THE VICTIMIZER’S TALE: They’re the neighbors you’d least like to have. Now, one man tells the story of his past acts and the life he lives in Southwest today.

Talk to Don, a convicted Level III sex offender, and you hear a contrite man. "I think I am a very good person," he said. "I'm walking with Christ. I'm giving back to the community. I'm paying for what I did. I'm very sorry for it and ashamed."

Talk to Don at his Lyndale neighborhood apartment, and you also hear a man at times fatalistic about what he calls the rape "epidemic." He's resentful of comparisons to notorious sex offenders such as Alfonso Rodriguez, awaiting trial for the kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin.

One of Don's bedroom walls is covered with certificates from the Amazing Facts Bible School and other Christian correspondence courses. Yet listening to this man who served three and a half years in state prisons for fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct - including exhibition, fondling and penetration of a girl under 13 years old - and you might get chilled to the bone.

"A little girl got off the bus - 5 years old. The bus drove away. She stood on the corner for 15 minutes," he said. "If I was still in the game, she'd be gone."

Outside on the sidewalks, the block is buzzing with kids on a balmy night. A neighbor's yard is littered with a Big Wheel tricycle and trash. A young couple sits on the dingy steps of the next-door apartment building with their toddler.

Few things terrify parents more than the thought of a sexual predator living near their children. There are four Level III offenders living in Don's house, out of six in all of Southwest.

He agreed to speak to the Southwest Journal about his life and experiences on the condition the paper used only his first name.

Personal tale

As he sits at the old linoleum kitchen table in the shabby, though tidy century-old house, you can see some of the toll the life he's led has had on him. He grew up fast and hard on the West Bank, he said. Drinking and stealing were just regular activities in his crowd even before they hit their teens.

A recovering alcoholic who said he hasn't had a drink in five years, he looked bloated and pasty, though the 55-year-old said he felt better than he has in a long, long time.

"I don't wake up bleeding no more," he said.

A topic Don returned to several times is the unfairness he sees in the way people look at him and other sex offenders. They're lumped together as dangerous animals by a society frightened by lurid, sensational media accounts of sex crimes.

"I get sick and tired of looking like I'm a crazy murderer walking down the street. I'm a combat-awarded vet with lots of medals and lots of honors; and I got disgraced when I got back from Nam, and now I'm getting disgraced again. It's kind of hard to handle.

"I'm doing my best to be the best person I can. I made a couple wrong choices in my life and I'm paying for them. So is my whole family, too. I'm not saying it was right what I did, but when people say, 'the poor victims,' well, my family is a victim, too, of what I did."

His family includes his estranged wife and their two daughters - one in her early 20s and the other 15 years old - as well as a son he had with another woman.

The court-ordered separation from his youngest daughter hurts him most.

"My daughter can't see me. We were just as close as you could get," he said. "That's breaking her heart. I haven't seen her for five years."

Don said he never harmed anyone in his family. As a form of proof, he mentioned that his daughter recently wrote an essay in school naming him as her hero.

Upstairs in his bedroom, there's a small, neatly made bed with a black TV looming over it. A few feet away sits a small table where he's carefully constructing a model of the Titanic for his youngest offspring.

Perched up above a window looking out over the peeled-paint houses on this impoverished stretch of Southwest sits a teddy bear from White Castle.

"Someone sees that, they're thinking I'm grooming some kid," Don said as he looked at the purple stuffed animal and gestured at the bowl of candy next to his bed. "I ain't grooming no one. I'm grooming me."

[In the pedophile's lexicon, "grooming" is the process of showering a prospective victim with gifts, money and attention.]

Method of operation

Don said he once plied a girl with a series of presents in order to win her confidence and friendship.

"Kids at 12, 13 years old, 14, they want money, they want cigarettes, they want booze, they want the name, so what they're doing is they're out there, they're acting out. As long as you're giving them the money, the booze and the cigarettes that they want as young teenagers, they're not going to tell on you. It's not until they get to 17, 18 years old that they realize, 'Hey, I did something wrong.' That's what happens, see. The guys out there, guys like me, that know that, we can groom kids if we want to."

Don's modus operandi was to find single mothers stressed by raising kids alone. They're often broke, overworked and in need of handyman help around their home - and in need of a babysitter, too.

"We just find the ones, I hate to say it, but separated women that have children. If you show the woman that you love the kid and care about them, you're in there like Flynn, you know. They'll accept ya."

