Back in 1984, Mitch Gaff raped two sisters--14 and 16 years old--in their Everett home. His savage attack involved 27 penetrations. At one point, he shocked one of the girls with an electric cord.

Not long afterward Gaff was caught, and the public demanded justice. A judge acted first, handing Gaff 10 years in prison. Just as Gaff was finishing his sentence, a

state-run committee decided he was still a threat. Instead of releasing him, the committee sent him to the Special Commitment Center (SCC), a state-run mental health facility--indefinitely. Five years passed, but the state still didn't trust Gaff. Last August, his psychiatrists recommended his release from the SCC, but the state, through a Snohomish County prosecutor, challenged the proposed release. The prosecutor put Gaff on a witness stand and made him relate his past crimes. A horrified jury promptly sent Gaff back to the SCC, where his fate is uncertain--again. [See "Reverse Psychology" by Phil Campbell in the August 31, 2000 Stranger.]

In the end, everyone seemed to respond to the Gaff trial with a sense of righteousness: Here, surely, was a victory for community safety.

Everyone, that is, but Tamara Menteer. The part-time maid from Bothell watched television reports of the Gaff trial from her home and had a distinctly different reaction. She personally knew Mitch Gaff, and felt sorry for him. The state and the media had portrayed him as a unrepentant manipulator, but Menteer believes Gaff feels honest remorse over his past crimes. She thinks he's overcome the intense psychological problems that caused him to rape young women and, after seeing Gaff spend a good part of his life at the SCC, she hopes he gains his freedom.

"Mitch went through [seven years] of treatment," Menteer says, her voice tinged with indignation. "The SCC didn't have anything else they could do with him. He knows every little nuance of his behavior that might lead him back into relapse [raping again]. He knows more about himself than the rest of us know about ourselves." Menteer also fired off a 900-word e-mail to The Stranger, articulating in precise, uncluttered language why the system failed Mitch Gaff. In her view, everyone--the Snohomish County judge, the Snohomish County prosecutor, Gaff's psychiatrists--shares some of the blame for violating the rights of a reformed serial rapist.

Such focused passion is nothing new for Menteer. For years she's been criticizing the SCC and the overall system in which the state treats sex offenders. Most of her skepticism is expressed in a self-published newsletter, although she's also testified on the subject in federal court. Her criticism, however, usually only reaches therapists, politicians, and attorneys with a vested interest in sex offenders. Now Menteer, who runs a private house-cleaning service to make ends meet, wants to bring her opinions before a broader audience. She's currently getting final approval from the IRS to launch a nonprofit organization--the Whitestone Foundation--that will call for a revolution in the way we think about sex offenders like Gaff.

This is the idea Menteer is pushing: Communities should be embracing, not chasing away, convicted sex offenders. If local groups, particularly churches, were to form social support groups around prison-released rapists and pedophiles, there would be a greater chance that many of these sex offenders would never commit another sex offense.

Menteer's proposal is not destined for instant popularity. During the past year, it's become clear that convicted sex offenders are nearly as despised as Nazi gas-chamber operators. The best evidence of this has been littering the media since the middle of last year, when law-abiding Washington residents started taking on the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) over the agency's search for a home for rapists like Gaff outside the SCC. Every time the DSHS has tried to pick a neighborhood for a new, secured halfway house for SCC-released sex offenders, panicking neighbors have revolted. Neither sex offenders nor government employees have been tarred and feathered yet, but the modern-day equivalent is underway: Pissed-off community groups have filled public hearings, lawsuits have been filed, and daily newspaper editorials have vituperated on behalf of virtuous communities.

Despite the obstacles, Menteer persists, in part because she believes that she may be one person who can actually affect public opinion about how society views sex offenders. At the very least, she knows that few people are going to shout her down or directly ridicule her. Why? Because Tamara Menteer was once a rape victim herself.

路路路

When Menteer was 16 years old and living in Spokane, she was raped by a half-dozen men she knew. Menteer had naively asked the men--who were sitting around smoking weed and drinking phenomenal amounts of alcohol with her--if they wanted to have an orgy.

The year was 1972, and "free love" was a captivating concept to an impressionable girl like Menteer. She had envisioned a scene in which everybody disrobed, got into bed together, and, with eyes sensually closed, touched each other. The men, however, didn't see things this way. Since Menteer was the only woman available, the men decided to take turns with her in a private room, in pornographic, gang-bang style. Menteer didn't comprehend this significant difference of opinion until it was too late.

