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Sex predators spur Island County forum on prevention
An increase in reports of sexual assaults, including two high-profile sexual predator cases in Oak Harbor, has spurred the county sheriff and others to put together a panel discussion about the issue.
Sheriff Mark Brown said the “Community Discussion of Predator Prevention” is aimed at educating parents and other adults about keeping children safe from sexual predators. He said a lot of people are talking and speculating about sex offenders and pedophiles because of the publicized cases, so it’s a good time to broach the subject.
“This is not just Oak Harbor’s problem,” he said. “It’s a huge problem throughout the state and throughout the nation.”
The event is co-sponsored by the sheriff’s office and the new Oak Harbor Youth Council. It will be at 6 p.m., Thursday, May 31 at the North Whidbey Middle School.
The panel will include detectives who investigate sex crimes, the director of the county’s domestic violence and sexual assault agency, a Department of Corrections official who conducts special investigations of convicted sex offenders and others.
Brown said he’s trying to walk a fine line between educating the public about the real dangers posed by child predators and trying not to cast suspicion on volunteers or volunteer groups. The simple truth is that the vast majority of people who volunteer to help children are good people.
“We do need to understand that these groups do a tremendous amount of good in the community,” he said.
The cases that spurred the creation of the community forum involve leaders of youth groups accused of molesting boys. Both of the men are currently being held in jail.
Ronald Asplund was a coordinator of a youth ministry at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church. He’s accused of molesting two boys, including one he met through the church. Detectives are looking into his involvement with Big Brothers Big Sisters and other organizations outside the area.
Anthony Polubinski was charged with raping and molesting one boy, but detectives with the Island County Sheriff’s Office say they’ve identified at least two other victims. He was a Cub Scout leader in Oak Harbor, but there are no allegations that he victimized children he met through the group.
In addition, police and prosecutors have dealt with a number of other serious sex crimes. Oak Harbor resident Ryan Stephenson was convicted of raping a toddler. Oak Harbor resident Roderick Woods was accused of raping and molesting his friends’ children. Greenbank resident George Downey was charged with kidnapping and rape.
Officials aren’t sure whether the increase in reports of sex crimes represents a trend or if it’s just a coincidence.
“It seems to come in waves, but there are long periods of time when we don’t have anything like this,” said Detective Teri Gardner with the Oak Harbor Police. She worked for 10 years as the department’s sex-crime detective and now supervises investigations.
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said his office received 17 referrals for felony sex crimes in the first four months of the year, as compared to seven during the same period last year. Prosecutors charged a total of seven adults and four juveniles with felony sex offenses all of last year; in the first quarter of this year, the office has already charged 10 adults and one juvenile.
“It’s hard to say whether this is a trend or not, since I’m looking at such a short time period,” Banks said. “But whether or not there is a trend, it’s definitely created a real and significant increase in my office’s workload because the cases are so demanding. And they are cases that really extract an emotional price from the people who work on them --- not just in my office, but in the entire criminal justice system. Of course, our pain is nothing compared to what the victims of sex crimes go through.”
Statistics on violent crime show that the violent crime rate increased in 2011 over the previous year in Island County and Oak Harbor, though the rate is still lower than the state average. The number of “forcible rapes” increased by 41 percent in the county as a whole last year.
Margie Porter, the director of Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said her agency has seen a recent increase in the number of victims come through the door for help. The agency had a 10 percent increase in new clients in the first quarter of the year compared to the same period last year.
“It feels like a lot more for us,” she said, explaining that they’ve spent a great deal of time with many of the new clients.
Porter said a lot of people are talking about the issue and are asking her what’s going on, but she can’t explain the increase beyond a historic trend. More people are aware of the problem, victims are more likely to report and the law-and-justice system takes it more seriously than in the past.
“It’s hit the community and it’s hit it hard,” she said.