Eric Adler: Brodie Leap says he felt pressured as a boy to say his father Earnest Leap had touched him inappropriately. Now 31, Brodie is trying to get his father’s name off Missouri’s sex offender registry. Across the U.S., more are questioning the public benefit, legality and appropriateness of registries.
Earnest Leap and Brodie Leap (right)
Radley Balko: Son falsely accuses
father of sexual abuse, spends life trying to undo the damage, October 29, 2015
Leap was 5 years old when he told what he now calls The Lie.
he knew it was a lie the second he said it. He is 31 now, living in Oakview in ClayCounty,
and he has known his entire life that it wasn’t true.
been touched down there?” his mother asked him.
insists he told the truth at first. “No,” he recalls repeating to his mother as
she asked him time and again. The date was Dec. 1, 1989. Karen Leap, then 36,
was asking her son about his father and her ex-husband, Earnest Leap.
couple, separated for three years, had just ended their seven-year marriage
that September. Despite their bitter parting, the parents received joint
custody of Brodie and his toddler brother, Josh.
Leap’s grave disappointment, Earnest Leap was named prime custodial parent,
meaning the boys lived mostly with him.
been touched down there?”
answer that Brodie Leap finally uttered, and which for the past eight years he
has declared in affidavits he felt hounded to give, continues to haunt the life
of his father, who both Leap brothers attest has been the most supportive and
positive force in their lives.
“The only stable component of my childhood was
the immutable presence of my father,” Josh Leap, 27, a computer data scientist
in St. Louis,
wrote in support of Earnest Leap.
Brodie Leap, “I live with the guilt of that lie every day of my life.”
veteran and one-time financial adviser, he recently came back to the Kansas City area and
moved in with his dad, in part to take on the mission of his father’s
exoneration and pardon.
very least, he hopes to get his father’s name erased from the rolls of Missouri’s registered
sex offenders. By state statute, Earnest Leap is required to stay on the
registry for life.
Kansas City-based Midwest Innocence Project notified Leap last month that it
was reviewing his records as it considers whether to take up his cause in
been going on for 25 years,” said Leap, 57, who retired this year as a driver
for United Parcel Service. “I have never had anything to be ashamed of.”
Leap’s quest to clear his father’s name comes at a pitched moment in the debate
over sex offenders and the laws that keep track of them.
the nation, attorneys, criminologists and even law enforcement agencies have
begun, with greater force, to question the public benefit, legality and
appropriateness of making available the photos, names, addresses and workplaces
of some 850,000 individuals on the nation’s sex offender registries. Officials
also question a tapestry of ever-changing rules that differ state by state on
where offenders can live, work and walk.
But in Missouri, county
sheriffs and prosecutors are still struggling to determine what to do after a
2013 Missouri Supreme Court ruling.
State of Missouri v. Michael Wade,
is related specifically to Missouri Statute 566.150,
which went into effect in 2009. It prohibits individuals found guilty of a sex
offense from loitering within 500 feet of a park with playground equipment or a
public swimming pool. The court, in its decision, ruled that the loitering law
could be applied retroactively to offenders who were found guilty in the years
before the law went into effect.
ruling went on to say that other such criminal laws also could be applied
problem that sheriffs’ offices now face is that the newer ruling runs directly
counter to two previous Missouri Supreme Court rulings. Those rulings found
that a different criminal law, 566.147,
which restricts sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or
daycare, could not be applied to people who occupied their homes before the law
went into effect in 2004.
on the new ruling, any sex offender who lives within 1,000 feet of a school or
daycare is violating the law, regardless of when they were convicted.
densely populated JacksonCounty, that essentially
includes all of the county’s 2,100 registered sex offenders.
know where, physically, you could live in JacksonCounty
where there isn’t a park or daycare or school or playground,” said Capt. Mike
Rogers, who said the Sheriff’s Department is still working on what to do. “It
would displace thousands of people.”
offender registries are about keeping close tabs on offenders, he said, forcing
them to move would send the system into chaos.
not in the position of displacing a bunch of families or displacing someone who
has lived in their house for 50 years because they have a park or school down
the street,” Rogers
PlatteCounty is home to 96 registered sex
offenders. The PlatteCounty prosecutor’s
office has received no cases of violators, although if it did, a spokesman
said, the office would prosecute.
CassCounty has 143 registered offenders.
Four have been informed they are in violation.