She didn't resist the first man. "[But] when the second guy came in, I was going 'No, no.' Then the third guy came in, saying, 'This is going to be all right,' and I was saying, 'No, no, no,' and I was pushing and kicking by this point. By the fourth guy I was screaming, 'Help me!' And then I just... didn't. I couldn't get out of the situation, and I just gave up. I gave up at that point." Menteer can't remember how many men penetrated her in all, though it was "at least six." She does remember Iron Butterfly's heavy metal album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida pounding in the background while all this took place.

Twenty-eight years later, Menteer is a recovering alcoholic--and one of the strongest advocates for the rights of sex offenders in America. "Perhaps I'm calloused," the petite, green-eyed Menteer says during an interview at her modest ranch home in Bothell. "I've heard way too many of stories about victims and the need to protect their rights." With the exception of the hand-to-mouth movement required to chain-smoke Salem Lights, Menteer remains completely still while she talks. When she discusses her own victimization, her voice is soft and confiding. But, as she moves into her general theories about the nature of victimization--theories that seem to contradict her own history--her voice becomes both declaratory and a little defensive. Given the controversial nature of her views, this isn't terribly surprising.

How could a rape victim become a staunch reformer of society's treatment of sex offenders? To paraphrase Menteer, it's taken a glacial amount of time. When the teenaged Tamara got up from that bed, put her clothes back on, and faced her assaulters--some shame-faced, some defiant, some arrogant--she didn't accuse them of rape. In the early 1970s, rape was still something that psychotic men committed against unsuspecting women in unlit parking lots. Menteer knew these guys, and she was too humiliated to accuse anyone of anything. She just left the house as quickly as she could. "I thought, 'Wow, that was stupid,'" she says, "and I just kind of put that in my hip pocket and acted like it didn't happen."

Over the next decade, Menteer battled the problems associated with severe alcoholism and a dysfunctional childhood. She got married, but that lasted only long enough for her to have two sons. Meanwhile, she tried to earn a college degree. Perhaps it's no surprise that the inward-looking Menteer became a social worker by age 30--was she indirectly trying to understand herself? "I liked working with that clientele because I had a bit of criminal nature in me," admits Menteer, who lost her virginity at age 12, ran away from home at age 14, and began drinking heavily at age 17.

After graduating from Everett Community College in 1988, Menteer moved to Seattle and took the perfect job for a woman who might want to avenge her own rape, becoming a pre-sentencing investigator for the Department of Corrections at King County Superior Court. The job involved recommending prison sentences for convicted criminals, and Menteer made prison-sentence recommendations for offenders of all varieties, including countless sex offenders.

For Menteer, being a pre-sentence investigator was an extremely personal experience. There were plenty of reasons to get angry, beginning with her interviews of the offenders' victims. Their stories hit very close to home. "In the victim's story, or in the victim's face, I would see myself," she says. "I would see all of the same dynamics that I had been going through and know them by heart, know them to the core, and know the victims weren't faking them."

But Menteer also interviewed the offenders. And while she may have braced herself before talking to them, in the end she did not have the cold reaction one might expect. In fact, their personal stories often aroused feelings not of hatred, but of compassion. "I would find myself hearing their stories and being swayed to believe that they were really victimized on some level. I would be very sympathetic to their dilemmas... [and to] the terrible sense of rejection and self-hatred that many of the sex offenders operate from. That kind of intrinsic self-hatred... as an alcoholic, I could relate."

Around this time, Menteer came to terms with her own rape. It took her roughly 19 years, but she finally realized that she was not to blame for her sexual assault. The epiphany liberated her, yet she says she was not overcome with rage toward her attackers. "With that understanding [that I was not to blame] came two things," says Menteer. "One, tremendous release from the shame I'd carried for years. And, two, tremendous sorrow for the perpetrators [sex offenders]." No matter how often the sex offenders verbally blamed others for their behavior, Menteer became convinced that they often blamed no one but themselves--and were, on some level, ashamed.

