The Sex Offender Next Door
Cape May County doesn't appear to be the sort of place where a battle over Megan's Law would begin. This is where families rush to escape the ugly everyday, not confront it. When the crowds flee, though, there's a security in a Shore town that only the locals truly understand. Everyone knows everyone, the year-rounders say. They know who the bad guys are. They know what they've done. Where they live. Still, folks are thankful for Megan's Law. It helps them keep their kids safe.
Former high-school teacher Steve Elwell, a native son of Cape May, wants to protect his children, too. Married and trim, still built like the NFL hopeful he was 10 years ago, Elwell looks the type who'd stand up at town meetings, pounding fist into palm, to demand more safeguards from these perverts, as politicians are doing nationwide. Instead, he's leading the charge against increasing restrictions on sex offenders. He's been branded one of them—unjustly so, he thinks. Hell, he's already served time for having sex, consensual sex, with a 16-year-old when he was in his 20s. He wasn't cruising parks in a trench coat or luring toddlers into a beat-up Volkswagen van. He's been called “the Rosa Parks of sex offenders,” thanks to a lawsuit he filed that could overturn restrictions on where he, and others like him, can live. Backed by the ACLU and some support from his community, Elwell could force New Jersey, perhaps even the entire country, to reexamine the effectiveness of Megan's Law and who deserves to be governed by it. Elwell's former students, cop buddies, and even a senator all have his back. They say it doesn't seem right that he can't raise his children where he wants to, the way a normal father can.
The greatest obstacle in Elwell's path lives over the bridge in Wildwood and works two miles from Elwell's home. His name is Walter Priestley. He's a Tier 3 sex offender, the worst kind, considered the most likely to strike again, a bogeyman driven by unspeakable urges. He's everything Elwell doesn't want to be associated with. Priestley had multiple victims, all under the age of 13. He looks the part—thick glasses, thick waist, thin hair, a step slower than the rest of the world. Three years spent in a state institution haven't entirely freed Priestley from “his shit,” so he's thankful for the shackles of Megan's Law. He lives at home with his elderly mother, and has few friends, save for the guys in his support group. Hardly a minute goes by without someone's eye on him. That's a good thing, folks say. But he works at an antiques shop that sells comic books and Matchbox cars, just around the corner from an elementary school. That is not how it should be.
When most people hear Elwell's story, they think his punishment may be too strict. When they hear Priestley's story, they think his isn't strict enough. When they hear the words “Megan's Law,” though, the image they see is a clear one—a predatory monster, compelled by horrible lust and incapable of remorse. Yet both of these very different men live within its shadow. What to make of them, then? For the parents who live near these sex offenders—and the almost 20,000 like them in New Jersey and Pennsylvania alone—the answers lie not in the headlines to their stories, but in the details.
Steve Elwell first noticed A.J. in 1997, when she applied to be a manager for the Caper Tigers wrestling team he coached. A.J. was a skinny blond 16-year-old sophomore at Lower Cape May Regional High School. Elwell was a 27-year-old gym teacher, though with his close-cropped blond hair and rugged jaw, he practically looked like a student. He was best known around the halls—around town—for football, as the standout high-school free safety he once was. He grew up here. He spent summers in the kitchen at the Lobster House and hanging out at Carney's.
His uncle was the mayor of Cape May for five years, and his cousin was a cop. So when his pro football dreams crashed after a series of tryouts in the league, he came back to what he knew.
As the team's manager, A.J. spent a lot of time at practices getting to know the wrestlers, and getting to know Mr. Elwell, or Coach, as the kids called him. She wasn't the only girl who had a crush on him, either. But one night, when the team was on the road for a meet, Elwell took a big risk: He invited A.J. to his hotel room. A.J. went.
