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ME- Caught by the past, a child molester kills himself

1998 Maine:

In the dying hours of 1997, in the bleak and black Maine night, Thomas Varnum drank half a bottle of liquor, propped a shotgun between his legs and blasted the top of his head off.

There were very few mourners.

"It may be a terrible thing to say, but I don't think it's a big loss," says David Farley, a lobsterman who lives down the road in Seal Cove.

Not that he knew Varnum well. Not many people around here did. Varnum had moved into the small apartment over Tim Butler's garage in October, just a couple of months after he came to Mount Desert Island.

Nobody paid much attention until Dec. 29, when sheriff's deputies arrived on Kelley Town Road with fliers bearing Varnum's mug shot and his history: He had been convicted of gross sexual assault.

It didn't say precisely what he had done. It didn't say that he had served his time in prison and had been free for a year and a half.

But in the spirit of Megan's Law -- the nationwide movement to ensure that no community should unknowingly harbor a molester -- local officials publicized Varnum's past.

Very few residents saw the fliers. Most of them weren't home when they were distributed. Farley says he didn't learn about Varnum's crimes until later, and the facts unnerved him; he has a 15-year-old daughter who often walked past the house where Varnum lived.

"I'd a killed him if he'd a touched my daughter," Farley says.

Of course, Farley was speaking theoretically. By that time, Varnum had killed himself.

Local interest came and went. "People die here all the time -- by sickness, at sea, in accidents," says Alison Price, chairman of the Tremont Board of Selectmen.
But no one had ever died by Megan's Law -- by the fear that they would be hounded forever for the crimes of the past.

If, in fact, that is what killed Thomas Varnum.

Mount Desert Island is best known as a summer playground-- favored by the Rockefellers, renowned for the beauty of Acadia National Park and the high style of Bar Harbor.

But there is another side of Mount Desert Island, more typical of Downeast Maine. Many of the 10,000 year-round residents struggle. They lobster or fish, work construction, take on odd jobs.

Richard Donovan runs Acadia Muffler and Brake. A bear of a man with gray-blond, shoulder-length hair and a full beard, he employed the 31-year-old Varnum as a mechanic on weekends. He was, he says, Varnum's best friend.

"He loved it down here. He loved the island," says Donovan. "He just liked the people down here. They left him alone."

Is it true that you met in prison?

"I won't talk about that. And I'll tell you what I told another reporter: If you print that, I'll sue you."

An hour later, Donovan is talking all about how he was convicted of sexually assaulting a stepdaughter, a charge that he emphatically denies.

Yes, he says, he met Varnum in prison. No, he insists, he did not know Varnum was a sex offender -- Varnum claimed he was convicted of passing bad checks and beating his wife. Donovan says he believed him.

When Varnum got out, in June 1996, he worked for a mechanic in Bangor but spent his weekends at Donovan's shop in Tremont. He was alone. While he was in prison, his wife divorced him and moved to North Carolina with their daughter.

Last August, Varnum took a construction job in Tremont and moved into Donovan's house, next to the shop.

"As far as I'm concerned, he was a good kid," Donovan says. "He never bothered anybody. He was a funny kid -- a real comical kind of guy."

With that, he comes out from behind the counter and tracks down a battered photo album. Here's a picture of Varnum sitting in a rear seat yanked from a car, a V-6 engine in the wheelbarrow in front of him. Here's another of Varnum, feigning unconsciousness on the driveway, his head on a pompon, a cane on the ground next to him.

"All he was trying to do was to get on with his life," Donovan says. "He made a mistake. Anybody can make a mistake. YOU can make a mistake."

But can Varnum's crimes be described as a single blunder?

"This wasn't just a case where a mistake was made," says Detective John Burke, who arrested Varnum in 1992 in Bowdoinham, 150 miles to the south. "It wasn't a crime of opportunity, where, say, a drug user under the influence abuses a kid."

The Varnum Burke remembers is not a lovable clown. The Varnum he remembers was a cunning sexual predator, a big guy -- 6 feet, 200 pounds -- who lured two 9-year-old boys to his house by asking them to do yard work.

"Courting was taking place, or at least the child's trust was being won," Burke says. Varnum gave the kids clothes, toys, friendship.

At some point, Varnum conducted a "blood brothers ceremony." He and the boys pricked themselves and allowed their blood to intermingle. Later, after he was arrested, investigators found typewritten "contracts" listing the boys' names and birth dates.

Over six months in 1992, Varnum repeatedly had sex with one of the boys. He was grooming the other boy, he later told Burke, but ran out of time.

When one boy told his parents, they went to police. Authorities already knew of Varnum. They described him as a "police wannabe" suspected of using bogus police equipment to pull over cars on the highway.

Burke confronted Varnum with the sex charges.

