'There's no second chance'

Man trying to create support group to help local sex offenders

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GABE GREEN/Press Born Again Christian and registered sex offender Bill Johnson, Rathdrum, has begun to use faith as a means to repair his life after being convicted of first degree rape 25 years ago. Johnson is now trying to create a group where local sex offenders can seek help and support.

RATHDRUM - A few days after Bill Johnson ran his notice in the Coeur d'Alene Press, he noticed his fence posts had been vandalized.

He saw, as he mowed his lawn Monday, the otherwise sturdy wooden fence sagging limply in spots, as though someone had yanked the posts from the ground.

What one has to do with the other, he's not entirely sure.

It wouldn't shock him, though, if the notice was the sole reason someone wanted to rip the fence right from its root.

"It was a fairly new post," he said, shaking the sagging boards Tuesday outside his Rathdrum home.

Johnson has spent the last 35 years well aware that society looks down on him. He admits he feels ostracized and unforgiven.

"Like we're lepers," he said.

Johnson is a registered sex offender, convicted of first degree rape in Washington in 1976. He spent 12 years incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash.

As much as he wants to focus on the future, it's difficult, he said. Society isn't as willing to forgive sexual offenses as it is other crimes.

"There's no second chance," Johnson said. "Every other crime, murder, it doesn't matter ... Even when the sex offenders stop offending sexually, and they know that, they're still not willing to give them a second chance."

It has led to an isolated life for Johnson.

And the notice he ran Saturday in The Press's community calendar was the first step to trying to change that. It was an announcement for a support group he wants to form with other offenders, "Sex Offender Registrants Not-Anonymous."

"I know what registration/notification has done to our lives, and I want to hear your stories and share information," the listing read, printing Johnson's address as the gathering location. "It's time that we talk and get to know one another, and discuss what, if anything, we can do collectively to better our situation."

The group - whose first meeting would be 9 a.m. Saturday at Johnson's home, 15031 Stevens St. in Rathdrum - would focus on moving forward, healing and becoming involved.

Together, for example, the group could be a unified voice in supporting change to registration rules. Having to register as an offender for 25 years to a lifetime is too long, Johnson said, for offenders convicted decades ago who have never re-offended.

Most importantly, however, the meetings would be a social outlet.

Because once one becomes a registered sex offender, society turns its back - forever.

"It's a healthy thing to socialize and most psychologists will tell you that," Johnson said. "If there's not people you can visit with or talk to or go out and have dinner with or anything - it's just hard."

Not everyone is wild about the possibility of a group of sex offenders together in a residential neighborhood.

One neighbor, who wanted her name withheld from this article because she didn't want potential backlash from former offenders, said it was "disgusting" to have the gathering in the middle of a neighborhood with children around.

"It frightens me," she said, adding she has heard the same from neighbors once word spread. "We don't like it."

She said she would rather see them meet in a public forum, away from the cluster of homes.

"A restaurant, park, a lake or something," she said. "But to bring it to a neighborhood, are you frickin' kidding me?"

No law is in the books would prevent such a gathering, according to the Kootenai County Prosecutor's Office.

Johnson, who doesn't know if any offenders will even show up, said of the 27 registered offenders in Rathdrum, 60 percent committed their crimes between 20 to 40 years ago.

Even so, it's hard to meet in public, he said. Stares, comments, even cooks who spit in offenders' food are out there. Because once word is out about an offender, it's hard for them to blend back into society.

Which is why Johnson wants to bring the group to his home.

"I suppose there's always possible danger, but they've got to go somewhere," said Brian Martin, who lives a few blocks from Johnson, and learned about the upcoming meeting. "It's a double-edged sword. But at the same time I'm not thrilled about the idea."

Neighbor Tony Jacobs said he also sees both sides. It's important to move forward, he said, "but I could see where it would offend people with small kids."

Whether Johnson's fence post was any sort of retaliation for the gathering the 11-year Rathdrum resident is trying to start, he can't say. He doesn't expect the neighborhood to be thrilled with the idea, but Johnson, married for 22 years, said he has to try it.

The majority of offenders don't re-offend, he said, and he wants to focus on those who are trying to improve day-by-day.

And Johnson, like others in his shoes, lives with the pain he caused his victim every day, and it's an awful feeling, he said. But it's time to find support, a community, where he can focus on what's ahead. Because isolation, he said, is awful, too.

GABE GREEN/Press Bill Johnson, a registered sex offender, sits in his home in Rathdrum and discusses his plans to create a support group for local sex offenders who are trying to get their lives back together.

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