Private citizen, public peril
By Tamsin McMahon
Local News - Saturday, July 23, 2005 @ 07:00
When Kelvin Fischer checked in to the Fort Henry Motel in Kingston on July 7, it was the fifth time the convicted sex offender had moved in a little more than two weeks.
A serial pedophile with a long record of sex crimes against boys as young as seven, Fischer was fresh from jail after police in Kingston had caught him giving gifts and rides to children in the Rideau Heights neighbourhood.
His return to Kingston prompted police to release a public warning that Fischer was back. This attention was enough to send him fleeing to a series of small communities that surround the city.
Each time he moved, his arrival was heralded by a police alert in which Fischer’s name, a mug shot, the details of his crimes and his new address were given to the news media.
The results were swift and predictable: motel owners, backed by an angry chorus of neighbours, decided Fischer’s money was no good in their establishments.
Fischer, 43, whose crimes include having oral and anal sex with boys, quietly packed his bags and moved on. His movements had become a game of cat-and-mouse with police, the media and the public anxiously awaiting news of where he would surface next.
Fischer’s case – like that of nationally notorious Karla Homolka – raises questions about how to balance the rights of the public with the rights of an offender who has served his time. It also raises the issue of whether residents are actually any safer knowing the whereabouts of a released sex offender.
In all, police issued five warnings about Fischer between June 16 and July 7. The alerts were accompanied by pictures, his appearance in each one slightly changed. Here he wore a beard, there a moustache, now a pair of glasses.
“It’s just getting a little ridiculous,” said his mother, Pearl Fischer, in a telephone interview from her home in Kitchener. “He’s getting a little annoyed because every time he turns around, they [the police] are there wherever he goes.”
Police say they are well aware of the dangers in releasing personal information and pictures of ex-convicts living in the community.
First, there are privacy issues in hounding someone who has served his full sentence and is, in the eyes of the law, a free man.
Second, critics argue that police alerts don’t make the public more secure but serve only to drive criminals underground, away from treatment and support, prompting them to reoffend or even to commit suicide.
Third, public alerts can cause panic in the community and violate the rights of the offender, said Jack MacKinnon, past president of the Civil Liberties Association for the National Capital Region in Ottawa.
“Once you’ve served your term, is it fair to put additional restrictions on someone?” he asked. “I think if police are aware of where the individual is living, this is really sufficient.”
But police say they have a greater duty to protect the public from dangerous criminals, especially pedophiles who prey on the trust and ignorance of parents and the vulnerability of children.
Even Kingston Police Chief Bill Closs said he doesn’t think a public alert is the best way to control a potentially dangerous offender.
“One of the consequences of releasing a name and photograph is, yes, we could drive this person underground. Yes, we could lose contact with them,” Closs said.
“I think [Fischer] is a great example, this one, of how we’re working very hard not to let that happen.”
Kelvin “Johnny” Fischer grew up in Kitchener, Ont. His criminal record goes back to 1982 when he was convicted of drug possession.
He began racking up a record of sex crimes in 1988 with three counts of sexual interference in Stratford, Ont., and another in Cambridge.
His latest recorded sex crime was in 1996, when he was convicted of raping two brothers, eight and nine, and another eight-year-old boy he was babysitting in Kitchener.
At trial, the judge warned that Fischer could be declared a dangerous offender if he didn’t stop molesting children.
The National Parole Board denied him early release because it felt his risk of reoffending was too great. Fischer served every day of his eight-year sentence for the 1996 assaults.
When he was released from Joyceville Institution last February, Fischer decided to settle in Kingston, afraid to go back to Kitchener where his crimes were well-known.
Police let him slip into the community quietly. Rather than issue an alert, they took Fischer to court, where a judge ordered him to enter into an “810” peace bond, named for section 810 of the Criminal Code.
The court order, made famous when police used it with released sex-killer Karla Homolka recently, gives police a legal leash to set restrictions on offenders who have finished their sentence.