Earnest Leap was among 57 of the county’s approximately 330 registered sex
offenders who received a letter from the Sheriff’s Department in August. The
letter said his house on the border with Gladstone
is too close to a school. It is 990 feet away.
the sex offender laws are really screwed up because they contradict each
other,” said Capt. Tommy St. John of the Clay County Sheriff’s Department. “All
the sex offender laws are a mess.”
been in his home since 2000, rebuilding much of it himself. He raised Brodie
and Josh there through their middle school years, after they voluntarily left
their mom. His wife, Natalie, 41, has lived there with him since before their
marriage in 2008. Her son, Austin, from a previous marriage, also eventually
lived with them there.
letter, St. John
said, was carefully worded. It placed no deadline on leaving.
basic, generic letter,” St. John
said. “We take a criminal report and file it with the prosecutor. The
prosecutor decides whether to file or not and that gets the monkey off our
seven registered offenders already have opted to move. The prosecutor, as of
recent events, had opted not to prosecute others among the 57.
Leaps said the letter is vague and leaves them wondering what their future
won’t tell you,” Natalie Leap said. “Are they going to prosecute you if you
stay? Even if we move, where do we live? If we move into another neighborhood,
all the red flags come up with him being a registered sex offender.
can’t go to a park. You can’t go camping, If he goes to another state, you have
to register there.”
Registries exist in every state, with many studies showing that the public
overwhelmingly supports them for keeping people informed and thus feeling
sex offender registries are an important part of an overall child-protection
strategy,” said Staca Shehan of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Her division at the center helps authorities by collecting information on the
whereabouts of “noncompliant” sex offenders, those who have failed to register.
No clear number exists, but she estimated there are tens of thousands
last two decades, state and federal lawmakers have responded to public
sentiment with strong legislation. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against
Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act became the first
federal law to require that states operate a registry.
was named for Jacob, 11, who was riding his bike with friends when a masked man
abducted the boy near his Minnesota
home. Neither Jacob nor the man was ever found.
Megan’s Law allowed registries to publicly disclose offenders’ private and
personal information, such as where they lived. Megan Kanka, of Mercer County, N.J.,
was 7 years old when in 1994 she was raped and murdered by a neighbor who was a
law passed that year further allowed offenders to be tracked from place to
SORNA, failing to register is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Offenders also must notify authorities when and where they move or take a new
allows the public and families to have knowledge about who is in their community,”
Shehan said of offenders required to register, and provides “the opportunity to
create a safety plan, to educate themselves about what the risks are.”
national headline-grabbing stories have tended to reinforce the need for
offered the example of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the 11-year-old California girl who was grabbed off a street
as she walked home from school. Dugard remained missing for 18 years until, in
2009, she was recognized and found in the company of convicted sex offender
Phillip Craig Garrido, who had kept her captive.
others,” Shehan said. “It is anecdotal, for the most part, but we have seen
cases where registered and noncompliant sex offenders have re-offended and
raped or murdered a child.”
point, she said, is John Albert Gardner, who in 2010 pleaded guilty to the rape
and murder of 14-year-old Amber Dubois in 2009 and 17-year-old Chelsea King in
2010, both in California.
Gardner was a
convicted sex offender who had been imprisoned previously for molesting a
common argument against the registries is that they go too far, in that they
publicly brand offenders with a felony scarlet letter for anywhere from 10
years to a lifetime, long after offenders have completed the terms of their
reputation has been ruined,” Earnest Leap said.
say the registries cast too large a net, placing rapists on the same registry
with those convicted of public urination or so-called Romeo and Juliet crimes —
consensual sex between underage teens that is prosecuted as statutory rape.
registries’ effectiveness also is being questioned.
the U.S. Department of Justice published a research brief
on sex offender management. In effect, it offered a summary of what collective
research shows on how effective strategies such as residence restrictions and
registration requirements have been in reducing sex offender crime rates and
recidivism, meaning repeat crimes by previous offenders.
Justice Department brief was absolute regarding residence restrictions.
evidence is fairly clear that residence restrictions are not effective,” the
brief said. “In fact, research suggests that residence restrictions may
actually increase offender risk by undermining offender stability and the
ability of the offender to obtain housing, work, and family support. There is
nothing to suggest this policy should be used at this time.”
