Life Sentence

An internet sex sting nabbed Paul Collier and sent him to jail. Four years later he has served his time, but he’s still facing a life sentence.

Illustration by David Lesh

Paul Collier is 40-ish, slight, pale, thoughtful and quiet. He is divorced, and he lives alone in a large, well-kept suburban apartment complex. All around are men and women who are, like him, people in transition. Some are new hires at local firms, some are newlyweds, some are newly divorced and some are simply new to town. Many of them, maybe even most of them, plan to rent here until they can buy a nice house in a nice neighborhood. Then they’ll feel settled.

Paul Collier—which is not his real name at all, not even close—used to own a nice house in a nice neighborhood, but right now he can’t imagine how that would be possible again. And feeling settled? That’s a dream.

If you went online and Googled his name—his real name, of course—or if you went to speak to the sheriff’s deputy in charge of such things in this county, you would learn one additional thing about Paul: He is a registered sex offender. His name and address are on a list for anyone to see, and his picture is surrounded by the pictures of dozens of other men and women who live in the same county that he does. On the page there are violent rapists and sadistic predators, there are men who fondled little girls and women who had sex with teenage boys. And there is Paul, who was caught in an internet sting.

It happened four years ago. He was convicted and has served out his sentence. He will be supervised by the courts for years and he will probably be in therapy forever. Because of his crime, his career is over, he has been forced out of a neighborhood and his marriage has ended. Because of his crime, he won’t use his real name for this story. He doesn’t want his children to suffer any more than they already have.

In legal terms, Paul is a “Sexually Oriented Offender,” which means that a judge has deemed him to be less of a risk to you and me than offenders classified as “Habitual” or “Predatory.” Unlike them, he’s not subject to notification. That means that the sheriff’s department doesn’t send out postcards or knock on doors to tell his neighbors who he is and what he has done. But this sliver of quasi-anonymity may end soon, thanks to a new Ohio law.

Paul doesn’t blame what he did on anyone else. In fact, he’s grateful to the undercover officers who caught him. “I really believe they saved my life,” he says now. But this is the reality: He is a convicted sex offender. Because of his crime he has a place in the pantheon of people that our society feels free to hate with abandon.

How does he have a life?

He grew up in Cincinnati, a nice boy—bright, well-mannered and compliant. He went to high school here, then college and professional school. When it was time for him to practice in his chosen field—a field that commands respect and demands integrity—he accepted a job in a larger city. He married, had children, put down roots in the community. But somewhere along the line, things started to collapse. He had an affair that lasted for months before his wife found out. He ended it and kept his marriage together, but still it made a mess of things. Then his job took a turn and became terribly stressful. He tried, but he wasn’t having any luck finding a different situation. He started grad school part-time, there were financial challenges, then a lawsuit…he was suddenly under tremendous pressure.

Paul needed a way to cope, and he found it. He started using the internet to meet adults for sex.

It was, he says, very easy. At first it was prostitutes—hookers he’d pick up on the streets of the city where he lived, out-call escort service girls when he’d travel on business. But then he discovered how simple it was to meet someone in a chat room who wanted the same thing he did. Before long he was organizing his life around illicit sex—thinking about it, searching for it, finding someone and hooking up. He’d go home at lunchtime, fix a sandwich, sit down at the computer and log on to see who wanted to talk. Weekends, he’d be angry if family life interfered with his secret world. Once his little boy wanted him to come outside and play, and he stood at his elbow pleading as Paul tapped out a conversation with someone on-line. Months later, when he was on his way to jail, Paul and his wife explained it to the children this way: Daddy did something bad on the computer. Young as they were, the kids found this plausible. After all, Daddy did everything on the computer.

Paul had the kind of job where he wore a beeper, a lucky stroke for a man who always needed an alibi. When he found someone on-line, he took off. Sometimes on the drive to meet her he’d play a game: If the next traffic light is green, it means I should do it; if it’s red, I’ll turn back. But there weren’t many red lights, literally or figuratively, and as time went on he took more chances. Sometimes it was careless driving; sometimes it was unsafe sex. He became more frenetic, more reckless. It was chaotic, he says, “toward the end.”

As he tells it, the beginning of the end came when he went to an AOL chat room called Barely Legal. He says that he wasn’t looking for a child, that he figured he’d meet someone who was 19 or 20. Instead, he found himself talking to someone who said her name was Tina. Tina said she was 13. Paul stayed to talk.