Fischer moved in to a Butler Street rooming house, down the road from a convenience store where children congregated.
Fischer, who his mother says has worked steadily since he was 16 – except when he was behind bars – got a job as a labourer. Everything was fine, Pearl Fischer said, “until he got mixed up with those kids.
Fischer regularly passed the convenience store on his way to work. Police,
his mother contends, took that to mean he was violating the conditions of his
peace bond to stay away from children.
But a judge found Fischer was doing much more than merely passing the store. He had earned the nickname “Slushie Man” for buying candy and slushies for neighbourhood children. He was seen taking kids for rides in his truck, to the lake for swimming, and was spotted accompanying a boy into a public washroom.
None of the children accused Fischer of molesting them.
Fischer was given another 30 days in jail and three years probation for violating a court order to stay away from anyone under the age of 16.
He returned to Kingston from jail to find that the police were no longer content to let him fade quietly into the background. They had given him a chance to live anonymously in the city and he hadn’t played by the rules.
On June 17, Kingston Police sent out a public alert detailing Fischer’s crimes, along with a photo of Fischer sporting a full crop of hair and moustache.
Feeling the glare of the public spotlight, Fischer left Kingston, arriving at a Napanee motel on June 22.
He was now in OPP territory, where police had even fewer reservations about releasing his personal information. They issued an alert with an updated photo showing Fischer looking older, with a fuller face, trimmed hair and a beard. They also released his address.
Shortly after he was publicly exposed in Napanee, Fischer left for Bath, only to find that the OPP had issued another alert with his new address.
He fled to Deseronto, where a hotel manager refused to let him stay a second night after the OPP sent out a third alert.
With nowhere to go, Fischer turned himself in to the Napanee OPP detachment. He had violated a condition of his probation that he have somewhere to stay.
Fischer pleaded guilty to the charge and left police custody on July 5. He spent a day in Trenton and arrived at the Fort Henry Motel on Highway 2 East in Kingston on July 7.
He returned to Kingston for the same reason many people retire here, said the police officer who interviewed him: he thought it was a nice place to live.
Police visited Fischer as soon as he arrived, telling him to play by the rules and take advantage of the support services in the community. They asked him to maintain “around the clock” contact with police, said Insp. Brian Cookman, who interviewed Fischer.
Fischer, Cookman said, knew the community was watching him. It was difficult for him to find a job and a place to live, but Fischer told police he also felt the scrutiny provided an incentive to stay out of trouble.
“He feels that that nagging in the back of his mind is a good thing for him,” Cookman said.
Pearl Fischer said her son is looking for a place to settle “out in the country” in the rural areas of Kingston.
She’s worried that police are hounding Fischer, looking for any reason to haul him back into court. But she said her son is adamant he wants to stay out of jail.
“He doesn’t want to go back in and hopefully he has really learned his lesson this time,” she said. “We’ve told him before, you’ve got to be careful.
“He’s not really a bad person, it’s just he’s got this problem. I wish there was a cure for it. I wish there was something they could do. I just hope it never happens again.”
Fischer isn’t the first high-risk offender in Kingston to have his name and photograph released by police. He’s the third in the past year, although the average person might be hard-pressed to name the others.
Last August, police released a picture of Philip Foremsky, who, at 18, was convicted of a string of rapes that terrorized women at York University in Toronto during the summer of 2000.
He’s still living at Portsmouth Community Correctional Centre, a halfway house near St. Lawrence College.
Then there was Cecil Preston Sr., a
77-year-old career pedophile who was convicted of 57 sex crimes against children. Police sent out his picture when the Sault Ste. Marie-area man moved to Kingston in January. He died last month.
Kingston Police issued their first alert about a high-risk offender in 1997 when Noel McCallum arrived in the city with baggage that included a history of brutal sex attacks on women.
The storm of publicity didn’t prevent McCallum from attacking again. In June 1998, he met a 55-year-old woman in a Kingston bar. He dragged her into a downtown alley, raped her and smashed her face with a beer bottle.