February, the California Supreme Court struck down sex-offender living
restrictions in San DiegoCounty, with Justice
Marvin Baxter declaring the county’s restrictions “unreasonable, arbitrary and
oppressive,” an “infringement” on offenders’ constitutional rights that “bears
no rational relationship to advancing the state’s legitimate goal of protecting
children from sexual predators.”
In New York that same month, the state Court of Appeals
struck down a 2006 NassauCounty ordinance that
prohibited sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school.
August, Massachusetts Associate Justice Geraldine S. Hines likened sex-offender
living restrictions to some of America’s
darkest historical moments. The state Supreme
Judicial Court unanimously struck down local
ordinances banning sex offenders from living near schools or parks.
for the incarceration of persons under the criminal law and the civil
commitment of mentally ill or dangerous persons,” Hines wrote, “the days are
long since past when whole communities of persons, such as Native Americans and
Japanese-Americans, may be lawfully banished from our midst.”
whether registration and notification actually reduce the rate of sex crimes,
the Justice Department brief concludes the results were mixed. Some studies
have found no effect; others have noted decreases in the rate of sex crimes.
brief was more conclusive regarding recidivism, the effect of registration on
reducing repeat offenses by sexual predators. The majority of studies found “no
law professor Ira Mark Ellman this summer took on the very assertion, used in
dozens of legal cases to justify the use of sex offender registries, that sex
offenders should be tracked because their rate of re-offending is “frightening
and high,” as much as 80 percent.
But as he
notes in an essay to be published in the law journal Constitutional Commentary,
the assertion that offenders re-offend at an alarming rate stems from data
offered to the U.S. Supreme Court in an amicus brief in a 2002 Kansas sex offender
case, McKune v. Lile.
deeper, Ellman tracked the 80 percent number to what he determined to be its
original source, a 1986 story in the popular magazine Psychology Today. It
stated that “most untreated sex offenders released from prison go on to commit
more offenses — indeed, as many as 80 percent do.” But the story provided no
studies, data, experts or sources to support that statement.
was no study at all. There is no reference or anything. That was pretty
surprising,” Ellman said in a telephone interview. “Fear, the fear of what a
person might do, drives people to reach these conclusions. They don’t hear the
difficult to calculate a single percentage of sex offenders who do re-offend,
Ellman said. But the number, he said, is not close to 80 percent and is lower
than the re-offense rate for other felony crimes.
cites a meta-analysis of some 8,000 sex offenders that showed that, among the
highest risk offenders, 20 percent committed another sex crime within five
years of prison release, and 32 percent within 15 years. But the longer one
goes without re-offending after release, the less chance for any new crime.
high-risk offenders who were offense-free after 16 years committed a sex crime
thereafter, Ellman wrote.
Leap said that for him recidivism is not an issue because he didn’t sexually
abuse Brodie in the first place.
Not my son, any other child, or adult,” Leap said last week.
former wife, now Karen Harris, 62, lives just over a mile from the home Leap
shares with his wife and Brodie.
insisted in a recent interview that although she never witnessed her ex-husband
abuse their son, she nonetheless believes now as she believed nearly 26 years
ago that Leap molested him.
happened,” Harris said. “I believe my child. … My son would not have lied
to me back then. I don’t know why Brodie is lying now.”
Leap holds that in 1989 any truth of his father’s innocence quickly became
buried beneath the landslide of dysfunction, family drama and the desire to
please his mother that both sons have said came to define their childhoods.
hardly denies that life had been difficult.
28 when she met and married Earnest Leap in 1982. By then she had been married
four times and had four children, all boys.
she was about 14 years old when she was sexually assaulted by one of her
father’s Army buddies and became pregnant. She was forced by her family to wed
the man shortly after. They had a baby.
“He was a
rapist,” she said. “They made me marry him. They sold me out.”
he met his former wife while she was cutting hair at a Northland salon. He was
23 and already working for UPS. They wed a few weeks later. In February 1984,
Brodie was born.
the couple separated after four years, they got back together briefly. Josh was
born in August 1988, less than a year before the divorce became legal. The
marriage was dissolved in ClayCounty on Sept. 13, 1989.
named Earnest Leap as primary custodian. Harris recalled that she quickly came
to think that her husband was keeping Brodie and Josh from seeing her.
‘You can’t keep them away from me forever,’ ” she recalled telling him at
accusation of child sexual abuse came less than three months after the divorce.