“I was upset with myself,” Paul says when he recalls it. “I’d say to myself, ‘What are you doing? This will ruin your life!’ But I couldn’t get myself to stop.

“I didn’t go looking for a teenager. It was by chance that there was no one else in the other chat rooms that day. So I went into that room and took my behavior with me.”

His behavior, he says now, is what you’d expect of an addict. He was using sex to regulate his emotional life. To escape his despair and shame he acted out—the fantasizing, the internet exploits, the encounters—and the more he acted out, the more he despaired. Like a substance abuser, he needed more experiences, riskier experiences, to get his high. He was out of control.

Paul talked with Tina online for three months, all the while meeting and hooking up with other women. When he managed to restrain himself from contacting her, she’d get in touch with him. Hey, she’d say, where are you?

In June of 1999, he made plans to meet her for the first time in the lobby of the apartment building where she said she lived. It was a summer afternoon, school was out, and Tina was going to be wearing a white hat and yellow sundress. Paul pulled up, parked, and before he went in the building he had a strange thought. It was so alien, it seemed to come from outside himself. I hope the police are there, he thought.

His wish was granted.

Anyone who has ever wasted an afternoon on eBay knows it’s true: the internet is mother’s milk for obsessive-compulsives. The cops who work on internet sex stings pride themselves on how well they can imitate teenagers online, but an Oscar-worthy performance may not be necessary. Often the kind of person who makes his way into a chat room called Barely Legal isn’t going to be dissuaded if he encounters a junior high cheerleader who sounds suspiciously like Mickey Spillane. He’s there because he can’t help himself.

That’s what Dr. Stuart Bassman has observed. Bassman is a Cincinnati therapist and psychologist who works with sex offenders and victims of sexual abuse. Often when he’s called on to assess people caught in internet stings, that’s what he finds. “So many of these guys tell me, ‘I knew there was a cop on the other side.’” But they’ve lost control and headed down the road to self-destruction, he says. They’re compelled to go, to get caught, to be humiliated. “The need to humiliate themselves is part of the addiction.”

There’s a debate brewing over the use of internet sex stings. Defense attorneys argue that the state’s importuning law makes a crime out of a fantasy. In Ohio, if an adult has an on-line sexual conversation with someone he or she believes to be a 13-year-old, then travels to meet that child, and the child turns out to be a cop, he’ll be arrested for attempting to engage in sex with a minor. “But there’s no minor, so how can there be an attempt?” says attorney Lou Sirkin. “It’s not a crime to think about having sex with a teenager.” Sirkin says that police can use actual minors online, just like they send minors in to buy beer at a pony keg. But to have cops trolling chat rooms is akin to mind policing, as Sirkin sees it. “Our government doesn’t belong there.”

It’s an emotional debate and one where the battle lines are as old as the U.S. Constitution: protect society or protect civil rights? But for Bassman, those arguments are beside the point. For him, the way to protect everyone is to get an individual the help he needs.

When someone acts out in a sexual manner and causes humiliation and suffering to himself and others, the psychiatric world classifies the mental disorder as a paraphilia. Being a voyeur or an exhibitionist qualifies. So does going online, searching for a child and talking to him or her in a sexual way. But not everyone suffering from paraphilia is a sexual predator, Bassman says. Predatory behavior, he says, “is more than being obsessive-compulsive. It’s sadism, a need to hurt others. Whereas most sexual addicts are much more opportunistic. They exploit situations, but not necessarily with malicious intent.”

Probation officer Ed Tullius, who is supervisor of the special services unit for Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, acknowledges that there might be a difference between online predators and online obsessive-compulsives. But in the annals of criminal behavoir; he says, “It’s such a new thing we haven’t figured them out yet. We don’t know how far they’ll go.” As it is working with any kind of sex offender, he says, “It’s a balancing act of social work, counseling and law enforcement. And there’s never a guarantee.”

And why would the distinction matter anyway? Paul never believed he was involved in a role-playing fantasy with a 30-year-old woman. Paul asked someone whom he thought was a child if she wanted to have sex, and he arrived with condoms and video porn intending to have sex with her. It didn’t matter that a teenager wasn’t his preferred sex partner; it didn’t matter that he secretly hoped to get caught. If Tina had been a real girl, he would have victimized her in spite of all those things. He needed to be stopped. Isn’t that the bottom line?