McCallum was sentenced to four years in prison and is to return to Kingston next month for a dangerous offender hearing.
The bar where McCallum had taken his victim had posted the police alert on its wall. But the staff didn’t recognize McCallum when he arrived because he had changed his appearance.
One of the dangers in releasing a photo of a known criminal is that it presents a false sense of security, Cookman said.
As soon the photo is out, the criminal cuts his hair, grows a beard and changes his appearance. “The actual photograph is one of the weakest links in the media release,” Cookman said. “Because they are so definitive and yet so inaccurate at the same time.”
Rather than “streetproofing” their kids by showing them pictures of known pedophiles, Cookman said parents would be wiser to watch their children in places where they could be easy targets for predators, such as crowded malls and parks.
“Streetproofing is nothing but a pretty buzz word,” he said.
Part of the problem with a police alert is that each department sets its own criteria on when to notify the public about a potentially dangerous criminal, and just how much information to release.
Until recently, police in Ontario didn’t have the legal authority to divulge personal details about convicted criminals, relying instead on moral authority to shield them from lawsuits over privacy violations.
In 1997, the Ontario government amended the Police Services Act, giving police chiefs broad powers to release personal information about a convicted or suspected criminal in the name of public safety.
The legislation was part of recommendations from an inquest into the 1988 death of 11-year-old Christopher Stephenson. The Brampton boy was killed by serial child rapist Joseph Fredericks, who had been released from prison three months before.
Kingston Police didn’t have a written policy on issuing public notices until last month, when it incorporated the legislation into its own orders allowing Closs to disclose personal information if he felt someone posed a significant risk that could be reduced by a public alert.
Even with the legal backing, Kingston Police have released the names of only a handful of the more than 100 convicted sex offenders living in the city. Some of these people are considered a high risk to reoffend. It’s a balancing act between giving the community enough details to stay informed and overloading residents with the photographs of so many known criminals that the information becomes irrelevant.
“We try very hard not to release because we don’t want to desensitize the community,” Closs said.
Police departments judge each offender on a case-by-case basis using prison and parole board reports, and looking at an offender’s criminal history, the nature of his crime and whether he has received treatment.
They say public notification is the last resort and is reserved for the worst offenders.
“I think the media have pretty accurately portrayed that these offenders are going to be released in our community,” said OPP Acting Det.-Insp. Carson Pardy, who is responsible for ordering detachments in the OPP’s Eastern Region to issue public alerts.
“We can’t keep them locked up forever. They will be out there and over time they do get assimilated back into the community, as I’m sure Mr. Fischer will. But until such time that we’re comfortable that there are measures in place to protect the safety of the public, we still have that responsibility to assess each and every case and make a decision.”
Fischer is the first offender whose address the local OPP have released since Pardy assumed his post in August.
Because each police department uses its own criteria to determine how much information they release on offenders, there are inconsistencies when offenders move to a new community. A convicted pedophile who lived privately in one town can sometimes find his criminal history on display in another.
Fischer is a case of two police organizations at odds with each other over the same offender.
The OPP released Fischer’s address when he moved through their communities. But when he came back to Kingston, police decided to keep his address mum.
While police couldn’t foresee that Fischer would move so many times, once the OPP had released his address in one community, it had to do the same for the rest.
“Every community the offender moves to deserves the same level of protection as the one that they left,” Pardy said.
Although Kingston Police didn’t release Fischer’s address when he returned July 7, angry neighbours called The Whig-Standard after discovering Fischer was living at the Fort Henry Motel. The motel confirmed he was staying there.
Cookman said police decided to keep Fischer’s address private because revealing it could push him to yet another place. “It becomes a ping-pong game, so telling the public where he is is of no value.” Cookman said.
It’s not only police departments who are debating how to handle the release of high-risk offenders. Provincial governments vary widely in their policies on informing the public about ex-cons.
Both Alberta and Manitoba post pictures and details of high-risk sex offenders on their government websites.
