There's No Place Like Prison

Phillips families were already worried about the parolees next door. Then the headless corpse turned up.

All around him Paul Weir sees signs of hope. Five years ago the property adjacent to his house on the 2700 block of 12th Avenue South was boarded up. Prior to that it was occupied by drug dealers and members of a street gang known as the Vice Lords. Now it is a community garden where cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, and morning glories blossom. "I don't remember the last time I called 911," says the 62-year-old retiree as he strolls through the Phillips neighborhood, where he has lived for 25 years. "It used to be a daily, if not many-times-daily thing."

Hans Christian Andersen, one of the largest elementary schools in the state, is across the street. In the mornings, Weir watches as an increasing number of mothers and fathers shepherd their children to school--a clear indicator, he believes, that area families are more invested in their kids.

On the corner of 27th Street and 12th Avenue is another notorious house. Weir says that not so long ago, gangsters would literally engage in gun battles on its rooftop. Now the structure is a two-story candy cane, all milk-white stucco and red trim. "This is amazing," Weir gushes, walking past the property. "This used to be the worst house on the block." Just east on 13th Avenue, roofs have been re-shingled, panes

Chang Park

replaced, siding repainted. Only one property, which Weir refers to as "the crazy old aunt in the attic," continues to fester, featuring boarded up windows and a broken down, wooden fence.

The last stop on Weir's impromptu walking tour is the duplex at 2609 13th Ave. S. Once a well-known crack house, today the 100-year-old two-story is a picture of serenity. It is painted warm yellow, with green shutters and trim. The downstairs shades are drawn, and a fan quietly spins in the upstairs window. Weir is not impressed. "Totally innocuous," he exclaims, shaking his head.

The duplex is owned by a nonprofit organization called 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life, and has served as a group home for ex-convicts since 1998. Sex offenders, who have a harder time finding other landlords to accept their rental applications, have gravitated to the property. Typically, two or more men convicted of sex crimes are living at the duplex at any given time. Some of them have had multiple convictions for assaulting children. "We get the hard cases, definitely. We get the cases that no one else wants," explains Mike Davis, who started the organization from scratch four years ago.

Not surprisingly, the people of Phillips don't want sex offenders living in their neighborhood either. Davis's duplex is just two blocks from the elementary school. Stewart Park, a popular gathering place for youngsters, is just one block west. There's a public swimming pool in the area. And Waite House, a nonprofit group that provides programs for neighborhood children, sits a few doors north. "It's like throwing a lit stick of dynamite into a bus," says Paul Meek, who lives across the street from the duplex.

Last March, two residents living at 9 to 5 were arrested for possessing child pornography. Suddenly, the explosion Meek, Weir, and other neighbors had been bracing for seemed inevitable. Four months later, a man was dead.

 

According to documents filed in Hennepin County District Court, Bobby Holder was lured to 2609 13th Avenue South on July 5, 2001. The bait was former homecoming queen Tina Leja. The 26-year-old Leja allegedly told Holder she would be alone, even though her boyfriend Darnell Smith lived at the duplex. Leja and the 26-year-old Smith had met at Stillwater prison. She was working as a guard; he was an inmate, serving six years for raping a 12-year-old girl.

Darnell Smith believed "Holder was attracted to Leja" and wanted to teach him a lesson. After Holder arrived at the duplex, he and Leja began kissing. At that point Darnell Smith and his 17-year-old brother, Chaka Smith, came out from hiding and a fight broke out. Chaka Smith allegedly struck Holder in the head with a police flashlight. Then Darnell Smith shot him in the torso with a Desert Eagle handgun.

Holder pleaded with the brothers to let him go to a hospital. He was having trouble breathing. The 20-year-old promised not to reveal who had shot him. Darnell Smith responded by planting another bullet in his torso. Holder died from the wounds. A cell phone, keys to a 1980 Monte Carlo, and several hundred dollars were taken from the victim. The brothers then wrapped Holder in a sheet and stowed the body in Darnell Smith's bedroom. The next day Darnell Smith moved the corpse to the basement and dismembered the body.

