No One Wants Released Offenders The Child Molester Next Door

June 18, 1995|By TUCKER CARLSON

On New Year's Eve 1975, after an evening of taking LSD and watching cop shows on television, 15-year-old Raul Meza showed up at a convenience store near his house in Austin, Texas, armed with a deer rifle. Meza emptied the cash register, then marched the clerk, a 20-year-old college student, into the walk-in freezer. Meza shot him in the back and left him for dead.

The clerk recovered to testify against the man who wounded him. Meza received a 20-year sentence and served five years before getting out on parole. Months after his release in 1982, he abducted an 8-year-old girl as she rode her bicycle near her home in southeast Austin. Meza tortured, raped and strangled the girl, then left her body behind a trash bin. He received a 30-year prison term for the slaying.

Meza was denied parole seven times, but by 1993 prison authorities could keep him no longer. Under Texas law, he had accumulated enough credit for good behavior to qualify Most felons re-enter society quietly and soon become anonymous. But Jerry White, the city editor of the Austin American-Statesman, decided to make Meza famous.

Mr. White compiled a list of notorious inmates from Austin and every few months he called the department of corrections to ask when they'd be eligible for parole. In June 1993, the department of corrections confirmed that Meza was due to be released. Using the state's Open Records Act, the newspaper petitioned Texas' attorney general and found where Meza planned to live. An article ran on the front page of the Sunday paper eight days before Meza's release. The headline read, " 'Nothing's Going To Stop It': Killer of 8-Year-Old About to be Freed."

In a city of about 465,000 people, the story reached 240,000 homes and provoked an outpouring of media attention. Film crews greeted Meza as he walked out of the state prison and followed him for months. Corrections officials moved him from town to town, but in each residents and local politicians protested his presence.

Colin Amann, a Houston lawyer who represented the killer after his release, says angry citizens "kicked him [Meza] in the butt from one end of Texas to the other."

Of the 276 halfway houses that were asked to accept Meza, 271 refused. "Every town he went to," says Mr. Amann, "people were just screaming and yelling. Lots of small communities went out and bitched about it. A lot. And it happened every time they'd move him, they had the same outcry."

In August, the parole division placed Meza on his grandparents' farm, west of San Antonio. On Aug. 31, local sheriffs charged Meza with "terroristic threatening" and disorderly conduct for bullying his elderly grandparents. A judge later dismissed the charges, but the incident made nearly every newspaper in Texas. At least 1,000 local residents signed a petition asking the state to move Meza again. The parole division sent him to Austin, where he was greeted with more demonstrations.

In August 1994, Meza was arrested for violating the curfew provision of his parole, and he returned to a state prison in Huntsville.

A blunt instrument

The publicity generated by Meza's release became a blunt instrument that bludgeoned everyone close to the case. His relatives were humiliated. His victim's parents saw their tragedy replayed in the press. And nobody knows how such attention may have retarded Meza's rehabilitation. But Meza did not kill another child while out of prison.

More and more communities are clamoring for laws that will alert them when violent offenders are released. Maryland has joined a number of states that require notification of local police when a released convict moves into a jurisdiction.

Maryland's law, passed during the past legislative session, becomes effective Oct. 1. It requires convicted child sex offenders to register with local police after they are released from prison or after they are placed on community supervision. The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will keep a statewide registry of the offenders. Local law enforcement officials, after receiving written requests on specific offenders, are empowered to supply information from the registry.

Statistics show that Meza's neighbors should have been concerned about his presence. About one-third of convicted rapists in Texas are arrested for new crimes within two years of getting out on parole. Ordinarily, parole officers are not able to supervise sex offenders carefully. But because they learned from news reports where Meza lived, neighbors were able to keep their children out of his path. Relentless publicity forced a troubled parole system to work effectively. And information disseminated by the press helped to create thousands of civilian parole officers -- watchful neighbors who kept an eye on him.

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