True enough, says Bassman. “The police are doing a service by doing [internet stings] . They are letting people know they’ve got a problem.” But the next step should always be an assessment. Often Bassman does that at the request of a defense attorney who is trying to get a handle on the case. “If it’s predatory behavior, that’s one thing. But if it’s obsessive-compulsive, you can do society a service by getting help. [The court needs] to understand what kind of defendant they’re dealing with, then make a judgment.”

Therapy, case management and court supervision can be effective for obsessive compulsives, Bassman says. “Prison isn’t a help.” It may keep them off the streets for awhile, but unless they get effective treatment, eventually they’ll be back, pathology intact.

PAUL HAD BEEN CAUGHT by the Federal Child Exploitation Strike Force. The person he’d had a three month correspondence with, who’d sent him a picture and a note signed Hugs-N-Kisses, was an undercover cop. In short order he found himself in a federal courtroom, stunned and in agony.

After his arrest he spent nine months out on bond, and during that time he started intensive individual therapy and a 12-step program for sex addicts. He got the court’s permission to fly to Baltimore twice a week to attend a therapy group run by Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma and one of the founders of the sexual disorders clinic at Johns Hopkins. At one of his first meetings he found himself being grilled by another group member—a big, burly guy who was many months into treatment—who confronted him about his behavior, his denial, his excuses. He was, Paul recalls, a serial rapist.

Paul made the study of his mental disorder a central feature of his life. At his sentencing hearing he told the judge he suffers from a disease. “I can never cure it, but I can make it go into remission.” His lawyer asked the court to take into account his mental state at the time of his arrest. But the judge imposed the full prison term—two and a half years. Paul would also have to register as a sex offender when he was released and undergo further mental health treatment. And, not surprisingly, he was ordered to stay out of internet chat rooms.

He went to a federal penitentiary in Kentucky, and his wife and children moved back to Cincinnati to get the support of their extended family. The other inmates didn’t know what he’d done to land in prison, and he didn’t tell them. The week before he arrived in the cell block, somebody had set a pedophile’s bed on fire, so he knew enough not to talk about his crime. He spent his days studying the Bible, reading about addiction, playing basketball in the yard and worrying that somebody would learn his secret. He was in a world of evil, and he knew that because of his crime he’d be regarded as the worst of the worst even there.

In July of 2002, released from prison, he arrived in Cincinnati to put his life back together. It didn’t last long. Paul suspects that a real estate agent checking the sheriff’s sex offender list recognized the address and told a neighbor about him, and before the summer was over everyone on the street knew.

In the city where they’d lived before, his arrest had made all the newspapers. He was, remember; a man in one of those “distinguished” professions, which added a level of lurid scandal to the crime. His case file included his therapist’s notes about other encounters—oral sex with a 17-year-old, sessions with prostitutes, multiple anonymous liaisons with adults—and those humiliating details made their way into the news, too. So everyone knew, and friends and neighbors recoiled in horror. Paul was asked to stay away from church social events when children were present, and his own children were no longer invited to play with kids on the block.

Paul and his wife thought it might be different in Cincinnati. And as long as no one knew about Paul, it was. Then the word got out, and fear and disgust rolled down the street like a fog. He says that he thought he might simply explain things to people, educate them about what it means to be in recovery from sexual addiction. It didn’t work. “I was naive,” he says. He says that a neighbor got information about his case and sent around packets of information. Paul heard a rumor that someone was going to file a lawsuit against him for lowering property values. He claims someone threatened to get a community newspaper reporter to write about him, too. That’s when he started to threaten back. He said he’d never leave the neighborhood if that happened. There was no story, and by October he had moved away.

The harassment wasn’t happening in a vacuum—Paul’s family was dealing with it, too. He and his wife separated so that the children weren’t living at the same address he was and no one could identify them as the kids of a man who’d committed a sex crime. Then Paul’s wife asked for a divorce. She’d stayed with him through his philandering, his arrest and his prison term—the whole heart-breaking mess that had defiled their marriage—but being an outcast was too demoralizing. It was as if she were in prison, and the only way to escape was to get free of Paul.