Another resident of the duplex, Andre Lamont Parker, who had recently served time for second degree assault, got sucked into the madness. Darnell Smith allegedly showed him a cooler containing two arms, two legs, and a bag that held Holder's head. According to separate criminal complaints filed against Parker and Leja, the two accomplices then conspired to dispose of the body.

The deceased was stuffed into Leja's car and she drove east. Parker followed behind in the victim's Monte Carlo. After depositing Holder's vehicle at a Wisconsin truck stop, the pair allegedly buried the torso on property belonging to Leja's father in Chippewa County, Wisconsin. The remaining body parts were most likely deposited on the side of an abandoned road, but have never been recovered.

Just three days after the murder, Holder's torso, which was shrouded in garbage bags, was discovered by Leja's father. The elder Leja immediately informed authorities. The victim's Monte Carlo was discovered near Baldwin, Wisconsin. Holder's mother identified the corpse from three tattoos on his torso. A few weeks later an unnamed informant came forward and told Minneapolis police that Darnell Smith had been talking about the crime.

Both Smiths are facing charges of first-degree murder. Leja was booked for the same crime, but a grand jury declined to deliver an indictment. She is now being charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree assault, and second-degree assault. Parker has been charged with aiding an offender. All four are in prison awaiting trial. No pleas have been entered.

 

In 1965 Dennis Linehan pleaded guilty to abducting and strangling a 14-year-old girl from Shoreview, Minnesota. A decade later, just a week before Linehan was slated for a parole hearing, he escaped from prison, fled to Michigan, and sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl. He would eventually serve five years in a Michigan prison for that crime.

In 1994 the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Linehan's indefinite commitment to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. The court ruled that Ramsey County prosecutors had failed to prove that Linehan had "an utter lack of power" to control his sexual impulses, as required by a 1939 law, and ordered his release.

The decision set off a wave of hysteria. No halfway house in the state would accept Linehan. The media transformed him into an icon of sexual deviance. He was ultimately "released" to a one-man residence on the grounds of the Stillwater prison and kept under round-the-clock surveillance by the Department of Corrections (DoC). The arrangement cost approximately $300,000 a year.

Amid the uproar, and during an election year, a special one-day session of the Legislature was called to amend the state's psychopathic-personality-commitment law. Within a year Linehan was back in St. Peter. He remains committed indefinitely.

The Linehan case presents an extreme example of a common problem. After serving their time, the vast majority of people who commit sex crimes are not detained as sexual predators, like Linehan, but are released into the community. And, simply put, nobody wants them.

"You could murder someone and it would be easier to place you than [someone with a] sex-abuse charge," says Marvin Clark, who works with AMICUS, a nonprofit that assists ex-offenders. "That is the most difficult person to place anywhere in this state."

Russ Stricker, who, as head of Hennepin County's Intensive Supervised Release program, is charged with monitoring the state's most serious parolees, estimates that 70 percent of those he supervises are sex offenders. "Our greatest issue is finding appropriate housing, especially for sex offenders," Stricker acknowledges. "Oftentimes we compromise a lot to allow them to live in some pretty undesirable places." The alternative, Stricker says, is returning parolees to the DoC, a practice that the agency understandably prefers to avoid.

A DoC study issued in March reports that while housing for all ex-convicts is increasingly hard to come by, sex offenders have even fewer options. The report goes on to say that a sex offense represents a "modern day 'scarlet letter' of disapproval and fear." It further argues that unless ex-felons--sexual or otherwise--can find permanent shelter, they are likely to revert to a life of crime. "If they don't have a stable place and someplace they can feel secure--then more than likely they're gonna go back to their old ways," Clark confirms.

Since 1997, people accused or convicted of a sex crime--from indecent exposure to armed sexual assault--have been classified based on a three-tier risk scale. Those deemed most likely to commit future crimes are dubbed level-three offenders; and, because of the public disavowal of sex offenders, they end up concentrated in poor neighborhoods such as Phillips. According to a database maintained by the DoC, 34 of the 61 level-three sex offenders living in the state reside in Minneapolis. Of those, 13 make their homes in the Phillips neighborhood--the densest such concentration in Minnesota.