Only one or two people knew that A.J. and Elwell were having sex, and those people weren't talking. In long, giddy phone conversations, Elwell revealed his immaturity, waxing on to A.J. about their future together as if he was a teenager, too. He was her first boyfriend, picking her up from parties on the sly and taking her back to his apartment. They figured if A.J. could transfer to a different school, they could stop sneaking around. They even talked about getting married. Then, after about a year and a half, A.J. found out she was pregnant. She thought their life together was sealed. For Elwell, though, this wasn't good news. To keep their affair a secret, he didn't go with her to the abortion clinic.
By A.J.'s senior year, they'd drifted apart. She dropped out of school and started seeing a wrestler on the team, while Elwell met a cute waitress at Carney's named Jen, a petite brunette with freckles on her nose who was 24 and looking for a teaching job herself. He didn't tell Jen about his last girlfriend. On a Thursday night in May 2000, Elwell and Jen moved in together. The next morning, he was led out of their apartment in handcuffs. A.J. had finally confided in her family. They called the police.
As he sat in the back of the squad car, heading toward county jail, Elwell had no idea he would soon be branded a Megan's Law offender. He wasn't a pedophile. He wasn't a murderer. He was nothing like Jesse Timmendequas, the quiet man who led a seven-year-old neighbor into his home in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, then into his bedroom, where he raped her, sodomized her, and wrapped a belt around her neck, twisting it until she died. When police interrogated Timmendequas, only once did any emotion surface—when he complained about a wound on his hand where little Megan Kanka, fighting for her life, had bitten him. No one in the Kankas' neighborhood had any way of knowing that Timmendequas and the two other men he lived with had met as convicts at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, the state's sex offender lockup and rehab facility, known as the ADTC.
Two years later, in 1996, President Clinton signed the federal version of Megan's Law, to protect children by publicizing the whereabouts of sex offenders. In New Jersey, those offenders are classified into “tiers”—Tier 1 being the least likely to re-offend, Tier 2 being moderately risky, and Tier 3 posing the greatest danger to the community. The criteria for risk assessment vary from county to county; in Cape May, offenders are rated on a 111-point scale, based on details such as their victims' ages, how well the offenders knew them, and how effective the offenders' treatment programs seem to be.
Steve Elwell was charged with sexual -assault—not child molestation. He lost his job, but not Jen, who stood by him even though her family pressured her to cut him loose. With his name all over the Atlantic City Press , Elwell applied for a job coaching football at a university 150 miles from home. The application simply asked if he'd been convicted of a crime; he checked “no.” He lived on campus, in an apartment with other coaches, figuring he'd be able to hide out there until his court date in the spring. One afternoon, as he watched the news with the guys, a reporter announced that a substitute teacher in Cape May was charged with sexually assaulting a student.
“This is the second teacher charged. ï¿½ ” the reporter said. Elwell froze, knowing that the first teacher charged was, in fact, him. Please don't say my name , he prayed.
“Hey, Steve,” said one of Elwell's roommates. “Aren't you from Cape May?”
“Yep.” Please don't say it. ï¿½
The reporter didn't, and Elwell finished the season without anyone finding out his secret.
In June, he agreed to a three-year sentence in state prison and also to be placed under Megan's Law. At the time, it seemed like a fair deal—a trial would have trained a huge spotlight on him, and probably led to a much longer prison term. His lawyer and the judge both explained what it would mean to be governed by the provisos of Megan's Law and the subsequent community supervision: He would register a DNA sample, take monthly drug tests, attend regular counseling sessions, report to a parole officer, and stay in the state unless granted approval to leave. As a Tier 1, however, he wouldn't have his profile included on the state's Internet registry. (Only Tiers 2 and 3 earn that distinction.) What his lawyer and the judge didn't explain, Elwell says, is that he would also be at the mercy of all new federal, state and local regulations that rely on Megan's Law to further restrict sex offenders. He didn't understand that the rules could—and would—change.
