Sex offender's release draws hundreds to Golden Valley meeting

Sex offender reaction
Don Reimers of Golden Valley, Minn. spoke during a community meeting at Perpich Center for the Arts in Golden Valley, Minn. Monday, March 5, 2012. The meeting was held to inform Golden Valley residents of the release and eventual residence of convicted sex offender Clarence Opheim in their community.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In less than a week, the first person released from Minnesota's sex offender program is expected to move to a halfway house in suburban Minneapolis.

The Department of Human Services had planned to let 64 year old Clarence Opheim out quietly. But last month a new law took effect that requires communities to be notified if a sex offender is released to residential treatment.

State and local officials held their first meeting with concerned Golden Valley residents last night.

Opheim has been in state custody for more than 20 years. In 1988 a judge sent him to prison for sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy, but Opheim eventually admitted to molesting 29 children in all.

When his prison sentence was up, authorities said Opheim was still a danger to kids, so they civilly committed him to Minnesota's then-new sex offender program.

But next Monday, Opheim is expected to leave a state treatment facility in St. Peter to live at Damascus Way -- a halfway house in Golden Valley.

About 300 people came to the meeting at the Perpich Center for the Arts for a question-and-answer session about Opheim's release. The tone was civil, but citizens expressed concern about their childrens' safety and how Opheim would be monitored.

Damascus Way
Convicted sex offender Clarence Opheim will be moving to Damascus Way Reentry Center in Golden Valley, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Renee Bergquist was among them.

"We live close, probably six blocks away. And it's important that we know what's going on," she said. "We have grandkids that will be around, and I just want to make sure we know what to look for, what's not right."

Like other residents who came to the meeting, Bergquist says she'd prefer Opheim live elsewhere. But she says for the most part officials did allay her concerns.

Stacy Harwell, who has three children and also lives near Damascus Way, says she spent a lot of time on the Internet researching Opheim, and thinks the extra scrutiny the halfway house is getting could turn out to be good for the community.

"I feel like we're going to be safer because he's there," she said. "People just like him are already living there and are going through that facility, and it's going to be watched more closely now."

State officials and those who run the nonprofit halfway house say Opheim will live under strict rules, including no access to computers and cell phones. The only high-tech device he will have is a GPS ankle bracelet the Department of Human Services will monitor around the clock. If Opheim sets foot outside the building, a chaperone will follow.

Richard Gardell is the CEO of Community Reentry Services, which contracts with the state and halfway houses to treat sex offenders. He told the packed auditorium that staff at Damascus Way have experience treating people like Opheim.

"Damascus Way has a great reputation in the community," he said. "They've been doing this work for 33 years. And the fact that many people may not even have heard of them up until this point is because they've done their work very well."

Opheim may be the first person released from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, but he'll likely not be the last. There are more than 600 others under civil commitment in Minnesota, and several have petitioned the courts for release.

While the pressure is on state officials and the halfway house to ensure that Opheim doesn't re-offend, his attorney William Lubov says Opheim certainly feels that pressure too.

"He carries an extremely heavy burden. If he does not succeed in the community, the question is, can anyone succeed? And I don't know the answer to that question," Lubov said. "But certainly, as the first out the door, he's going to be a hallmark."

Officials with the Minnesota Sex Offender Program said repeatedly last night that Opheim is likely to succeed. And Hennepin County prosecutor George Widseth agreed, saying Opheim is the first offender among more than 200 whose request for release he did not challenge.

Widseth and all the others involved with this groundbreaking case have pledged to keep a close eye on Opheim. And last night residents of Golden Valley made it clear they will too.