"People are absolutely terrified down here that the neighborhood is being used as a garbage dump for sex offenders and there's nothing they can do about it," observes Phillips resident Paul Weir.

Weir's suspicions are not unfounded. Hennepin County's Stricker says that often inmates released to the custody of authorities in surrounding counties end up living in Minneapolis. "That happens all the time, and we are very frustrated over it," he laments. "They can take up residence here and we have no say as to whether we think it's appropriate."

What's more, Stricker says, Mike Davis's program--9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life--unwittingly exacerbates the inequities. "A number of the outlying counties have gone to him and he has made it possible for them to find a spot here," he argues. "I don't want to come down too hard on Mike, because I think he does mean well, and he has been willing to take in some pretty difficult people, but it has tended to be people from other counties rather than Hennepin people."

Davis says that 9 to 5 helps whoever needs shelter, regardless of geography. "Our policy is, we're gonna rent to anybody who needs helping," he argues. Davis also points out that the primary reason he originally purchased property in Phillips is that he simply could not afford to buy land in a bucolic neighborhood: "Ideally I'd like to put 'em out in Hinckley, Minnesota--somewhere isolated. But it's not practical."

For many, it wouldn't matter whether sex offenders were left in the inner city or shipped out to the corn fields. In recent years, they have become a perennial piñata for state legislators. Every time a horrific sex crime seizes the public's attention, penalties are increased and post-release regulation becomes more stringent.

In response to the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in St. Joseph, legislators mandated the creation of a statewide sex-offender database that law-enforcement officials could draw on to investigate crimes.

In 1994 seven-year-old Megan Kanka was murdered by a convicted sex offender who had moved in across the street from her New Jersey home. Minnesota legislators responded with a law mandating that communities be informed about such felons' whereabouts. That legislation, which resulted in the three-tier risk scale, also ensures that when a level-three offender moves in, a notification meeting is held in the neighborhood. If the person moves to a new address, another meeting is scheduled. Since the law was implemented in 1997, more than 180 such meetings have been held statewide.

Most recently, the 1999 murders of Cally Jo Larson and Katie Poirier led to an increase in the length of time former sex offenders are required to keep law-enforcement officials abreast of their living arrangements. It also requires that they provide information about secondary addresses, such as cabins, and mandates the creation of a public, online database of level-three offenders, which is available at www.doc.state.mn.us/level3/level3.asp.

In 1999 Rep. Joe Mullery, a DFLer from north Minneapolis, introduced a measure that would have put further restrictions on those convicted of a sex crime. But instead of being spurred by a crime, this legislation was born out of the same complaints now being voiced in the Phillips neighborhood: A seemingly disproportionate number of sex offenders were taking up residence in the poor, urban area Mullery represents. Under the proposal, level-three sex offenders would have been prohibited from living within 1,500 feet of a park, school, or another level-three offender. The legislation was later modified to include daycare centers.

"There is no community that a sex offender could live in in the state of Minnesota if the law had passed," argues Will Alexander, community-notification director at the Department of Corrections. Alexander, who has attended almost every community-notification meeting since they began in 1997, also takes issue with the assumption that housing more than one sex offender at a property somehow increases predatory behavior. "There is no credible evidence anyplace that having more than one sex offender in a residence is any more dangerous," he declares.

Eventually Mullery's bill failed to pass. He intends to bring it up again this coming session, however. And this time he hopes to eliminate childcare centers from the equation. "It was when they added the daycare language that there was a problem," he maintains.

No matter how many laws are passed by concerned legislators, no matter how closely sex offenders are monitored after they are released, the fact remains that they have to live somewhere--and at present the choices are almost nonexistent. "Other than Mike, I don't even begin to know where to send them," says Donna Woltering, who works at AMICUS. "I don't have a clue."