At his sentencing, the district attorney expressed concerns about Elwell's psychological evaluation, and the shrink's assessment that “Mr. Elwell did not accept responsibility for his offense and conduct.” His lawyer remained optimistic, saying, “It is hoped that in his search and in his life, he can take with him the lessons he has hopefully learned.” Then, Elwell tried to salvage his reputation. “When I think of a sexual offender,” he told the judge, “I think of someone standing on the corner, waving at kids. I would never do that.” The court wasn't moved. Neither was A.J.'s father. As Elwell buried his head on the defense table, the girl's father spoke, his voice trembling with rage: “About any jail sentence you receive, it will never be enough for me. But while you're incarcerated, I hope that every night you're there, Bubba comes to tuck you in.”
In 1994, just over the bridge in Wildwood, Walter Priestley found himself alone with the daughter of a family friend. C.R. was 12 years old. Priestley was 32. He knew this was wrong, but he couldn't help himself. He ran his hand across her breasts. It thrilled him. Then, he lowered his hand between her legs. It wasn't the first time he'd done this. He'd been arrested before for touching another child, but that was pre-Megan's Law, and a shrewd defense attorney managed not only to keep Priestley out of jail, but to expunge his record after three years of probation. Otherwise, he might have been in prison instead of fondling C.R., then and at least one other time. When C.R.'s younger brother turned 12, Priestley shifted his attention to him. C.R. couldn't bear to speak of what happened, but her brother stepped forward in 1998, prompting a 13-count indictment against Priestley.
Not everyone in town was surprised. When Priestley was in his early 20s, every Halloween he would create an elaborate haunted house in the downstairs apartment that his parents rented out to families in the summer. Some of the neighborhood kids would help out, and when it was finished, the children wandered through it for a scare. Priestley wasn't much different then from what he is now—despite his intimidating six-foot-four frame, he was rather shy. Never much of a talker, he seemed harmless enough. Then, one fall, there were whispers that in the darkness, someone touched a girl who worked there. She couldn't have been more than 12 years old. No charges were pressed. But Priestley's parents closed down the haunted house for good.
This past Halloween, there was talk that the state might be posting skulls and crossbones on the doors of convicted sex offenders to keep the kids away. In the end, it was decided that keeping sex offenders home would suffice, and cops checked up on some Tier 3 offenders like Priestley, to make sure they had no candy to hand out. When the police arrived at the door, Priestley, now 44, invited them upstairs, where he still lives with his 86-year-old mother. The place probably hadn't changed much since he was a kid, an only child who would set sail in rowboats off the dock out back. Every surface in the wood-paneled living room is covered with ceramic figurines, columns of old mail, heirlooms, his grandmother's crystal ball. Priestley never did much after graduating from Wildwood High—unloaded squid boats, hauled concrete on construction sites. The only job he ever loved was on Hunt's Pier, running the Ranger, a blue rocket that sent kids soaring, upside-down and giddy. He only lived away from home once, and that wasn't by choice.
The morning after Halloween, Priestley made his usual drive over the bridge and up to Bayshore Road—an artery that connects the forgotten neighborhoods outside Cape May—where Treasure Hunt Antiques sits in a strip mall, just around the corner from the St. Raymond School and about a mile from a park. Though, disturbingly enough, there are no restrictions that prevent him from working there, Priestley tries to keep a low profile. For four years, he's been subject to the Megan's Law requirements—the grim mug shot of him on the Internet makes him cringe—and all the additions to them, like the Halloween rule. He just received a letter informing him that he's among the 300 or so Tier 3 sex offenders who will now be required to wear global positioning bracelets as part of a new state program. Most days, Priestley's parole officer will see his satellite blip idling at the antiques shop as he plays solitaire, while inside the tanning salon next door, the manager's toddler might be dressing her dolls on a couch, and while each afternoon at 3 p.m., school buses drop off grade-schoolers just outside his door. Only in the past few months did he post a sign on the door that reads: “No one under 16 allowed without a parent.”