Earnest Leap maintains that the “false accusation” had everything to do with
Harris recalls it differently.
remembers picking up Brodie from his father’s place — Earnest Leap was living
in Blue Springs
at the time — to stay the weekend with her. She said Brodie was moody, acting
“antsy” and “nervous.” He had been playing aggressively with a toy car. She
thought he might be mad at an older half brother.
‘Brodie, why are you doing this?’ He didn’t really answer. But there was a
cover over the couch and he kept covering his head and everything.”
said she thought he was just acting strangely.
him to the bedroom and sat him on the side of the bed,” she said. “I said,
‘Brodie, you’ve got to talk to me. I don’t know what’s going on.’ ”
said that it was in that moment that the notion he might have been sexually
abused crossed her mind. She had been following the news, and in the 1980s,
child sexual abuse was making national headlines. The McMartin preschool case —
in which it was later determined that preschool workers were falsely accused of
abusing some 360 children in their care — was still working its way through the
sudden something hit me,” she recalled. “If you remember, that was about the
time everything started coming out, saying, ‘Ask your kids if someone has
touched them.’ ”
said she held Brodie, told him she loved him and said he could reveal anything
recalled his response: His father had told him that if he talked, he would be
“dead meat.” She said she persisted and that Brodie, in a child’s words,
indicated that he had awakened to find his father performing a sex act.
Brodie Leap shook his head at hearing his mother’s recollection. By choice,
neither he nor Josh has contact with their mother. Brodie said that when he
thinks of his mom, “I don’t feel anger. I feel more pity for her.”
his mother came to believe what she wanted to believe. His memory of that day
is vastly different. He recalls her asking him countless times whether his
father had touched him in an improper way.
just incessant,” he said. He remembers saying no over and over again until,
after two hours of questioning by her, he finally relented so that he could go
mother took him to the hospital. There was no physical evidence. But he said he
repeated what he knew to be a lie to others, including a counselor and worker
for the Missouri Division of Family Services, its name then.
repeated the story … because I did not want to get into trouble for making up
the story,” he wrote in a 2007 affidavit used in a petition for pardon sent to
Gov. Jay Nixon.
came for Earnest Leap. His children were taken away and given to his ex-wife.
The JacksonCounty prosecutor, using the evidence of
Brodie’s statement to his mother, police and others, charged Leap with
first-degree sexual abuse. Documents back his assertion that for more than a
year and half he refused to plead guilty.
the advice of his public defender, he said, he finally agreed to terms that he
thought would make it all go away. It was an Alford plea, in which the
defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that if the case went to trial,
the prosecutor would have enough evidence to convict.
trial was the last thing Leap wanted, he said, and not just because of the risk
of jail time. A trial would mean that Brodie would be compelled to testify
against his dad.
broke into tears recently as he said, “I didn’t want him to have to go through
agreement seemed right: A sentence of three years that, most important to Leap,
allowed him to maintain his innocence and also offered suspended imposition.
That meant Leap would get no jail time. If he stayed out of trouble for three
years, any record of his conviction would be wiped away.
what happened. A search of public documents shows no record of his conviction.
of that was before the creation of the sex offender registry: before residency
restrictions, before past offenders had to add their names, before the eruption
of the Internet allowed all of Leap’s co-workers, friends and neighbors to find
his face and address with the click of a mouse.
have for years been deeply involved in dog rescue. In late August, Natalie Leap
received a two-sentence letter from a group for which they had volunteered.
weekend your husband’s criminal record was brought to our attention,” it
stated. “Given the nature of his conviction and our involvement in the
community (our group) can no longer continue our relationship with you or your
miniscule example, Leap said, of what they experience.
been harassed by police officers, co-workers, bosses, neighbors,” Leap said. To
everyone who looks on the Internet, he said, he knows he’s seen as the area
that is, to his family. His wife has become an active member of Women Against Registry,
a national group based in Arnold,
Mo., that attempts to bring fair
treatment to the families of individuals on the registry.
aside, in middle school both Brodie and Josh left their mother’s house and
chose to live with their father. Both attended college. Brodie became a top
wrestler at Oak ParkHigh School and later in
has had his troubles, he said, including a divorce. Injuries from wrestling,
rugby and mixed martial arts have made work difficult enough for him to seek
disability. For the time being he’s moved back into the home where he feels
Brodie said, “is the one I always come back to.”