By way of explanation for what he did to those he harmed, Don said, "I was bored with my life. I was feeling bad because I was just rated 100 percent disabled. I suffer with post-traumatic stress syndrome from the war. Me and my wife were separated. And my kids weren't coming around and seeing me. I was lonely. I was looking for affection. And I found a nice young girl that needed a father, that needed some love and attention 'cause she was coming from a family that they didn't care about her.

"I seen advantage in that and I groomed her, you know. I'm not going to deny it. I groomed her. It wasn't to be a nice guy, it was to see what I could accomplish for my own feelings."

Don said one of the victims had siblings and that he thinks he damaged the entire family with his crimes.

"The kids loved me. They wanted me to be their dad. They called me Dad," he said.

"I think I broke their hearts because they loved me. I took advantage of their love. I sort of just spit on them. I know I hurt them bad. I think I just taught them that they can't love anybody any more. That's what I think I taught 'em, you know."

He said another lesson he taught his victims is that they have to use their bodies to get what they want in life.

End times

Ask Don what should be done for his victims and other sex abuse survivors and he says, "We should sit down and counsel with them. Talk to them. Try to feel their pain, feel what they're going through, try to understand what they're feeling."

But he quickly returned to his theme that he shouldn't be classified with Level III offenders, especially those who are violent.

"Rape [is] forceful, harmful, abusive and without consent. Then there's molestation, too, which is different than rape."

He said therapists in prison got him to call his crimes rape and to refer to himself as a rapist, though he really sees his actions in another light.

"Mine was caring and giving and being nice, even though if I didn't want to be or not, but that's the way I portrayed it. I was a nice guy and I was a caring guy. I didn't want to hurt nobody."

He said his Christian beliefs - he said he's studying to become a Seventh Day Adventist priest - include a vision of end times, where sex crimes and other sins overwhelm the world.

"Sex offending now is becoming an epidemic. Everybody - your mother, your father, your sister, your schoolteacherthe cops, the firemen, the judge, the ministers, the priest - everybody you used to trust is offending now. The only thing I've got to say to the people out there, to the mothers, is that they better start finding some tools, and get off their butts and start watching their children when they let them out the doors. If they walk around this neighborhood during the day and night. I mean, me being a sex offender, you know, this is a candy store out here for anybody that's really perverted. I see kids that are 5, 6 years old walking down this alley at 11 o'clock at night with no parents. Where are the parents?" he asked.

Neighbors

Across the street, two young women sat outside on a warm spring night. Theresa, 20, watched her 4-year-old daughter scoot around the yard and along the sidewalk. Theresa's sister Sara, 17, watched, too.

Neither woman knew that four Level III sex offenders live across the street, though Theresa said she'd gotten a letter once about a community notification meeting about a sex offender from the police but hadn't attended the gathering.

"It's relieving to know where they are," Theresa said of her neighbors. "It definitely will make me keep my eye out."

She said she's occasionally left her shy, blonde-haired girl outside momentarily while she ran inside to get the phone.

"I definitely will not do that any longer," she said, shaking her head. "That's all it takes."

When Theresa is told of how Don selects stressed-out single moms and their kids, she visibly shuddered. She stared for a long moment at Don's house and then looked down at the ground.

"Come here," she called softly to her daughter. "Come here."

What's next

According to a 2003 Minnesota Department of Corrections report, Level III offenders who reoffend are "more likely to travel to another neighborhood to act in secret rather than in a neighborhood where his or her picture is well-known."

However, the report stated that countysupervisors "noted benefits from having more than one Level III offender in one location." Supervising agents turn up more often and "offenders tend to inform on each other when supervision restrictions are violated or crimes are committed."

Don said he would be on intense supervised release for the rest of the year and into early 2006. That means his Corrections agent can drop by any time without warning to check on him. He said that eventually, he'd like to be reunited with his youngest daughter and piece together some kind of normal, anonymous life.

"I'd like to go back to be a normal citizen again. To be able to walk through the park. To be able to talk to kids again. I'd like to take a bunch of kids to the Dairy Queen again. I used to take the whole neighborhood to the Dairy Queen. All the time, eight or 10 kids. My children had eight, 10 kids over all the time. I took 'em everywhere. We took 'em camping together, we took 'em fishing, we took 'em canoeing, we took 'em bike-riding all the time.

"I'd like people to realize that, yes, I can be trusted. And that I'm not a maniac any more and I'm not a pervert any more. I am working on myself. I am becoming a better person and that they can trust me. I'd like to move into a nice neighborhood and be a nice neighbor. I can be a nice neighbor, help people out, fix their cars, help them with their lawnmowers."