The nearly 170 people attending a Level 3 sex offender notification meeting in Nicollet Thursday night displayed plenty of concern that Mark Wayne Petersen, convicted of sex crimes against a 4-year-old and a 13-year-old, has moved into the town of 1,000.
Many of them also made it clear that Petersen ought to feel some anxiety as well.
“He needs to be notified about us,” Jim Pietan said near the end of the two-hour meeting. “We are like the grizzly bear with a cub. If he comes after our children, we’re about a Level 5.”
Petersen, released from prison in March of 2010, was planning to move to North Mankato, which prompted a community notification meeting there last month. Instead, he rented an apartment starting July 1 above a business on Nicollet’s main drag.
Petersen, 28, was first convicted as a juvenile of second-degree criminal sexual conduct in Le Sueur County in 1996. That case involved sexual contact, including fondling and penetration, with a 4-year-old girl.
His second offense occurred six years later with a 13-year-old girl, also including fondling and penetration. In both cases, the victims knew Petersen. He has also admitted to engaging in sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl and exposing himself via the Internet, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Michele Murphy of the Department of Corrections conducted the meeting at the Nicollet Community Center, spending much of the meeting talking about the state’s sex offender notification law and providing advice on protecting children from the broader threat posed by sex offenders — including the vast majority who have never been caught.
But when the microphones were turned over to the audience, many Nicollet residents offered strategies for making Petersen regret his decision to locate in the town on Highway 14 just west of North Mankato.
The second man to take a microphone suggested boycotting the shop on the 700 block of Third Avenue that rented to Petersen.
“Nobody needs to do business with this lady,” he said, adding later that Petersen “needs to get the message” from residents. “‘Get the hell out of Nicollet. We don’t need this (expletive).’”
Another resident wondered if Nicollet’s bars and other stores could legally refuse to do business with Petersen.
“A private business would have the right to refuse anybody service,” answered Chief Deputy Karl Jensen of the Nicollet County Sheriff’s Office.
The man said he would walk out of any business that doesn’t refuse Petersen service.
“I think everybody in the town should do the same thing,” he said to a smattering of applause.
Another man asked what other communities had done to drive out Petersen since his release from prison, and a woman suggested polite calls of consternation to those who would rent to him.
“Call ’em up, let ’em know. We just don’t want this in our community.”
And a different woman wondered whether citizens could directly confront Petersen, if it would be legal to tell him: “The whole town is watching. We know where you live. We have our eyes on you.”
“Can we do that?,” she asked.
“You can address Mr. Petersen,” Jensen answered. “Just do it in a ... ”
“Civil way?” the woman finished.
“Thank you,” Jensen said.
Sheriff’s Department investigator Marc Chadderdon, who’s lived in Nicollet since 1994, asked residents not to get carried away and to instead rely on law enforcement.
“I don’t want to see any of you get arrested because of bad behavior ... threatening him,” Chadderdon said. “Call us.”
Investigator Kip Olson echoed the advice.
“Our deputies are well-versed on this guy,” Olson said. “... Don’t take action on yourself, make it worse. Call us.”
Murphy, who also conducted last month’s lower-key notification meeting in North Mankato, repeatedly emphasized that Petersen shouldn’t be viewed as a unique threat. As a Level 3 offender, he’s been deemed by a Correction Department review panel as most-likely to re-offend.
But Murphy cited statistics showing that Minnesota’s aggressive handling of released sex offenders has driven down the rate of re-offense to the point that only about 3 percent are convicted of another sex crime in the first three years after they leave prison.
That’s down from nearly 17 percent in 1990, before the sex offender registry and the notification law were enacted. Even with Level 3 offenders, just 5.2 percent are arrested for a sex crime in that same time period.
Murphy also noted that in 90 percent of cases sex offenders are known by their victims, and 90 percent of those who are convicted of a sexual offense each year had never been convicted before.
“If you just focus too much on him, then you’re ignoring 90 percent of the threat to your community,” she said.
Making Petersen uncomfortable in Nicollet might prompt him to spend his free time in some other community where he is less known, Murphy conceded.
“That being said, somebody else could come to your community and hang out there.”
And there are thousands of registered sex offenders in the state, although most people learn only of the Level 3 offenders. Three live in Nicollet (with Petersen the only Level 3 offender), Murphy said. Fifty live in Nicollet County. Nearly 150 more are in Blue Earth County.
“We know that sex offenders will always be among us,” she said. “That’s just reality. It’s a hard reality.”
Several people at the meeting expressed frustration that the judicial system doesn’t put people like Petersen away longer.
Kim Brown, Pietan’s wife and the mother of three, was shocked that Petersen was sentenced to just 18 months of probation after his second conviction and that he went to prison only because of a non-sexual violation of the terms of the probation.
“That’s not right,” Brown said. “That has to change.”
Pietan said he expects the meeting will prompt the school district to implement an awareness program about sexual predators and that parents will be more likely to talk to their kids about the threat.
He also suggested that Thursday’s gathering won’t be the last Nicollet residents will hold about Petersen.
“We may have to have another meeting after you’re gone to discuss this,” Pietan told Murphy, prompting some of the only laughter of the night.
The trio of representatives of the sheriff’s department promised to be watching Nicollet closely and said the department wants to hear from any resident who sees suspicious behavior. Chadderdon said he knows his neighbors will be keeping one-another well-informed, too.
One woman asked Chadderdon if he could announce to the audience what vehicle Petersen drives (something that’s not public information).
“I can’t,” he said. “But I’m sure you’ll know before you leave the meeting.”
She didn’t need to wait nearly that long, as a couple of dozen people simultaneously began reciting a vehicle description.