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St. Paul apartment building is home to six Level 3 sex offenders
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Until recently the arrangement at the Lowelle apartments wasn't only tolerable, but preferable from the standpoint of probation officials. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
For more than two years Ramsey County Corrections officials have quietly maintained a de facto halfway house for sex offenders in downtown St. Paul. The private apartment building has been home to at least nine Level 3 sex offenders at once. Officials say the arrangement provides a place where the offenders are easily tracked and supervised. Some Minneapolis officials even consider it a model to be copied. But as nearby buildings are renovated into luxury apartments and condominiums, there's growing pressure to oust the sex offenders.

St. Paul, Minn. — The seven-story Rossmor building, built around the turn of the last century, was used to manufacture munitions during World War I. It later served as a work boot factory. Most recently it's housed a collection of artist studios.

In July, 2003, Richard Pakonen paid $5 million for the building, and is investing at least another $7 million to renovate it into more than 100 loft condominiums. The construction is part of a rebirth of housing in St. Paul's Lowertown and North Quadrant, that promises to bring thousands of new residents into downtown.

Pakonen didn't know until after he bought the property that it's across the street from a building that's become a magnet for the most dangerous sex offenders.

"We were a bit surprised about that," Pakonen said. "The knee-jerk reaction was to scream and yell. (Then I) took a deep breath and said, 'All right, what do we do about this?'"

Pakonen's discovery came while searching the St. Paul police Web site out of curiosity, after authorities arrested released sex offender Alphonso Rodriguez in the disappearance of Grand Forks college student Dru Sjodin.

Few others are aware so many sex offenders live so close to one another.

"There's ultimately going to be thousands of new housing units in this immediate area," Pakonen said. "The area is changing dramatically. It's changing fast. So what might have been tolerable in the past is not tolerable anymore."

Until recently the arrangement at the Lowelle apartments wasn't only tolerable, but preferable from the standpoint of probation officials.

It does help me feel a little bit better to know probation officers are in there as many as three or four times a week. That helps, but it doesn't help much.
- Rod Halverson, chairman of the City Walk condominium's residents board

Robert Hanson, the director of the Ramsey County Adult Courts Division, has approached hundreds of landlords, contacted halfway houses and shelters, and prodded charitable foundations for support. The Lowelle is one of the few places that would allow sex offenders in the door.

"Given all the options being faced -- what few options there are for the placement of sex offenders -- our experience was that it turned out pretty satisfactory," Hanson said.

Six Level 3 sex offenders currently reside at the Lowelle apartments. The number has been as high as nine in recent months. First one, then another and another, found their way to there. Their ages run from 23 to 50. Their crimes range from molesting boys and girls as young as three years old, to forcibly raping adult women.

For probation officers, the Lowelle turned out to be an effective way to supervise more than one offender at a time. They conduct random inspections and drug and alcohol tests three or four times a week. Often the tenants, who return to prison if they violate the strict rules of their supervision, keep an eye on one another.

"It lets you have a more in-depth contact," Hanson said. "We are very familiar of the settings, and the comings and goings of the building. And we are given information by the very people who are there that is helpful to us."

When offenders first started living there it was ideal because, the area was mostly commercial and industrial and it's one block from the police station. None of the sex offenders who have checked into the Lowelle has re-offended. But Hanson understands how it could now be a problem for neighbors.

"It was not a plan to have these men be here," he said. "It is something that we would like to see changed. We would like their help. We would like anyone's help in finding responsible alternatives."

For the men living there, the Lowell is likely the last stop before being turned out into the street, which makes them harder to monitor and treat.

"We are not interested in them going under bridges and being out in the community without any kind of residence at all," Hanson said. "That would concern us greatly, and I think should truly concern the public."

Across the country, officials are trying to find a balance between what's effective for released sex offenders and what neighborhoods will accept. An Arizona legislator proposes landlords who rent to three or more sex offenders post a $100,000 bond, payable if the tenant repeats an offense. In Spokane, Washington, a private landlord works closely with law enforcement and rents out rooms to some 50 sex offenders. It's becoming a model for other places like California and even Minneapolis.

John Hinchliff, the sexual offender notification coordinator with Minneapolis police, said officials there would like to find an arrangement similar to St. Paul's in a non-residential part of the city, to take pressure off of other residential neighborhoods where sex offenders tend to concentrate.

"Since housing has always been a problem to begin with, that might be an avenue we could look at," Hinchliff said. "It might work."

So far, Hinchliff hasn't found a willing landlord in the right location. And as officials in Ramsey County are learning, the right location isn't a solid bet.

Rod Halverson lives in the CityWalk condominiums a half block from the Lowelle. In the year-and-a-half he's lived there, he's aware of only two or three sex offender notification meetings. Like many in the area, it didn't occur to him none were moving out.

"Yes, it does help me feel a little bit better to know probation officers are in there as many as three or four times a week," Halverson said. "That helps, but it doesn't help much."

Halverson heads his condo's residents association. He doesn't understand why zoning laws can protect neighborhood residents from obtrusive store signs, but not from a buildup of sex offenders -- who corrections officials admit still carry the potential to do harm.

"Every part of the community should do their fair share in regard to housing people that have committed crimes and have completed their sentence," he said. "My feeling is that if there is a concentration of Level 3 sex offenders in one area, it is unfair to that one area."

Because of complaints from those like Halverson and the Rossmor's Pakonen, Ramsey County officials say they're no longer allowing new sex offenders at the Lowelle.

The Minnesota Legislature has tried but failed to pass bills limiting the number of sex offenders allowed in one location. One proposal would build sex offender housing on the grounds of the state hospital in St. Peter. Another would keep them behind bars for life.

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