"I'll give him some credit. He was truly ashamed and repentant," Burke says. "He referred to it as a release of pressure. The pressure would build up, and it would go away when he did these things."

On March 19, 1993, Varnum pleaded guilty of gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, six of them suspended.
He would serve three years and three months. In the Maine prison system, he would receive little counseling. With aging and inefficient facilities, there is not much money left for treatment, says Denise Lord, director of policy for the Department of Corrections.

At Down East Correctional Facility, Varnum's home for two years, the 70 sex offenders are allotted 12 hours of individual counseling each week. That averages just over 10 minutes per week per prisoner.

Lord says studies show treatment can reduce the risk that sex offenders will commit more crimes; in any case, there is not enough money to track Maine's record of recidivism.

On June 11, 1996, Thomas Varnum was released from prison and into six years of probation. He was a free man -- within bounds.

Tim and Nancy Butler's house is a work in progress; Tim has taken the original structure and built a wing that mirrors it, with a garage on the first floor and an apartment above it.

Mostly, they used the apartment for guests, and for a daughter from Tim's first marriage. This year, for the first time, they decided to take in a winter tenant, and they settled on Donovan's friend, Varnum.

They knew the two had met in prison. But the Butlers believe in Donovan's innocence, and they believed Donovan when he told them that Varnum had kited checks and beaten his wife.

Had they known the truth, there was no way they would have rented to him, they say.
The reason is plain to see -- in the tire that hangs from the tree out front, amid the cars and trucks in varying states of disrepair; in the bicycle and toys spread around the property.

They belong to Bryan, the Butlers' 10-year-old son.

"If he'd ever come near my son," says Butler, "he wouldn't have had to commit suicide. I would have killed him."

The Butlers didn't see much of Varnum after he moved in in October. He worked a lot and came back to the room to sleep.

He was a good tenant. He didn't drink ("I don't drink, because when I drink I get into trouble," he told Butler), and he only once missed paying the $75-a-week rent, repaying the debt in the next three weeks. One time, he watched a video with Bryan, an "Ernest" movie with Jim Varney. They both laughed.

Then, just before Thanksgiving, the Butlers say Varnum's probation officer informed them that their tenant was a sex offender. The Butlers, for whatever reason, say they assumed that he had been involved with an underage girl, and they were not unduly concerned.

Earlier, in late October, the Hancock County Sheriff's Department had received a bulletin from the state: Thomas Varnum, a registered sex offender, had moved to Kelley Town Road. Local officials could decide what to do with the information.
Sheriff William F. Clark says action was delayed while an officer attended a one-day seminar on community notification. He returned to interview Burke, the arresting officer, and Varnum's probation officer. And then he proposed that, for the first time, Hancock County notify a community that a sex offender had moved in.

Why? Because Varnum was considered likely to molest kids again, because he had no ties within the community, because he had once been suspected of impersonating a police officer and might use that ruse to lure children.

In 1994, New Jersey -- enraged by the rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a neighbor, a convicted sex offender -- passed the first Megan's Law, requiring authorities to alert communities.

Forty-one states, including Maine, have enacted similar laws. But Varnum could not be "outed" under Megan's Law; his conviction predated it.

Instead, an assistant state attorney general said the notification could go forward under an older law that allows authorities to distribute information about convictions.

Posters were distributed on Dec. 29 along the 1.8-mile Kelley Town Road, and to the Tremont elementary school, more than 4 miles away. The Butlers didn't receive one, but the neighbors called right away.

Tim Butler took Varnum aside and told him what was happening.

"He said, 'Well, I guess I should be moving on,' " Butler recalls. "I said, 'Tom, I would really appreciate it if you did.' " He asked if I would give him 30 days, and I said I would, but I would appreciate it if he could do it sooner. He said he planned to move to Ellsworth."

Two days later, Varnum drove to Ellsworth, 20 miles away, and bought a shotgun. That afternoon, he dropped by Donovan's garage with belated Christmas gifts for Donovan and Donovan's girlfriend and brother.

His gift to Donovan included two packs of Dorals instead of the Camel Light 100s Varnum had borrowed earlier. "Ha, ha," the note read, "You didn't get Camels."
Varnum returned to the Butler home and asked to borrow an audio tape. They gave him an old Bob Dylan cassette to tape over. They thought he would use it to make some "funny Happy New Year kind of thing," Nancy Butler says.

The Butlers left for a New Year's Eve party. As they pulled out of the driveway, they could see Varnum pacing in the apartment above the garage.

They returned after midnight to find an envelope on their doorstep. The cassette was inside. The Butlers popped it in the stereo, expecting a laugh. Instead, Varnum was talking seriously -- about how he could not live in a world without forgiveness, and how anyone who found his body could keep his possessions.

