Pacific Northwest island houses violent sex predators - KPTV - FOX 12

Pacific Northwest island houses violent sex predators

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From far away, it could be a benign complex of offices or a suburban community college. But what makes the collection of buildings unusual are the miles of concertina wire, detaining Washington's most sexually violent predators.

Like J.D. McManus, a self-professed child molester.

"It's almost like a prison. You did what you did to get here and you got to do what you do to get home," McManus said.

It's called the Special Commitment Center and its roughly 280 residents are rapists, child molesters and habitual sex offenders. They live in isolation, literally adrift from society.  

The center is located near Steilacoom, across the Puget Sound on McNeil Island.  The island is accessible only by a restricted, state-run ferry.

Small porpoises shadowed FOX 12 on the 25-minute ferry ride to the island during a recent tour.  Once we docked, we were greeted by the now-empty McNeil Island Corrections Center -- the state prison closed down last year.

Staff members drove us the two miles inland to the center. 

The island is also a wildlife refuge and along the way, we spotted deer, coyotes and raccoons that have lost their tails climbing through the center's wire fencing. 

The Special Commitment Center was created in 1990 after Washington state legislators passed the Community Protection Act, the nation's first civil commitment law. Nineteen other states now have similar civil commitment programs.

Individuals who were previously convicted of sex crimes and whom the court finds meet the legal definition of a sexually violent predator may be civilly committed to the Special Commitment Center.

"Only 3 percent of sex offenders coming out of the (Washington) Department of Corrections come to the Special Commitment Center," said Kelly Cunningham, the Special Commitment Center's chief executive officer. "So, it's a very small population. A very dangerous population."

"I did child molestation in the first degree, intent, it was my mistake. Got to deal with it. It was nobody else but my blame," said McManus, 45, a convicted child molester, now housed at the Special Commitment Center.

He told us he'd been at the center for 11 years as he walked in the center's main yard.

Offenders, who are not inmates in the traditional sense, mingled in street clothes, as heavy metal music blasted from the nearby recreation room.

Some high-risk residents live in prison-like cells.  Privileges are earned and lower-managed offenders have more freedom.

About 250 surveillance cameras keep constant vigil. 

Some staff members, who are not armed, wear body alarms that sound if there's a problem.  The center does have a number of less-lethal weapons on the premises, in case of emergency.

There are currently a handful of residents from Clark and Cowlitz counties at the center.

Among them, a resident named Keith Elmore, who was convicted in Clark County of assaulting and kidnapping a woman in 1994.

Court records show Elmore, who has formally changed his name to Rebecca, has fantasies of becoming a woman by killing and eating women.

"I woke up in the middle of the night with his hands around my neck. I thought I was a goner," said Elmore's former wife, who agreed to talk with FOX 12 if we concealed her identity. 

She believes Elmore and offenders like him should remain locked up.

"At one point, I thought he was going to be released. The first thing I did was put my house on the market and try to figure out where to go," she said.  "Letting him out would be a violation of all our rights."

But the Special Commitment Center is not meant to be "an island of no return." Successful sex offender treatment is the back-door exit.  But it's a choice: residents can opt not to participate. 

According to center staff, only about 45 percent currently participate in sex offender treatment programs.

The youngest resident is 19-years-old, the eldest is in his 80s.

Each resident's progress is reviewed yearly by the court of commitment.  If the court finds that the resident has made progress to the point that the resident can be safely managed in the community, the court may order the resident's conditional release or their confinement in a less restrictive environment.

"If I get through this course, I can show the community I can behave and keep my hands to myself," said McManus.

But others will likely remain on the island for the rest of their lives, detained under a controversial law -- not for what they've already done, but what they might do.

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