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Sex offender release blocked

MOORHEAD - When Moorhead residents were recently told a high-risk sex offender was moving to town, they learned only what police could legally tell them: that Ronald VanVoorhees had sexually molested a 7-year-old girl.

What they weren't told is that VanVoorhees has spent much of his life abusing children and others, according to a court document that will stop him from leaving prison Saturday as scheduled.

Now, the 49-year-old will remain in custody until a judge decides whether he should be committed indefinitely as a sexually dangerous person or a sexually psychopathic personality.

Crimes began early

VanVoorhees had illegal sexual contact with two women and 17 children, crimes for which, for the most part, he was never charged, according to a petition for civil commitment filed this week in Clay County District Court.

According to the petition:

After VanVoorhees was sent to prison in 2002 for molesting a young girl in Clay County, he began admitting to other illegal acts extending back to the late 1960s.

In an early case, VanVoorhees said he was 8 or 9 when he molested the daughter of one of his mother's friends, a girl who was 1 or 2.

VanVoorhees detailed sexual abuse of other young girls and admitted having sex with girls who were in their mid-teens when he was in his 30s.

In 2004, VanVoorhees was on intensive supervised release from prison when he had sex with a 16-year-old, the daughter of a woman he had befriended while living in a motel.

When a probation agent asked VanVoorhees why a convicted offender was having sex with a 16-year-old, VanVoorhees replied, "I like sex and age does not matter to me."

Commitment rate

County officials are notified by prison authorities when inmates deemed to be at high risk of reoffending are to be released.

In the half-dozen or so cases it has pursued since 2000, Clay County has not failed to secure a civil commitment, said County Attorney Brian Melton, whose office receives assistance in such cases from the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.

Of the hundreds of inmates in Minnesota who have been civilly committed, not one has been released, a fact that doesn't bother Melton.

"This is 100 percent a public safety thing," he said. "I have no qualms about the idea of civil commitment."

Not all cases reviewed by the county result in petitions getting filed.

If medical experts don't feel the individual meets the necessary criteria, the case doesn't move forward, Melton said.

'No practical way'

"You can't lock up everyone who has committed a sex offense forever. There is no practical way to do that," said Melton, adding that parents should start talking early to children about their bodies and what kind of touching is inappropriate.

The sooner that happens, the more comfortable and articulate a child will be when it comes to talking about things that might be worrying them, Melton said.

An attorney who has defended more than 50 convicted sex offenders in civil commitment cases said the process is relatively fair and necessary, given the threat some individuals pose.

But Ryan Magnus, an attorney who practices in Mankato, Minn., sees a risk that all sex offenders will be regarded as equally dangerous, when that is not the case.

The public doesn't understand that offenders can be significantly different, said Magnus, who added that civil commitment is appropriate for some, but not all.

"There are people who have had 20 victims over their lifetime, have never acknowledged they did anything wrong and continue to pose a high risk to reoffend," he said.

"Then, there are people who are turning 18, who were victims of childhood sexual abuse who then act out with their foster siblings, or whatever.

"The problem is the (civil commitment) statute can be interpreted to apply to both of those people and they're significantly different," Magnus said.