That’s how he became a divorced dad whose kids visit him at his well-kept suburban apartment, who exercises each morning, goes to therapy, worships and tries to take life one day at a time. He is, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “working the program.” But if he were in AA or Gamblers Anonymous or anyone of the other 12-step programs that have helped millions of people reclaim their lives, he probably wouldn’t feel the same need to be quite so circumspect about it.

His normal-guy-next-door image may soon disappear. In July, Ohio’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law (SORN) was expanded. Among the new provisions is the requirement that neighbor notification be extended to everyone within 1,000 feet of the offender’s residence. As this goes to press, prosecutors are still reviewing the bill to understand its complexities. It may be, depending on how the law is interpreted, that sexually oriented offenders like Paul will be included in notification beginning in January. It’s a huge bill, and it has huge consequences. It means that local sheriffs will be contacting many more people about many more people. “It will be a monumental change,” says one law officer. “And of course it’s unfunded.”

Paul is worrying about what it will mean to him. Lots of hysterical calls to the manager of his apartment complex, he supposes. Will there be a rock through his car windshield when he goes out in the morning? Graffiti scrawled on his door when he returns? Will his kids be in danger when they visit? And if all that starts again and he has to move again, where will he live?

Where will anybody like him live? How will they live?

THERAPISTS WHO WORK with sex offenders say that laws like this backfire. They say that when you isolate people who have poor coping skills to begin with, when you expose them and their families to harassment and make it virtually impossible for them to find employment and housing, you create a situation where a person is more likely to re-offend, not less. But the gut reaction that most of us would have to this scenario is that it is highly theoretical and we’d rather be safe than sorry. And even if there were a ground-breaking study that proved it, it’s hard to imagine our society backing off of the “more is better” approach. Can you imagine any official—any elected official—campaigning to repeal Megan’s Law, or even urging citizens to welcome a newly released sex offender with compassion and understanding?

These are the crimes we fear most, and the criminals. This summer the Canadian radio program Soundprint produced a series about a group of Mennonites working with paroled pedophiles to reintegrate them into the community. The name of the program was “Grace to a Stranger.” Grace. If a sex offender moved in next door, would any word be further from mind?

LATE IN THE SUMMER, Paul’s boss got a call from someone—someone using a made-up name, Paul assumes. The caller told his boss that there was a warrant for Paul’s arrest on an obscenity charge. The police are looking for him, the caller said. It baffled Paul. Why would someone hate him so much that they’d make up a story to get him fired? What would be the point of that? If they chase him out of his job the way they chased him out of his neighborhood, he’ll just end up being more of a taxpayer burden.

Right now, he’s doing graduate work in the hope of beginning a new career. He’s mostly living on his savings, working part-time for people who understand his situation. Is he a danger to be around? No, he says. Does he still struggle in recovery? Sure. He’s coping with depression, working through his grief, repairing relationships that have been damaged by all that has gone on.

There are triggers that remind him of what his life used to be like. It’s unsettling when he uses the yellow pages to find a plumber or a mechanic, remembering how he’d tear through the telephone book searching for an escort service whenever he checked into a hotel room in a strange town. One day in the spring he was driving through Blue Ash with his son when he saw a prostitute waiting to be picked up. That’s right—a hooker. In Blue Ash. He knows what he saw, because there was a time when he would have been the guy she was waiting for. It freaked him out. But he didn’t go home and obsess about it.

It’s odd, he says, but there are some things he can brush off. The computer, for instance. He uses a computer for work and for research, and he claims that he has never had a single thought of going into a chat room. He’s monitored by the court, of course. Each e-mail he sends, anywhere he goes on the internet…nothing is private.

That will go on for several more years. And the legacy of what he did that day in 1999 could be forever. If someone really wanted to, he or she could dog his footsteps for the rest of his life, long after he was finished with court supervision, long after his mug shot disappears from the page of sexual offenders in his corner of the tristate.

If his kids were grown, he says, he’d use his real name in this story. If he did so now, he’d just be creating new problems for them. His children do know the real reason he went to prison, but they’re still young. It may be a long time before they really understand what it means and an even longer time before they’re comfortable discussing it with him. He has talked with his own therapist and other experts about what might help them.

“Nobody has any great answers,” he says with a sigh.

It could be the theme for the rest of his life.

Originally published in the November 2003 issue.

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