As Menteer worked in the criminal justice system, radical ideas were forming in her head. While her colleagues were getting burnt out on the half-baked lies and tall tales of criminal suspects, Menteer was growing irritated with the other half of the equation. "I started getting disillusioned with the victims," she says. "I hate to say this, but I had heard so many victim reports and so much anger. Factored into every single sentence [was the belief] that the victim essentially deserves revenge. This isn't my idea of what justice is."

What was happening? Menteer was having an increasingly difficult time distinguishing between victim and offender, a dilemma completely foreign to the vast majority of people. "Both [victims and offenders] are fueled by an anger out of not being able to control something," she says. The offenders, Menteer says, know they don't have control over their lives, and they externalize their rage by committing sex-related crimes. The victims--after they've been made victims--break down internally, in ways that go well beyond the scope of the sexual assault. "I think that [for the victims] it's much more than, 'This person did this to me.' It's more like, because of [the offender], they were faced with the horrible truth that they had no control over their lives."

This does not mean, Menteer insists, that she looks at the rapist and the rape victim in the same way. Rape itself is a tragedy, but over time, Menteer began to criticize preconceived ideas about how the tragedies of rape and child molestation can damage a person. After all, even though she herself had once been brutally raped, she had been able to learn, albeit slowly, that she still had choices in life. How many times had she seen prosecutors point to rape victims during a trial and melodramatically declare that the victim's life had been "ruined"? Though Menteer has often seen difficult times, she does not feel her life was ruined by rape.

Menteer's perspective crystallized in 1995, during the high-profile trial of Jeffrey McKechnie. McKechnie was a 27-year-old cable company employee on trial for the rapes of 10 different women in King, Thurston, and Pierce counties. McKechnie pled guilty to the rapes in King County, and it fell to Menteer to recommend a prison sentence for him. Menteer did her professional duty, ultimately advising the judge that McKechnie get 33.3 years--well over the maximum standard set by sentencing guidelines ("It was a community safety issue," she says of the stern sentence).

But McKechnie's sentence wasn't what consumed Menteer. Menteer admits being unable to focus entirely on the horror of the rapes themselves, or on the cold, affectless personality of McKechnie. Instead, she found her mind preoccupied by two of the rapists' victims.

The first victim seethed with rage. She wanted McKechnie's penis cut off. She wanted him to spend the rest of eternity in prison. This woman was accompanied by an unusually aggressive boyfriend. He wanted Menteer to know that his relationship with his girlfriend had been irreparably damaged in the aftermath of her rape. Put simply, both victim and boyfriend wanted the state to avenge the brutal assault with the full weight of its authority.

Moreover, this victim surprised everyone by asking to speak directly to the rapist in open court. She insisted on reading a poem to the rapist. "It was this rhyming poem on how her life was ruined," Menteer recalls. "It was maudlin. It was embarrassing. As a woman, I felt embarrassed. There was media there. She knew there was going to be media there, and she read this poem. The only purpose it served was for her."

In persuasive, story-telling fashion, Menteer recounts the other rape victim she met during the trial. This victim was a 60-year-old grandmother who was so physically fit, McKechnie had taken her for a woman in her 40s. After her rape, this woman was the essence of composure. She had told a stunned Menteer, "I was so relieved that all he did was take my ATM card and rape me. He could have done so much more." Whatever emotional pain she suffered she overcame with the help of meditation and relaxation tapes. What's more, this rape victim did not even blame her attacker--she just felt sorry for him.

The contrast between the two women could not have been more remarkable, Menteer says. "There were these two women, one writing a poem, with this vindictive anger and righteousness. And right in that same lineup, this other woman who was completely calm and collected, and who emanated a quality that was loving--even as she was looking at the offender. There was something profound about that."

Menteer concluded that the first rape victim had far more problems than the rape itself, yet was now using the incident as an outlet for her other frustrations. In turn, Menteer aspired to be more like the older rape victim, who had come to terms with victimization with an almost Buddha-like detachment.

Armed with these powerful revelations, Menteer developed a much broader critique of society's views on sex offenders. It's counterproductive, she believes, for society to do nothing more than appease victims who are only hell-bent on revenge. There are more practical problems to address. Specifically, according to the sex-offender registration lists at the Washington Highway Patrol, there are currently at least 15,385 sex offenders who live freely in the state. We love to hate these people for their past crimes, but what are we doing in practical terms to make sure they don't reoffend? We seem content when a rapist or a pedophile is locked up in prison, Menteer says; yet we are unwilling to do anything beyond that.

