For 50 years, the Jefferson family has lived in the same home in Birchwood Village on southwestern White Bear Lake.
Patriarch Tom Jefferson started an insurance agency that still operates. Of his five children, a son started a construction business that built several local homes. His twin daughters were lauded for rescuing hurt or lost animals.
What they thought would be a gesture of compassion outraged their community.
The Jeffersons wanted to take in Tom’s grandson, Joseph Zacher, a Level III sex offender, considered the highest risk to reoffend. That has put the family and Birchwood Village at the center of a dilemma that state leaders still have not figured out how to address: How to integrate sex offenders into a community. Studies show it’s better for offenders to live in stable communities to minimize their risk of reoffending, but many places reject them.
“We understood their fear, but they didn’t know Joe,” Zacher’s Aunt Claudia Beckman said. “We know Joe, we know the situation, and we already said we were going to help.”
There are now 386 Level III sex offenders living in Minnesota, according to the state Department of Corrections — a number that has climbed 42 percent in the past five years. Their ranks will continue to grow as a federal judge pressures the state to release high-risk offenders from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, where most are held indefinitely after prison.
The Jeffersons say they tried to do exactly what experts say should be done to prevent further crimes. They wanted Zacher, 37, to be with a family who would support him, monitor him and help reintegrate him into society.
But hundreds of Birchwood residents saw a threat to their children. The town’s council responded by adopting an ordinance, modeled after one passed by Taylors Falls in 2005, making it nearly impossible for Level III offenders to live in Birchwood.
“We have a total of 4 miles of roads and 350 households in Birchwood,” said city council member Mark Anderson. “This was about safety.”
When Birchwood became the first metro city to pass a ban, it set off a chain reaction, said Mark Bliven, the DOC’s director of risk assessment and community notification. Brooklyn Center passed a ban of its own, prompting nearby Columbia Heights to do the same for fear sex offenders would move there. Now, at least 44 cities in the state have some sort of ban on offenders.
That’s making it difficult for offenders to find homes, Bliven said. If Minneapolis or St. Paul follow suit, Bliven said offenders will run out of places to live, increasing the likelihood that they will become homeless.
Zacher was able to live with his family for three weeks last fall before minor infractions sent him back to prison. Despite the new law, the Birchwood City Council worried that specifically targeting Zacher with its ordinance would be unconstitutional, so it included an exception for family members, allowing Zacher to move in with his grandfather and Aunt Colleen Jefferson late last year. But the council once again changed course, voting unanimously in September to close that loophole.
Released last month, Zacher can’t go back to Birchwood. The Jeffersons worry about what will happen to him without stability. “The system is broken,” Beckman said.
One of Tom Jefferson’s daughters adopted Zacher as an infant after he was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which can impair judgment and make it difficult to control impulses.
Though Zacher grew up in Winona, he would often visit his grandfather in Birchwood. In 1998, when Zacher was 18, he broke into an ex-girlfriend’s home and sexually assaulted her, according to criminal charges. He pleaded guilty to burglary and criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to a year in prison. Four years later, Zacher met a 12-year-old girl at a friend’s home. He went with the girl to a nearby motel and raped her. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released in 2010, but would again and again be sent back for violating conditions of his parole.
Upon his pending release late last year, the Jeffersons hoped they could end that cycle. They contacted the DOC, which the Jeffersons said supported Zacher moving into the Birchwood home.
The family had to get rid of everything in the home that could violate Zacher’s probation, including alcohol, computers and internet access. After inspecting the home twice, the DOC approved Zacher to live in Birchwood starting Nov. 30.
Then, following state law, the DOC sent out a letter last November to Birchwood Village, saying Zacher would be moving in, and set a community notification meeting. The backlash began. The Village Hall was packed.
“You ever see a re-enactment of a witch hunt?” said Greg Beckman, Claudia’s husband. “That’s what it was.”
City Council Member Mark Anderson said the meeting turned into “chaos.” Residents voiced their anger that Zacher would be across the street from a park and a school bus stop. Parents feared for their children. Though the Jeffersons said they had some support in the community, it was mostly silent.
Neighbors who were against Zacher’s move held nightly vigils at the park near the Jeffersons’ home. Residents circulated a petition demanding that he not be allowed to move in, generating 832 signatures in a town with a population of 878. At a City Council meeting Nov. 22, residents spoke for more than three hours, nearly all of them against Zacher. Two days later, the council held an emergency meeting — this time approving an ordinance to ban almost any sex offender from living in the village.
Whether Birchwood’s ordinance and others like it are legal hasn’t been decided, said Eric Janus, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline. There have not yet been any legal challenges in Minnesota on the ordinances, but other courts have either struck down similar laws or upheld them.
Alison Feigh, a program manager at the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, said the laws do little to keep kids safe. Though it may seem counterintuitive, she said, putting Level III offenders into a neighborhood might make it safer for children if the community comes together, learns more about the offender and becomes more vigilant to prevent sex assaults.
“That’s a much better place than when people are not engaged,” she said.
Residents like Kelly Paradise, who’s lived in Birchwood for six years across a park from the Jeffersons, said Zacher’s presence was unnerving. She and her family can see the Jeffersons’ home from theirs. They kept their blinds drawn and refused to let their daughter, 15, go outside without supervision.
“We felt like prisoners in our own home,” she said.
The Jeffersons said they tried to shield Zacher from the anger outside their home and accompanied him if he went out. The family said they helped him fill out job applications, baked cookies and put up a Christmas tree together.
Just before Christmas, DOC officers randomly inspected their home. They found a DVD player given as a gift for Tom’s 86th birthday the family didn’t know could connect to the internet. They also found alcohol and a small amount of marijuana in Colleen’s trunk. She said she put it there as the family worked to get the home approved by the DOC and forgot about it.
Still, it was enough to send Zacher back to prison. He was released in August and is now at a halfway house. Eventually he’ll have to move somewhere else, but neither he nor his family know where that will be.
The Jeffersons said they still feel the anger from the community. “It’s hard to be hated,” Colleen said. “Not just disliked. Hated.”