Victim urges Minn. panel not to free sex offender

John Rydberg
In this 1985 photo provided by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, convicted sex offender John Rydberg is shown during his intake into the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn. A special three-judge panel opens a hearing Friday, March 4, 2011 to determine whether the 68-year-old really is a changed man, as he claims.
AP Photo/Minnesota Department of Corrections

A convicted sexual predator seeking an extremely rare release from Minnesota's sexual offender treatment program was confronted Friday by one of his victims, who rejected the man's claim that he no longer poses a threat.

John Rydberg, 69, has petitioned for release from a secure hospital to a halfway house in the Twin Cities, a step that ultimately could make him the first person permanently released from the state's program. Attorneys for the state and Blue Earth County, where his last offense was raping a woman at knifepoint in front of her children in 1979, are arguing against his release.

Since it began in 1995, Minnesota's sex offender treatment program has grown to more than 600 patients and it adds about 50 people per year. Only one man has been released in the program's history, and his provisional discharge was revoked when he violated conditions of his release. He eventually died in custody.

Rydberg's case comes as the state grapples with the rising costs of treating sex offenders at a time when it's awash in red ink. Minnesota has an estimated $5 billion budget deficit, yet lawmakers are being asked to commit millions to expand sex offender treatment facilities. Some attorneys and others have also raised questions about the constitutionality of a civil commitment program in which no one is ever released.

The most compelling testimony Friday came from Tom McCartney, 58, who described for a three-judge panel an assault that began when Rydberg burst into McCartney's country home near Westfield, Wis., with a sawed-off shotgun the stormy night of June 4, 1975. After McCartney and his wife, Janet, were tied up, Rydberg went upstairs where the couple's 3-year-old son was sleeping to get pillowcases to put over their heads, McCartney said.

Rydberg then raped Janet McCartney with his mask off, McCartney said, describing how he got good looks at Rydberg's face during lightning flashes. Then, he said, Rydberg pulled down McCartney's pants and performed oral sex on him for about five minutes. He eventually left, stealing their car.

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About a month and a half later, McCartney said, his wife learned she was pregnant. Rather than risking that the child might be her rapist's, he said, they decided to have an abortion.

McCartney urged the panel to reject Rydberg's petition, saying he has followed every step of Rydberg's case since his commitment and doesn't believe he has reformed.

"This man will do the same thing if he gets the opportunity," McCartney said. And he urged the three judges - all women - to put more weight on what Rydberg did to his victims than his attorney's plea that the hearing focus on Rydberg's progress in treatment.

Near the end of his testimony, McCartney expressed contempt for Rydberg, who was sitting at a table next to his lawyer.

"He can't even look up. You're something else," McCartney told Rydberg. As he left the stand, McCartney glared at Rydberg as he walked back to sit next to his wife. Rydberg did not appear to look back at him.

Rydberg then took the stand, saying he wouldn't harm anyone again if he's released.

Asked if he considers himself a sex offender, Rydberg replied, "I'm a recovering sex offender." Assistant Attorney General Noah Cashman eventually got Rydberg to admit that he is, indeed, a sex offender.

"When I did offenses I did a lot of harm to a lot of people," Rydberg said.

Rydberg told the judges he had been sexually abused as a child by his father and a cousin, and that he often hated his parents and felt emotionally distant from them. He also admitted he committed his first sex offense when he was 12. He said he undressed a 10-year-old girl and touched her vagina but denied any penetration.

Cashman tried to show the court that Rydberg has not faced up to his problems. Rydberg acknowledged he had been diagnosed as a sexual sadist and an alcohol abuser and that he had anti-social personality disorder, but he seemed unsure whether those diagnoses are still in effect.

Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Mark Lindahl urged the judges to go slow.

"We feel that he is an ongoing danger to and ultimately his risk factors are too great for him to be released into the community at this time," Lindahl said. "This is a precedent-setting case and we need to be cautious."

If the panel approves a provisional discharge, Rydberg would transfer from a secure state hospital in St. Peter to a Twin Cities halfway house with a GPS ankle bracelet and a long list of conditions by which he must abide, including lie-detector tests, random drug screenings and regular check-ins with program staffers.

According to a statement filed with the court ahead of the hearing by his attorney, Brian Southwell, Rydberg has made steady progress in treatment. He's employed on the St. Peter treatment center campus. He has spent more than 3,000 unsupervised hours on campus and more than 1,200 hours off campus with supervision. He regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Sexual Addiction Anonymous meetings in the community. He participates in regular therapy sessions on- and off-campus.

Southwell also wrote that Rydberg has developed self-control skills in treatment to avoid reverting to his old ways. Rydberg has also passed lie-detector tests to see whether he is aroused by "deviant-themed sexual materials," the attorney wrote.

Rydberg's case has advanced the farthest out of the seven men in Minnesota who have reached the final stage of treatment before they can seek provisional discharge. The case of one other man, Thomas Ray Duvall, could come up later this year. The rest remain locked up in secure facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake.

Courts have ruled that indefinite civil commitments of sex offenders who have finished their prison sentences is constitutional if they're meant to provide treatment. While programs in Minnesota and other states have survived numerous challenges, critics have warned that their constitutionality is questionable if nobody ever graduates from them. Minnesota has been among the most reluctant states to release committed sex offenders. By contrast, neighboring Wisconsin's sex-offender treatment program has discharged more than 60 sex offenders since 1995. California has put nearly 200 offenders back into the community. New Jersey has freed more than 120.

Rydberg's case comes up as states struggle to balance their budgets. Minnesota faces a $5 billion deficit, while its sex offender program will cost about $67 million to run this year. As such programs have grown, their costs have too. An Associated Press analysis last year found that the 20 states with civil commitment programs planned to spend nearly $500 million in 2010 to confine and treat 5,200 sex offenders considered too dangerous to release.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)