路路路

Menteer's perspective has its own logic, but a lot of people just don't follow it. The crowd of Menteer skeptics includes countless rape victims and their relatives. Ida Ballasiotes is a Republican state legislator from Mercer Island. In 1988, her daughter Diane was raped and murdered in Pioneer Square by a work-release inmate. In the aftermath of her daughter's death, Ballasiotes got elected to state office in Olympia, and has built a political career out of pushing for increasing victims' rights and stiffening jail sentences for violent criminals.

Before she was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1992, Ballasiotes was a driving force behind the 1990 Community Protection Act, a major piece of legislation that created the state's sex offender registration list and also established the Special Commitment Center (SCC) for violent sex offenders. As a legislator, Ballasiotes has been a major backer of almost every piece of legislation that stiffened sentencing guidelines for violent offenders--including the "Two Strikes" law, which allows second-time sex offenders to be put behind bars for life. Two years ago, she sponsored the Offender Accountability Act, which set tough supervision standards for sex offenders and other felons.

The blunt-spoken Ballasiotes, who receives Menteer's monthly newsletter and is aware that Menteer was raped, was cordial but critical in her comments about the activist. "I don't think that she has [done] some very clear thinking about all this. I'm not in agreement with how she feels." Ballasiotes says that Menteer is focusing on the wrong group of individuals. "Why don't rapists change their behavior? Let's stop there, okay. Rape and child molestation is unacceptable. Menteer's essentially [telling rape victims], 'Don't feel that way.' Well, I'm sorry. People do. It seems that she's attempting to minimize it.

"The one thing that really annoys me is when people say, 'Oh, you just want revenge.' [Revenge is] a normal, human reaction to something like this," Ballasiotes says. "Rape is a really bad thing. If there's supposed to be another reaction, I don't know what that is."

Ballasiotes' attitudes mirror the opinions of the larger public. Take the recent controversy surrounding the DSHS. Since last summer, the agency has been trying to create a "halfway house" for treated sex offenders who will eventually be released from the SCC. To establish the halfway house, DSHS first needs a location--and no community in the state is willing to accept the center in its backyard.

The state agency first attempted to make a halfway house out of a double-wide mobile home at Johnson Point in Thurston County, which is already home to 567 registered sex offenders. Despite assurances that the three offenders housed there would be monitored 24 hours a day, the public uproar resulting from the DSHS proposal could be heard in the media from Tacoma to Spokane. The "crisis" was only averted when two local men purchased the land where the mobile home was to be placed. These men promptly put up a sign on their new property reading "DSHS stay out! No sexual predators welcome." According to newspaper reports, neighbors made the men instant heroes.

Outwitted in Thurston County, DSHS tried another location for the halfway house: Walla Walla County, home of 53,000 residents and 159 registered sex offenders. The chosen spot was within 200 yards--within rifle range--of a prison guard tower of the maximum security Washington State Penitentiary. The residents of Walla Walla were even more pissed than the residents of Johnson Point. They formed an organization called "Enough is Enough" and distributed thousands of protest flyers. The state senator representing Walla Walla promised a fight against the halfway house the likes of which DSHS had never seen. The city council beat him to it, though, filing a lawsuit against the state agency that challenged how their hometown came to be selected for the sex-offender halfway house.

Ballasiotes defends the community reaction to DSHS' halfway-house proposal. "Would you want that halfway house in your neighborhood?" she says, and points out that the SCC's sex offenders have been identified by the state as some of the most dangerous sex offenders there are. "These aren't garden-variety offenders," she says.

But ask Ballasiotes what society is supposed to do with its sex offenders, especially after they've been released from prison, and her answers are as vague as the next person's. Just because the state legislature makes the rapists and pedophiles register their addresses with the Highway Patrol, there's no guarantee that they're not going to commit additional sex-related crimes at the first opportunity. It's a dilemma that nobody--activist, politician, or psychiatrist--can fully solve.

路路路

Unlike most people, Menteer does have a proposal--albeit a modest one. Moreover, she's already started to market it. In October 2000, the activist stepped outside of her tidy Bothell home, away from her niche newsletter, and into the public limelight for the first time. Her idea would first be pitched to an audience that would, with any luck, be receptive: a group of prison ministers who were having a national conference in Auburn.