The GPS letter didn't set Priestley off. The leg collar won't make him feel like an animal that's been tagged. It will be comforting, in an odd way, an electronic reassurance for him that what happened in 1994 can never happen again. Five years later, when he stood before the judge for his sentencing, his lawyer—the same one who'd defended him against the first charge years before—-argued on Priestley's behalf: “Despite his very obvious problem and the very horrible consequences, Walter is a very nice man. It's incredibly sad.”
Judge Carmen Alvarez had no sympathy. “It's, I guess, part of being a lawyer to be able to compartmentalize folks, to be able to see a person as a nice person even though he sexually molests children,” she said coldly. “That is a statement that only a lawyer could make. This is a horrific offense. This is not a nice person.”
Priestley was sentenced to a minimum of three years at the Adult Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Avenel, where Megan Kanka's killer was once housed. At the ADTC—a cross between a medium-security prison and a college dorm—Priestley spent hours in group-counseling sessions with molesters, child pornographers and rapists. He was taught masturbatory reconditioning—imagining boys and girls and then, just before climax, thinking of something “age-appropriate,” or, after climax, continuing until it hurt—to stop him from associating kids with arousal. Evaluating the effectiveness of such treatment is a crapshoot, admits Bill Plantier, the ADTC's former director. “It's easy for us to be fooled there,” he says. But Priestley seemed to take it all very seriously. “When you start to think about those things,” he says, “you have to change your thought process. Otherwise, as we say, you start to 'get into your shit.'”
After serving his full term, Priestley returned home to his mother. His childhood friend Richard Riehl, the only real friend he still had, partnered with him in the antiques store, and Priestley hoped he'd be able to slip back into the same private life he was living before. But when he walked into the wicker shop across the street, the owner's sister-in-law recognized him and cursed him out the front door. Neighboring roofers relocated, posting a sign that read LEAVING BECAUSE OF SEX OFFENDER NEXT DOOR. One day after school, a gang of teenagers came to the shop, taunting Priestley in high-pitched voices to sound like little girls.
Priestley didn't resent the teasing, or the angry stares. If anything, he was afraid. He still is. He's afraid of “the crazies,” like the guy in Washington who used a sex-offender site to hunt down and kill two pedophiles last year. He's afraid of where he'll be able to get a job if he loses the one he has. And he's afraid of what he'd be doing if Megan's Law didn't exist. “I can't wait to go to meetings and talk about things,” he says. “I don't think Megan's Law is unfair. It's a way of life.”
After serving just one year on good behavior, Steve Elwell married Jen and started rebuilding his life. First came his daughter, then, 18 months later, a son. It wasn't long before their house just off Bayshore Road had reached maximum capacity. The kids shared a room. Between the sectional couch and the giant plastic bins full of toys, there was hardly space to live in. Then, last July, Elwell read a report in the local paper—the neighboring council of Lower Township had proposed a law prohibiting convicted sex offenders from living in or loitering within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds or bus stops. Other towns around him would follow suit: Egg Harbor City, Ocean City, Pleasantville, Galloway Township, Washington Township, even Camden. Elwell had two choices: stay in his shrinking home, or move to a “safe” pocket somewhere in the area that would eventually turn into a sex-offender ghetto. He wouldn't want his kids to grow up there. What was he supposed to do?
Last August, he pleaded his case in front of the five-man council of Lower Township and a town hall filled with his neighbors, most of them supporting this ordinance so no pedophiles could get close to their kids. Elwell looked clean-cut, dressed in khakis and a polo shirt neatly tucked in. Again, Jen stood by his side, cradling their son on her hip, their daughter holding tightly onto her leg.
“Where can I take my wife and kids?” Elwell asked.
“Did you do this crime?” asked Councilman Mike Beck.
“I pleaded guilty in a court of law,” said Elwell. “I'm not standing up here to say I'm guilty or innocent. My wife and I moved past that.”
“The purpose is not to punish people, but to protect the kids,” Beck said evenly. Three weeks later, he'd write an op-ed for the Atlantic City Press suggesting that anyone convicted of a Megan's Law offense should be thrown into “the deep dungeons in the castle.”