 

Mike Davis looks more like an offensive lineman gone to seed than a social worker. A squat brick of a man, he is dressed in a blue velour pullover, baggy navy pants, and blue-tinted sunglasses. A red baseball cap, courtesy of the U.S. Marines, covers his shaved head.

"This is kind of our base of operations," he says. It is a crisp Saturday afternoon in September, and Davis is standing in a garage surrounded by cases of Big House Root Beer. Next to him is a remodeled '72 Volkswagen Bug; "Slammer Sodas" is painted on its side. Davis developed the recipe for the root beer in his kitchen and a year ago began paying a Wisconsin company to bottle the brew. In theory, the venture is designed to bring in revenue for 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life. One day Davis hopes to market a whole shelf full of flavors: Bad Bob's Black Cherry, Criminal Cream Soda, Gangster Grape. But so far the root beer can be found in only a handful of stores, and the brown VW seldom leaves the garage. "I don't like driving it around," Davis concedes. "It draws too much attention to me. I'm a real strong introvert."

Although Davis often speaks of "we" when discussing 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life, he is essentially a one-man show. Occasionally a stray volunteer will pitch in, but there are no employees, and Davis does not take a salary. For the past decade he's worked closely with ex-offenders in one capacity or another: Davis has managed halfway houses, provided employment counseling to offenders, and given presentations at prisons designed to help inmates successfully make the transition to freedom. He currently works at a supportive housing facility for the chronically homeless--many of whom have criminal records. In part, Davis says, his dedication to working with people who have broken the law is rooted in his own two-year stint with the Marines. "I know what it's like to lose my freedom and it's an awful thing," he says.

In 1997, fed up with the lack of support available to ex-convicts, Davis decided to strike out on his own. To make 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life a reality, Davis did not send out grant applications, solicit donors by mail, or even ask people to drop spare change into a tin can. He started hawking dollar wieners outside of a Rainbow Foods grocery store on Memorial Day weekend, 1997. With an overhead of 54 cents per hot dog, he figured he was onto something and decided to stand outside a different grocery store every weekend. Before fall turned to winter, Davis managed to start selling as many as 500 hot dogs per weekend.

That December he was attending a meeting at DoC headquarters in St. Paul to discuss the difficulties of finding housing for former inmates. What's the solution? Davis remembers bluntly asking the speaker that day. There is no solution, was the response. "At that point it occurred to me," he says. "With the money I made from the hot-dog sales, I'm going to buy a house."

The very next day he got wind of the duplex on 13th Avenue South in Phillips; by January he had purchased it for $39,900. "I didn't like the look of it. I didn't think it was in very good shape. But I thought, 'This is a start,'" Davis says. "The day I closed, I had a guy moving in."

Soon, anywhere from four to six people were living at the 13th Avenue property. Davis then purchased another duplex in the Phillips neighborhood and began housing ex-felons there as well. Last year, Davis bought a third property in northeast Minneapolis. 9 to 5 now provides shelter to from 10 to 12 ex-convicts at a time, and Davis is looking for a fourth house in St. Paul.

Tom (a convicted sex offender who would not reveal his last name) lived at 2609 13th Avenue for two months last spring, before buying a home of his own in the northern suburbs. "I went out searching, and every place I went to they said, 'You've got a felony, we don't want you,'" he says. "When I rented from Mike Davis, I needed a place to stay right away and he took me in."

Barb Pratt got involved with the organization as a volunteer after reading an article about Davis last year in the community newspaper Southside Pride. Pratt, who had been searching for a way to do something about the lack of affordable housing in the Twin Cities, was inspired by Davis's gumption. She has even hawked root beer for the cause. "He's committed beyond a normal human being," Pratt gushes. "I have a feeling Mike is always outside the system a little. He doesn't fit nicely at a desk doing what he's told."