Menteer's idea is that community organizations, starting with churches, should welcome and form support networks for recently released sex offenders. Ordinary citizens would meet regularly with the offenders to ensure they were getting everything they needed, including housing, employment, and therapy. The idea is already being used by the Mennonites in Canada. The Mennonites--and Menteer--pose this rhetorical question: Which sex offender do you think is more likely to reoffend--one who has been denied psychiatric treatment, housing, and a job simply out of hatred and fear, or one who has a steady job, a place to live, and regular appointments with his therapist?

Menteer couldn't have picked a more secure environment for the first pitch of her activist idea. For three days last October, the gymnasium of the Grace Community Church in Auburn was converted into an auditorium and filled with 100 clergy members, eager to exchange notes on how best to help prison inmates find Jesus and assimilate back into society. One of the keynote speakers was Joe Lehman, secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, who gave the ministers a pep talk on their importance in the criminal justice system. Later, Lehman met Menteer and was reportedly enthusiastic over her ideas, perhaps for no other reason than that her proposal puts the burden of responsibility back on society--and out of the hands of technocrats like himself.

Later, Terry Read, an ex-prisoner turned Christian minister, shocked Menteer in front of everyone when he formally gave her a "lifetime achievement" award. As evidence for deserving the award, Read cited not Menteer's past accomplishments, which are quite limited, but her history of personal transformation--once the victim of a brutal sex offense, she had become an advocate for sex offenders.

"Here is a true-life story of restoration at its best," Read said, as he handed her the little trophy. Menteer and the crowd were fittingly moved.

Outside, in the church's main lobby, was a strange scene: part social mixer without cocktails, part eighth-grade science fair. During panel discussion breaks, the casually dressed members of the clergy (most of whom were white, and some of whom hailed from as far away as Texas) exchanged small talk and notes about the best way to minister those who have fallen away from, or perhaps never discovered, Jesus Christ. A long line of poster boards lined the lobby, each pitching a new idea in "restorative justice"--an umbrella phrase that encompasses both religious and secular ideas about how to help released inmates readjust to society.

Menteer's experimental plan was diagrammed on a poster board for display; people strolled around, and eyed it like skeptical judges. In the auditorium, panel discussions praised her up and down, but the mood was different in the lobby. Menteer's arms were folded, firmly but defensively, against a long brown corduroy dress that, at first glance, made her look like a Catholic nun from some non-traditional order. Her fingers were steepled together; if they weren't so fidgety, they would've seemed like they were poised for prayer. Menteer, who's studied a lot of religious and spiritual ideas throughout her life, is currently pursuing graduate studies in Western theology at Seattle University. That, however, didn't make her any more comfortable around some of the more fundamentalist prison ministers milling about.

One of the most illustrative people who approached her was a guy with a name tag that read "Art." Art sported unusually large glasses, a Christian fish necklace, and a white polo shirt. Like other curious parties, he bore an expression of benevolent condescension. He didn't really seem to buy what Menteer was saying; but what could he, a white, middle-aged man, say? How could he argue about rapists with a rape victim? "They [sex offenders] are trying to fight demons in the outposts of their minds," Art opined. Then he launched into a comparison between sex offenders and alcoholics, and what it meant to have a demon in the outpost of one's mind. To soften his tone of skepticism, Art admitted to having a sexual addiction himself (but judging by his words, that could've just meant that he fantasizes about women's breasts more than the Bible says he should).

"Somewhere you have to start believing them," Menteer argued. "That's not to say, 'Let's welcome the sex offender into our church and then let him run the nursery.' But let's [bring] them into the church and accept them, and go from there." Menteer then began reciting recidivism statistics for sex offenders. She cited some of the most optimistic numbers. Not all sex offenders are alike, she said. True, some will resist even the best mental health treatment. But many can learn to manage their sexual deviancy with comprehensive therapy.

"It's good to listen to this," Art finally told Menteer. It was an awkward moment. Art was being polite. He never stopped smiling. "I come over here with sort of the view that, 'They're sexual offenders, they're going to re-offend.'" Art soon wandered off. Another panel discussion was starting in the auditorium.

"That's pretty much what I've been getting all day," Menteer said. "People say, 'It sounds really good. It sounds really hard. Good luck!'"