is getting his life together," she said.

"This stuff beats you down after a while," Mart told me when I visited him recently in his trailer. He seemed to be trying to draw an emotional response from me, too. He seemed to want my sympathy, and perhaps, more than that, to have me present him sympathetically in this piece. It wasn't hard to see how Mart could feel beaten down. But I'd learned by now not to completely trust him, and to be skeptical of his emotional appeals.

I first came in contact with Mart in October of 2006, when he wrote an e-mail to The Stranger suggesting someone write a story about his life. He titled that e-mail "Olympic Peninsula Pariah," and in his pitch he made himself out to be the victim of improper punishment and misplaced fear: "I propose a short article about being a little fish caught in the ever-tightening net of the sex-offender registry, convicted 15 years ago for a trespass that barely qualified as a sex crime."

It quickly became obvious that his story was not as clear-cut as he'd made it out to be. He'd been convicted of more than one sex crime, and "barely" was not the right adjective. If I felt sympathy for him now, standing in his trailer, it was because he appeared to still be minimizing his offenses, and because this minimizing seemed to be hurting him, deluding him, preventing him from sticking to his occasional expressions of remorse, and then moving on. He still seemed, like the character in his novel, to be drawn to "the glamour of illusion." I also saw that Mart was, as he said, "caught in a net." But it seemed to me not just a net of ever-tightening sex-offender laws and authorities who sometimes cast him in the worst possible light.

That was a part of it, true, but to me his net was also made up of his own personal addictions, his recurring excuses, his damage from sex crimes committed against him as a child, and his inability to truly accept that his past actions were indefensible. Certainly, the average person's perception of a Level 3 sex offender doesn't fit Mart's profile. He is not a child rapist or a murderer. In this sense (and only in this sense) when Mart says that his punishment does not fit his crime, he has a point. But if I were a law-enforcement official charged with protecting the public, and someone asked me to guarantee, based on what I knew at that moment, that Mart would never offend again, I wouldn't be able to.

I heard the sound of the Little Quilcene River rushing by outside. I noticed the books on his shelf: Recovering from Sexual Abuse and Incest, As Lonely as Franz Kafka, A Million Little Pieces, The Twelve Steps for Christians, Sensual Drugs, and a hardcover copy of The Sex Offender, a novel by Northwest writer Matthew Stadler.

Like Mart, the main character in The Sex Offender sees himself as trapped in a society that doesn't understand him and doesn't know what to do with him. The character is forced into reparative therapy, but it involves both him and his therapist wearing cloth bags over their heads; no one is really seeing the other. And as with Mart, the central question in The Sex Offender is whether the main character really has a problem, and if so, whether he can really be changed. In the end, Stadler's character is told, "There are some things words can't cure." And then he is castrated.

12. Containment

There is one point on which Mart and his former treatment provider, Dr. Neibling of CareNet, agree. They both see American culture obsessed with punitive approaches to dealing with sex offenders.

"I think there has to be containment," Dr. Neibling told me, speaking of sex offenders who haven't been cured. "But containment can also be too harsh."

Dr. Marshall, the Canadian expert in the treatment of sex offenders, serves as an advisor to about 20 countries around the world on how they can best deal with the problems posed by sex offenders. His clients include Japan, Australia, South Africa, Spain, and Hong Kong. And he says that in general, he tells those countries to do the opposite of what the United States is doing.

"You've got so many silly strategies that appeal to a law-and-order agenda, and they no doubt get politicians elected, but they're not doing anything to solve the problem," Dr. Marshall told me. "They're making it worse. You just keep pushing them somewhere else and sooner or later they offend again."

In Canada, he says, the focus is on rehabilitation, not punishment. Jails in Canada are much less crowded, and when sex offenders are sent to prison, Dr. Marshall says, they are given substance-abuse treatment, training in overcoming their antisocial dispositions, and education to at least a 10th-grade level. When they're released, generally after shorter sentences than they would have received in the U.S., the public is rarely notified of their past. According to Dr. Marshall, the rates of sex-offender recidivism in Canada are much lower than those in the U.S.

Alisa Klein, spokeswoman for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, says some recent studies have shown reports of violent sex offenses declining in the U.S., and that some see that as validation of the punitive approach. But she emphasized that those studies focus only on reported sexual violence. "I think that we actually have not seen a decline at all," Klein told me. "I think that, in fact, the public policy that we've created over the last few decades has created a situation that pushes incidences of sexual violence underground, instead of motivating prevention and motivating reporting."

She believes that people like Mart are increasingly reluctant to register. She also believes that victims of sex offenses are increasingly discouraged from reporting such crimes (and from seeking help) because the punishments are now so swift and harsh. This applies, she says, to the mother who notices her son engaging in potentially offensive behavior but is scared to seek help for fear of tagging him with a lifelong label, the wife who is unsure of whether her husband is abusing her children but fears involving child-welfare authorities because of their obligation to involve police in such situations, and the parents who know their child is engaged in a healthy relationship that crosses the borders of the age of consent (say, a 17-year-old dating a 15-year-old) but become fearful of the relationship's potential legal consequences if it ever goes sour.

Mart's mother, Dr. Fritz, has come to view the system as harsh and unjust. She agrees that her son is troubled. But she also believes he is caught up in a system that isn't capable of dealing with nuance, a system that sees an "up-the-skirt guy" as a "Ted Bundy type." To her it's a system that doesn't consider all the various permutations of life experience, disposition, and deviancy, a system that can only treat Mart, a diagnosed voyeur, as if he were a serial rapist or pedophile. She wishes his label could be removed. Barring that, she wishes people could just see Mart for what he is, rather than for what he is not.

"He's never abused children, and that's what people automatically think of when they think of a sex offender," Mart's mother told me. "He's not dangerous. That label is just terrible. It doesn't belong on him."