Despite the slow soda sales, 9 to 5 has flourished without soliciting a penny. The bulk of the organization's funds come through rent collected from tenants. Davis has also brought in substantial revenue from selling a series of instructional books and videos that he created to help prisoners make the transition to civilian life. In addition he is working on a line of seasonings (e.g., Bad Boy Garlic Hot Sauce). And the hot-dog cart still gets rolled out for the odd neighborhood festival.

While few can be found to criticize Davis's entrepreneurial approach, 9 to 5's philosophy has raised eyebrows. Davis does not provide any services to his tenants--no employment counseling or drug and alcohol treatment. He offers a roof and four walls.

By way of contrast, St. Stephen's Housing Services, which operates five group homes for ex-convicts in Minneapolis, keeps a tight leash on its residents. Employees of the nonprofit organization make random visits to the houses anywhere from two to four times a week, according to Troy Howard, a case manager at St. Stephen's. In addition residents are required to have a job and are prohibited from drinking alcohol on the premises. "It's better to catch a baby monster than to wait until he becomes a big monster," Howard explains.

But even St. Stephen's has trouble finding space for level-three sex offenders. The organization has to rent the houses where it shelters former inmates, and Howard says that property owners often balk at allowing tenants who have to go through the community-notification process. "It's not that we don't take them," he says. "We just find them harder to place."

Since Davis owns his property, he can house whomever he wants. He is proud to provide shelter to the least desirable tenants, and unapologetic about his laissez-faire approach to supervision. His credo is simple: "We don't supervise you; we provide an opportunity. The rest is up to you."

 

Two days before an arrest warrant was issued for Darnell Smith, Davis began working to have him evicted. The landlord didn't know that Bobby Holder had been murdered--yet. But he knew something was amiss.

Right after Smith moved in at the beginning of June, Davis had noticed a steady, heavy stream of female traffic going in and out of the duplex. "It seemed like there was a brothel going on in there," he says. Once, when Davis stopped by the house, Smith was watching a pornographic video. "He was obsessed with sex," he concludes.

Davis was not alone in his concern. Fran Mendenhall, who lives next door, noticed that there always seemed to be people hanging out in front of the house, drinking beer and dealing drugs. "It wasn't so much a problem because of the guys having been sex offenders," Mendenhall says. "It was a problem because the guys reverted to their criminal behavior."

Mendenhall and others say supervision at the property was practically nonexistent. Jessica Topp rents a room from Mendenhall and occasionally hung out next door with Darnell Smith and the other tenants. "There was lots of guys over there, lots of girls over there," recalls Topp. "The only therapy they were getting was their Hennessy bottles and their Newport cigarettes."

There had been problems at the duplex before Smith's arrival. On March 7 Ramsey County parole officer Derek Weinke paid an unannounced visit to resident James Noyer, a level-three sex offender who had twice been convicted of sexually assaulting children. According to a criminal complaint, when Weinke walked into Noyer's bedroom he discovered that the ex-convict had subscribed to WebTV, a violation of his parole. Weinke and another agent then conducted a search of the room and found a videotape in the closet.

"That was the tape I was hoping you would not find," Noyer told his parole officer. "That has child pornography on it. Hardcore child pornography. If you watch this you would want to shoot me in the head for it."

After Noyer was arrested, another level-three sex offender living at the duplex informed law-enforcement agents that there was additional pornography hidden under the kitchen sink. Officers eventually removed a computer, a videotape showing children being sexually abused, digital-video equipment, and Polaroid photos of a preschool-age girl taking off her clothes.

Noyer admitted to possessing child pornography but told authorities that the Polaroid photos were actually taken by Ernesto Longoria, a level-two sex offender also living at the duplex. Police then executed a search warrant on Longoria's room and, according to a separate criminal complaint, recovered at least ten photographs of children in sexual poses or acts, as well as two cameras, a telephoto lens, videotapes, and a photo album with pictures of girls taken from a distance. Also seized in the search was a flyer soliciting women over 18 to come to his home and pose for nude pictures. Longoria also had two previous convictions for sexually assaulting children, the most recent in Ramsey County.