Tim Butler shot up the 13 steps to the apartment and shined a flashlight through the door.

"I found him," he says. "There was nothing left but the chin down."

The ice storm that battered Maine in the next week prevented the cleaners from coming. It would be a month before all traces of Thomas Varnum would be removed from the house on Kelley Town Road.

Spring and mud time are approaching on Mount Desert Island. The days are growing longer, the cold more bearable.

But the bleakness remains. Acadia National Park is still barricaded; so many restaurants, motels and other businesses are shuttered that the island's motto might be "CLOSED -- please call again."

Some people enjoy the island winter. But not everybody.

"This time of year, everybody's devouring each other," jokes Price, the head of the Tremont selectmen. "The survivors are at each other's throats. The winters are dark and cold and long."

That, not the posters, is the key to Varnum's death, Price says.

"He was a flawed person. That's eventually what killed him. It was cold, it was winter and Christmas time, and it all came together."

There is reason to believe that Varnum did not kill himself simply because he felt hounded. Butler remembers Varnum's collection of pictures of his daughter, so far away. And, he says, Varnum's much-loved grandmother had died in recent weeks.

"The last week, he was acting strange," Donovan says. He was more depressed than usual, and had refused to go to the Kozy Kove coffee shop with his friend.

In fact, Varnum had occasionally seen a therapist in Bangor, Donovan says. But a lot of the time, he didn't have the money.

Still, everyone who knew Varnum agrees that the fliers were the last straw. And to those who oppose Megan's Law, his death has larger meaning.

"Our public officials need to think about the implications of these laws," says Sally Sutton, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. "When we talk about public safety, we're talking about the safety of these offenders as well."

But there is little appetite in Maine -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- for ending community notifications.

Was Varnum punished twice for what he did? "For what he did, he deserves to be punished twice," says Butler's neighbor, Farley.

"That's the curse of being convicted of a felony," says Michael Povich, district attorney of Hancock County.

Povich -- prosecutor since 1974, a cherubic figure who wears a tie featuring Daffy Duck and Tweety Bird -- says he was saddened by Varnum's death. Still, he is in favor of notification: "If you can't control their impulses, make sure that they can't get to the targets."

But what about rehabilitation? What if Varnum really had reformed?

"The question is almost metaphysical," he says.

"You'll never know enough. If you could jump into the soul of a person, if you could be certain that his rehabilitation was perfect and profound, that he has all of his problems under control, then you don't need Megan's Law. The problem is, you'll never know enough." ..Source.. by AP

PHOTOS: Tim and Nancy Butler, parents of 10-year-old Bryan, rented Varnum a garage apartment without knowing of his conviction for sexually molesting a 9-year-old boy. Middle: This flyer, identifying Thomas Varnum as a registered sex offender, was distributed to neighbors of Varnum in Seal Cove, Maine. Two days later, Varnum killed himself with a shotgun. Bottom: Richard Donovan, Varnum's best friend and employer, says Varnum loved living in Seal Cove and was trying to overcome his past crimes, for which he'd served time.

Law expands access to sex offender data
N.H. version of Megan's Law weighs rights of citizens and the convicted
7/13/98 New Hampshire:
A new law intended to protect children will expand the rights of New Hampshire residents to know if there is a convicted child sexual predator living in their midst.

But, though well-intentioned, the law has the potential to cause "absolute, utter panic," according to Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

"Across the country in some cities and towns vigilantism is common," Ebel said regarding to states passing Megan's Laws nationwide. "These laws have resulted in harassment, stalking and even murder. What the lawmakers don't consider is the effect this law has on the offenders' families."

Ebel worries if Granite Staters can handle the responsibility that New Hampshire's version of Megan's Law carries. She hopes violence doesn't ensue as it did recently on both coastlines, where men have committed suicide after their neighbors were informed they were convicted child sex offenders.

This week in Santa Rosa, Calif., Michael Allen Patton, overwhelmed with depression after he was characterized as a high-risk sexual predator to his neighbors, hanged himself in a redwood grove.

Though he committed violent sexual attacks on minors when he was a young adult, those who knew him recently said he had lived a straight-arrow life since his parole three years ago.

A similar story unfolded on New Year's Eve in West Tremont, Maine, near Bar Harbor. There Thomas Varnum put a shotgun to his head two days after Hancock County Sheriff's Department distributed posters bearing his photo, name and physical description. Convicted in 1993 on several counts of sexually assaulting two boys, Varnum had served almost four years of his six-year prison sentence before being released on probation in June 1996.

Originally from Bath, Varnum, 31, left a suicide message on a cassette tape with his landlord. In his final words, Varnum said he could not live in a world where there was no forgiveness. ..more.. by ANNE M. MOZINGO

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