By Jackson Holtz and Jerry Cornfield, Herald Writers
SNOHOMISH — They tried motels. They tried relatives. They tried homeless shelters.
When a high-risk sex offender was about to be released from prison, he had no place to stay. The state told him to sleep under a bridge beneath U.S. 2 near Snohomish.
“That’s not an acceptable place to be living,” Snohomish Police Chief John Turner said. “There is an issue. Where do sex offenders live? Where can they live?”
There’s another issue, too.
Three days after being released from prison, David J. Torrence, 43, on Wednesday cut off the electronic monitoring bracelet he was issued and stopped reporting to his parole officer.
A nationwide no-bail arrest warrant has been issued for Torrence. He’s a level-3 sex offender and considered at the highest risk of reoffending.
State Department of Corrections officials started working months before Torrence’s release to find a place for him to stay, said Mary Rehberg, the officer assigned to Torrence’s case.
“We’d rather them have a home and know where they’re at than have them wandering the streets,” she said. “The only reason he was there under the bridge was so we could know where he was.”
The bridge near Snohomish was selected because it was convenient for Torrence to check in with parole supervisors and get transportation to other services, Rehberg said, adding there were no other alternatives for the homeless offender.
“I didn’t want him under that bridge either,” she said.
In 1995, Torrence pleaded guilty to second-degree rape. He was accused of grabbing a 16-year-old Snohomish County girl off Fifth Avenue near Casino Road. He threatened to shoot her and then sexually assaulted her, according to court records.
“He’s a stranger rapist, which is the worst of all kinds,” Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Joseph Beard said. Beard tracks sex offenders in the county.
Torrence was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. Since completing that sentence, he’s been arrested several more times.
“He has a history of failing to register,” Beard said.
On Sunday, he was released from prison after serving a one-year term for failing to register as a sex offender.
People cannot be kept in prison once they’ve served their time even if they have no home, Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick said.
“We can’t really protect everyone from everything. We’re doing our absolute best. That’s all we can do,” he said. “I believe we will find this guy.”
Finding a place for high-risk sex offenders to live can be difficult, officials said.
State laws prevent them from living within 800 feet of a school or other places where minors come together to play. Local police must notify neighbors when a sex offender moves into a neighbor.
In Torrence’s case, local motels and homeless shelters refused to give him a bed, Rehberg said.
He has relatives in Lynnwood, but he declined to live with them, she said.
Torrence’s case isn’t unique.
In the first three months of 2008, the state Department of Corrections released 34 level-3 sex offenders. Of those, 15 were homeless at release, said spokeswoman Anna Aylward.
State lawmakers said there needs to be a better solution for homeless sex offenders.
“We’re going to have to get some facility, state-operated, to house them until they find permanent housing,” said Rep. Al O’Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace. “It is not acceptable that we’ll put them under a bridge.”
Offenders determined to be sexually violent predators can be locked up in the civil commitment center on McNeil Island, said Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe. That’s not easy. Mental health professionals must diagnose the offender as being among a narrow category of people geared toward sexual violence, and a court must agree.
Most sex offenders coming out of prison don’t fall in that category, he said.
“The state should have some transitional place where they should be and if they do not comply with terms of their release they should go back into the slammer for a very long time,” Pearson said.
There are about 55 homeless sex offenders in Snohomish County, Beard said. Each week, the offenders must check in with his office and let them know where they’re sleeping.
“They’re higher risk, they don’t have any stability,” he said.
For many of the men, it’s all a game of trying to shrug off supervision, he said.
“They’ll do anything to manipulate the system to avoid detection,” the detective said.
O’Brien, the chairman of the House public safety committee, said he will push for a new law imposing a sentence of five years to life in prison for sex offenders who disable their GPS-monitoring devices.
Officials said Torrence’s GPS system worked exactly as it was intended. When he cut it off, a warning was sounded and within hours police knew he was on the run.
“It gave us a head start,” Beard said. “Nobody can follow them around 24-7.”
As the search for the fugitive continued Friday, Pearson said he was frustrated with the state’s handling of sex offenders.
“I am pretty irritated,” the ranking Republican on the House public safety committee said. “What terrifies me is this person is very highly likely to re-offend.
“I am praying there is no catastrophe here.”
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone who sees David J. Torrence, 43, a missing sex offender, is asked to call 911 immediately.