Lower Township passed the restriction. Desperate and furious, Elwell was later approached by a lawyer who'd attended the meeting and who encouraged him to consider legal options. The ACLU agreed to join them, and in November they filed suit against the township, charging that the restrictions amounted to double jeopardy and a violation of Elwell's constitutional rights. Soon, friends and family were calling to say they'd seen articles about him in the Press , in the Inquirer , that everyone's talking about the first man in New Jersey to challenge a sex-offender ordinance.
Then the phone calls came. Yes, he'd go on MSNBC. No, he's not going on The View . The Today Show offered to send a limo, but he couldn't get approval to leave the state. Instead, a camera crew took over his living room, and he responded via satellite to Matt Lauer's suggestion that he faces an uphill battle, as sex-crime laws across the country seem to be expanding, not narrowing. “Absolutely,” Elwell replied. “It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from. ï¿½ What I'm trying to get at, not everybody is an evil person just because they did something wrong.”
If Lower Township simply removed Tier 1 offenders from this ordinance, Elwell would hang up his crusader's cape and go away. The township won't cave, though—a sex offender was recently caught in the rec center less than a mile from Councilman Beck's home, so he's not backing down. Beck thinks the best solution for monitoring pedophiles—all -pedophiles—is GPS tracking, like Priestley will have. He'd like to see a band clamped around Elwell's leg, too, but at a cost of more than $4,000 per offender, Lower Township can't afford it. “We at the township level,” Beck wrote, “have neither the authority nor the resources to enact such a remedy.” But the township can afford restrictions.
Elwell knows he's made some enemies through this, but he's also rallied support. Former students stand by him. Cops tell him they wish they could speak out on his behalf. Other guys he knows have said, 'You haven't done anything we haven't thought of, or we haven't already done ourselves.” He says his old prison warden comes to his house once a month to play poker. Even former state senator James Cafiero of North Wildwood—who helped pass the first Megan's Law in New Jersey and can still hear the voice of Megan Kanka's mother as she testified before him—is behind Elwell. “If a teacher has sex with a 17-year-old, it's a crime, it might be statutory rape,” Cafiero says. “But I don't think someone should wear that scarlet letter for the rest of his life. Megan's Law wasn't designed for that.”
Today, as the case moves forward, Elwell stands next to his daughter's high chair in their tiny kitchen and hands her grapes. A display case next to his TV protects a football with his name painted in red, white and blue.
“I had state psychological examinations,” Elwell says. “He said I shouldn't have even been charged with the crime.”
“We weren't told that as the laws change, it's going to affect you,” Jen adds, as she keeps an eye on the baby. “Nobody knew anything, and now our kids are paying for it. That's not fair.”
It certainly wasn't fair this past Halloween. As Jen led the kids through the neighborhood—her daughter dressed as an angel, her son as a devil, trick-or-treating for the first time—Elwell, like Priestley, had no choice but to stay home. He sat alone in the room farthest from the front door, in the dark, because God forbid a neighbor, or a passing patrol car, should interpret a light as an invitation for kids to ring his doorbell. With only the glow from the television, he waited for kickoff on Monday Night Football, and he thought to himself, This just isn't right.
It probably never occurred to Elwell that less than two miles away, a young married woman with two kids of her own to prepare for Halloween has felt the same thing. It's not right—that he's in all the papers, and his name is buzzing on the tongues of all the local gossips. It's not right that a politician says he's getting a raw deal in this town, which is her hometown too, where she's decided to stay and raise a family. He's on TV, like some celebrity, and the reporters keep hounding her. It's not right for A.J., that until Steve Elwell moves on with his life, she can't move on with hers.
Everyone knows everyone in Cape May County. They know the stories. They know that both these men did bad things. But Priestley is worse. What he did? Worse. The chances of him hurting another child? Worse. That's what the cops, the prosecutors and the parole board say. They branded him a Tier 3. As for Elwell, even a politician assumes he's getting a raw deal, and how often do they stick up for child molesters? He's less dangerous. Tier 1. If you want to call him names, maybe he's a rapist. But a pedophile? No. If folks had to pick one of them to live next door, there wouldn't even be a choice.