Alberta’s solicitor-general removes the information from its website only when an offender is no longer under court order and has been crime-free for a year.
In Manitoba, public notices stay up on the justice department’s sex offender website until an offender has received an official pardon. Manitoba’s website is also supposed to be limited to residents of the province, but there is nothing to stop outsiders from accessing the information.
In Kingston, city police began putting offenders on its website when Fischer was released from jail last month. Det. Gerry Doherty, who is in charge of managing high-risk releases, said he wasn’t aware of any set criteria on when to take down the notices.
Kingston is a community more seasoned than many in dealing with sex offenders and violent criminals, because of the sheer number of prisons in the area and the support services that entice ex-cons to stay in the city. A Kingston Police report last February found that the city had the second-highest concentration of freed sex offenders among Ontario’s largest urban centres.
Chief Closs said he would prefer that offenders be released before their full sentences are finished, giving police and Corrections Canada greater powers to control them in the community. Offenders on parole or automatic release can be ordered to live in a federal halfway house or private group home.
Unlike ex-cons who have finished their sentences, offenders on early release also live under the constant threat that they can be sent back to prison if they break any of their strict conditions.
But for people such as Fischer, who have finished their prison terms, a public alert is the best means the police feel they have to keep the community safe.
“The way I describe it is if we as the police are going to make a mistake, we have to make a mistake on the side of the law-abiding citizen,” Closs said. “That may not be fair toward the offender, but that’s the way it has to be.”
The media also have a role to play in the debate over whether to publicize personal information about possibly dangerous criminals. Police release the information, but it’s the newspapers, television and radio stations who broadcast the message to the community.
The Whig has no official policy on when to publish police alerts, but in recent practice the newspaper has always printed names and photographs of offenders sent out by police. The newspaper also publishes information on offenders who were never the subject of police alerts, but have been slapped with court orders because police feel they are a risk to reoffend.
“It has been The Whig’s practice to report on the whereabouts of potentially dangerous people, in part because the Kingston-area community expects this from us,” said the newspaper’s editor, Christina Spencer. “We’ve had people call to tell us where such offenders are, or complaining if we don’t publish the information.”
Bryan Cantley, vice-president of Canadian Newspaper Association, suspects few newspapers have established policies on when to publish police alerts, but judge them on a case-by-case basis. “We really don’t have any guidance on this,” he said. “Every newspaper treats these things according to their own sensitivities.”
But Klaus Pohle, who teaches media law and ethics at Carleton University in Ottawa, argues it’s up to the legal system, not the media, to decide whether someone is a danger to society. If the system deems a criminal safe enough to be released, then the media are not on the hook for not printing the information.
“These are law enforcement issues,” he said. “We as the media are always saying we don’t want to be an arm of the police, we’ve got to be neutral. Well, let’s be neutral. Let’s be arm’s-length. Let the police do what they have to do. We don’t have to fall into the trap of a sensational story.”
Such stories only lead to vigilantism in the community, driving criminals underground and punishing their innocent family members, he said.
In the U.K., he said, people have been attacked because they resembled the photo of a sex offender. .
Newspapers that publish the alarming and sometimes gruesome criminal histories of ex-cons who have moved to town are often more interested in selling papers than serving the public good, Pohle said.
In one 1997 case, Pohle said the
Ottawa Sun published accounts of a pedophile released into the city. When the man was brutally attacked by his neighbour, the paper had a reporter and photographer on hand to cover the beating.
The Ontario Press Council dismissed a complaint against the paper in 1998, saying it accepted the Sun’s claim that it hadn’t set up the confrontation. Its reporter and photographer had tried to break up the attack after shooting a half-dozen pictures.
The paper argued it had no idea, when a neighbour brought out the man for an interview, that the neighbour had served time for manslaughter.
The case is an example of how Pohle says the media can mistake the lurid details of sensational crime stories for public service journalism.
“This has nothing to do with the public interest in many cases,” Pohle said. “It has got to do with a good story.”