By COLIN FLANDERS
A standing-room only crowd gathered in the Albert D. Lawton school cafeteria last Thursday to discuss the release of a high-risk sex offender now living in Essex Jct.
Sean Guillette, 51, was released from Northwest State Correctional Facility on August 2 after serving 17 years for multiple convictions for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child in 1999. He had two prior convictions.
The Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations considers him a high-risk offender. Since Guillette maxed out his sentence, he’s no longer under the department of correction’s supervision.
Knowing this, Essex police Chief Brad LaRose had a lengthy conversation with Guillette the day after his release and also turned to Jill Evans, director of the Essex Community Justice Center, to discuss their options.
Evans suggested a Circle of Support and Accountability, a yearlong program that helps those fresh out of prison reintegrate into the community.
Guillette agreed and will soon begin meeting with a small panel of CJC volunteers. He’s also found a therapist for outpatient treatment, Evans said.
Guillette’s status as a non-compliant sex offender, meaning he didn’t complete treatment while in prison, makes his pairing with the CJC “virtually unprecedented” in Vermont, Evans said.
She commended LaRose and the department for being proactive.
“Last year, there were 15 sex offenders who maxed out their sentences and very quietly entered their communities, and it’s because of this leadership in Essex that we’re here tonight,” she said at last week’s meeting.
Karen Holmes, the center’s re-entry coordinator, said Guillette must sign releases allowing the center access to his treatment records.
“He’s agreeing to no more secrets and no more victims,” she said.
Holmes stressed Guillette’s participation is voluntary since he’s now a private citizen; beyond registering as a sex offender, he isn’t required to interact with police or the CJC.
“He has every right to just go home and live a private life and move on with the rest of it without any of us interfering,” she said.
Holmes and Evans joined Kris Goldstein from the Vermont Department of Corrections to discuss the next steps.
Goldstein said compared to other criminals, sex offenders are generally the most compliant and easiest to supervise. Additionally, they have the lowest risk of recidivism, or reoffending.
She said two factors raise Guillette’s risk, however: his failure to complete treatment and that he didn’t know his victims. She believes he could have been released over a decade earlier if he’d completed treatment.
“I’m a mom, I’m a grandmother and a community member,” she said. “So when I leave work at the end of the day, I have the same types of concerns and fears as most of you do.”
She said there’s no way to keep non-compliant sex offenders in prison if they max out their sentence.
“If there was, I would probably go that way,” she said.
Now that Guillette is released, the worst-case scenario is that he won’t reintegrate, Goldstein said. She called on residents to not let emotions run decision-making, as she fears if the community ostracizes him, there’s a stronger chance he’ll reoffend.
“You have an option to not make it worse,” she said.
Evans agreed, adding it’s important to treat offenders with respect.
“You don’t have to be their friend. You don’t have to like them,” she said. “But [acknowledge] their dignity and your hope that they have the ability to change.”
Some residents weren’t convinced.
Ray Ritner, who has two daughters, doubts the CoSA program would succeed, noting Guillette’s failure to complete treatment in prison.
“I have a different treatment program for him,” Ritner said before taking his seat.
LaRose empathized with Ritner’s frustration but believes there’s no other option.
“Sean Guillette is at rock bottom,” he said. “Are we going to let the man stay there at rock bottom and say whatever happens is going to happen? No, we can’t do that. We’ve got to push this one direction, and that’s up.”
Asked if the department will take additional measures due to Guillette’s release, Essex police Cpt. George Murtie said every officer knows what he looks like and where he lives.
“I can’t promise you we will flood the neighborhood with patrol cars or that we will have police officers marching up and down the street while kids are going to school,” he said.
He assured the department will do its best, within the limits of its resources, to ensure the community is safe and urged residents to report any suspicious activity — within reason.
“If you see Sean Guillette in Hannaford, that’s OK,” he said. “If you see Sean Guillette at a Little League game, that’s something we want to know about.”
Some people wondered what to tell their children about Guillette. A few suggested showing them his picture.
Village resident Tina Bleau, a psychologist who treats children who have been abused, worried of the implications.
“No picture in the world you have that’s hung up, no amount of time we approach this man about his behavior, is going to empower your child to take care of their bodies, but information does,” she said.
Bleau hoped further discussion would focus on how parents can inform their children without promoting fear and hatred.
“Not on Facebook in the privacy of your houses where you’re gossiping about the details, but actually getting out and having conversations to learn how to talk to kids,” she said.
Contrasting Bleau’s hope was a call from some residents to release Guillette’s address.
Both police and the CJC said they aren’t allowed to disclose it.
Near the meeting’s end, however, Sharon Pierce, secretary of the Countryside Parcel C Homeowners Association, which covers Spruce Lane, Beech Street, Locust Lane and Hubbells Falls Drive, filled in the gap.
“I do feel that I am at liberty to dispose where Mr. Guillette lives because I don’t think too much information can be given,” she said. “So can I tell?”
“We can’t,” LaRose responded from across the room.
Pierce, who lives on Spruce Lane, then read Guillette’s address twice.
“I don’t want everyone going on our streets protesting the man; I just think the information needs to be out there,” she said.
A number of residents applauded as she took her seat.
Holmes reminded the crowd that innocent people live with Guillette. In a follow-up interview, she said she’s unsure why Pierce released his address and noted the other residents there are fearful of retaliation.
“Sean made some really bad decisions in the past … people have every right to be fretful and angry about that,” she said. “But my concern would be putting other people at risk, people who are basically innocent bystanders.”