Kristen MacCarter, who owns Bayside Wicker, across the street from Treasure Hunt Antiques, knows both Elwell and Priestley. As a mother of three, she sees no comparison. “You put [Elwell] next to some 300-pound oaf who's unkempt, and Elwell was a teacher ï¿½ I feel sorry for him.”
What she doesn't know is that virtually no research has been done on the effectiveness of tiering and similar guidelines used across the country. While high-risk offenders have been studied extensively, there's very little data regarding recidivism rates of those considered “less dangerous.” In Colorado—the most vigilant state in dealing with sex -offenders—even low-risk convicts like Elwell are subjected to polygraphs and comprehensive treatment. Kim English, research director for Colorado's department of public safety, says that instead of creating “completely misguided buffer zones” like the ones Elwell is fighting, the focus should be on monitoring sex offenders of all levels. Local experts also admit that Megan's Law isn't perfect. “There are Ph.D.'s whose entire careers are spent trying to determine an offender's likelihood to re-offend,” says Ed Bray, deputy director of the New Jersey State Parole Board. “To expect that we can come up with a simplified tool so the average mom and dad can judge someone's risk—it's unrealistic.”
For MacCarter, and plenty of other well-intentioned parents like her, Megan's Law is the only tool she has for sizing up the Elwells and Priestleys of the world. But a system that could allow an admitted pedophile to sell Spider-Man comics mere feet from a bus stop and separate a man who isn't a pedophile from his own children is clearly in need of repair. As a tool, Megan's Law is like a broken shovel. It's useful, but far from ideal.
So if neighbors in Cape May can't entirely rely on Megan's Law, what can they rely on? What they know? Here, everyone knows these two men's crimes, how they were punished, how it affected their lives. But few of them know one thing: how Elwell and Priestley feel about what they did.
During the final phase of his rehabilitation at Avenel, Walter Priestley took a class called Victim Empathy. He wrote letters to C.R. and her brother, apologizing for what he did to them. Those missives were never actually mailed, but in expressing himself on paper, Priestley began to absolve himself, even if his victims and the rest of society never would. He learned to see through the children's eyes, understanding how they trusted him as an adult, how he betrayed that trust, and what he took from them that can never be replaced.
“When I did what I did to my victims, I also victimized their family, their friends, and even total strangers who heard about it on the news,” Priestley says.
Bill Plantier, the former ADTC director, says there is an epiphany that the inmates at Avenel must reach before they're released: “If you don't show remorse for the damage you've caused, it's a major issue.”
Priestley clings to that realization the same way he clings to Megan's Law. Most of society thinks he's corrupt and useless, like an apple left to rot. At his core, though, deep inside and out of sight, his remorse is his saving grace, the pedophile's last shred of humanity.
Steve Elwell says he's nothing like Walter Priestley, and he's more right than he realizes. Elwell wrote letters, too, but his were addressed to outgoing governor Richard Codey, pleading for a pardon that would never come. Elwell is no threat to children; even the psychs have confirmed that. But while Priestley, sick as he still is, has matured as a result of his crime, Elwell has not. Beyond his picture-perfect family, past his rage toward those who put him in this fix—the lawyers, the judges, the politicians, even A.J.—there's a hole that can never be filled, a lesson he'll never learn. His only epiphany came in seeing how Megan's Law is imperfect, and how it's affecting him. This is about his family, he says. This is about his kids. This isn't about A.J.
He does occasionally think of her, though. He remembers how she would ask for hall passes to visit his classroom.
“The girl ï¿½ technically was stalking me, ” Elwell says. “Even if I did it, I affected one life. Is the girl affected? She doesn't seem too upset. She's married. She has two children. She lives a mile away from my home. She obviously doesn't seem too threatened.”