Noyer pled guilty to three counts of possessing child pornography and, in July, was sentenced to three years in prison. Longoria pleaded guilty to one count of possessing child pornography and is expected to be sentenced to three years in prison later this month.

Four months after Noyer and Longoria were arrested, Bobby Holder was lured to 2609 13th Avenue and murdered. But Davis doesn't believe the incidents are at all related. He also argues that Noyer and Longoria's troubles did not mean the property needed closer supervision, since parole officers routinely visit the premises unannounced. "The properties are really monitored and supervised very closely. There's accountability all the time," he maintains. "I'm [open] to suggestions on what the hell else I should have done besides close the place down. We're gonna continue doing what we're doing. We're not gonna let one tragedy stop us from moving on."

 

On a Thursday night in mid-September, the gymnasium at Waite Park Elementary School is packed to overflowing. More than 200 agitated neighborhood residents have turned up to hear about a 46-year-old, level-three sex offender named Kerry Dean Stevenson, who is scheduled to move into the northeast Minneapolis neighborhood.

Stevenson has never been charged with a violent sexual offense, but on 27 different occasions he has been convicted of exposing himself in public. His modus operandi has been to approach a group of prepubescent girls, expose himself, and masturbate. Under the terms of his probation, Stevenson is prohibited from having contact with children or former victims, must be home by 10:30 p.m., and is required to complete a sex-offender rehabilitation program.

The law-enforcement officials who have come to the meeting emphasize the stipulations that have been put on Stevenson's release, then tell the crowd that their new neighbor is one of the least dangerous sex offenders to be the subject of a community-notification meeting. The assurances do little to assuage the outrage. Gasps and moans fill the gymnasium as the highlights of Stevenson's criminal résumé are read aloud. Neighbors trade exasperated glances when a police officer goes over a list of safety tips for kids: Scream "911" if someone assaults you; never go off with a stranger who wants to show you a puppy.

First come the questions: How can this man live so close to a school? Is he allowed to visit the park? How recent is the photo of him on the flyer? Is this the first time he's been through treatment? Then the accusations: One man charges that authorities failed to deliver flyers about the meeting to all of the neighbors. A woman declares that sex offenders such as Stevenson are impossible to rehabilitate. "Kids are bused into this community, and parents don't have any idea that this guy is half a block away," charges another neighbor. There is a chorus of amens.

Lt. Mike Sauro, supervisor of the Minneapolis Police Department's sex-crimes division, attempts to placate the crowd. "I sense some anger," he says. "Remember one thing: We are your allies. I probably despise these people even more than you do." Soon after, people file out of the school, shaking their heads in disbelieving disgust.

Away from the heat of the meeting, Sauro says that he understands the neighbors' anger, but he doesn't believe there is anything else that can be done. "Once they're released, this is a free country," Sauro says flatly. "That's the price you pay to live in a democracy."

Northeast Minneapolis is new to the sex-offender-notification game. Stevenson will become the only level-three offender to reside in the area. In Phillips, similar notification meetings are met with apathy and resignation--maybe 15 or 20 people will show up. "I stopped going to the meetings because it didn't matter if we wanted them there or not," admits Claudia Slovacek, who lives on the 2600 block of 12th Avenue South.

Since the arrests of Darnell Smith and Andre Parker, the residence on 13th Avenue South has become home for four new ex-convicts. Two of the new tenants are sex offenders; one has been classified level three. For the most part, Davis says, the property has been quiet. The tenants pay their rent and go about their lives--just like they're supposed to.

A disturbingly familiar pattern recently began to emerge, however, with one of the new residents. Davis says that he received two complaints from other tenants about a high volume of visitors--particularly women--coming and going at the house. He's also heard rumors of drug use. Davis didn't hesitate. Last week the problematic tenant was given an eviction notice. "We responded quickly before, but now it's immediately," Davis says.

Still, Davis has no intention of changing the overall approach at 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life: Everyone deserves a second chance. "Some people aren't going to like this comment, but I'm gonna keep on doing it. I don't apologize for what I do."

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