Sheriff warns Cornelius residents about nearby sex offenders
Neighbors get the word Friday that a privately run institution houses the criminally insane
In 1988, Matthew John Shipley, then 25, was caught sexually assaulting a 3-year-old girl behind a Safeway store on Nyberg Road in Tualatin.
When police took him into custody he told them that for years he had been having dreams of young girls having sex with him. He had escaped that day from a state mental hospital.
In 1990, Shipley was placed under the jurisdiction of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board for a maximum of 50 years. For the past 17 years, Shipley has been in the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.
But in July, the board granted Shipley a conditional release from the hospital.
Since August, he's been living at 117 N. 29th Ave. in Cornelius along with other registered sex offenders. None of Shipley's neighbors had any idea.
That's when the Washington County Sheriff's Office distributed notices to 1,300 Cornelius residents alerting them that Shipley, now 44, and two other sex offenders are residents of what neighbors call the Connell House.
The house is actually a secure residential treatment facility operated by Luke-Dorf Inc., a Tigard mental health agency. It houses Oregon State Hospital patients who, like Shipley, have been conditionally released from the state hospital.
At least eight residents in the facility, which has 12 beds, have been found guilty 'except for insanity' of crimes that range from arson and assault, to rape and sodomy.
In addition to Shipley, the sheriff's office also notified residents that sex offenders Jerry Allan Farstad, 32, and Harold Austin Aven, 41, also live there.
No public hearing
Sgt. David Thompson, Washington County Sheriff's spokesman, said that his office made the unusual disclosure when it became clear that the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board wasn't going to notify neighbors about the sex offenders living in the house, which opened in August.
'We felt it was a matter of public safety to make those notifications and allow people to protect their children and loved ones so that at least they had the knowledge that these people were living in their neighborhood,' Thompson said.
Questions about the safety and appropriateness of the Connell House have been reverberating in the halls of government for months.
Thompson said that the sheriff's office found out about the facility a few months ago and has been working with Luke-Dorf to make sure that residents couldn't escape.
Sheriff Rob Gordon will host a forum on the facility on Thursday evening (see box).
On Dec. 10, in Salem, a legislative committee heard testimony from district attorneys, law enforcement and mental health professionals about the siting of such secure facilities.
At each level, officials are questioning whether the state is providing adequate notification and oversight of facilities like the Connell House.
'What I want people to understand statewide, and regionwide, is that this can happen anywhere,' Thompson said.
'There's no public hearing, and they're planning to open more, and you wouldn't know it unless somebody like the sheriff's office makes a notification.'
School bus stops nearby
Questions submitted by the News-Times to the Psychiatric Security Review Board's executive director, Mary Claire Buckley, weren't responded to by Saturday. A staffer at the board's office said that Buckley was on vacation until after Jan. 1.
Dawn Phillips, spokeswoman for state Rep. Linda Flores (R-Clackamas), said that the review board is being charged with more conditional releases than in the past. Phillips suspects the pending closure of the Oregon State Hospital is forcing the state's hand.
'They won't come out and say it but the elephant in the room is that the state hospital is crumbling and they're building two new ones,' Phillips said. 'But in the meantime, they're under court order to downsize and they're closing wards.'
'And where are they putting these guys?' she said. 'Out in the community.'
That frustrates Russ Van Loo, who lives next door to the Connell House.
He acknowledged that the residents of the facility need to live somewhere, but he critiqued the siting process.
'We had it crammed down our neighborhood,' he said, 'This thing should have been nipped in the bud before it got started, but it was a cut-and-dried thing.'
Van Loo didn't get a notification from the sheriff's department, but after a neighbor showed it to him, he was incensed by the fact that a half-dozen elementary school students wait for the bus in front of the Connell House every morning during the school year.
'It's not a jail'
Jennifer Ochsenbein heads up the Council Creek Neighborhood Watch and is a member of the Cornelius Planning Commission, which puts her in a sticky situation.
For months, the planning commission has been trying to work with Luke-Dorf to resolve what it sees as a conflict: the agency got a conditional-use permit for a different kind of facility than was actually built.
Cornelius City Manager Dave Waffle wrote in a statement Friday that Richard Meyer, the city's community development director, has warned Luke-Dorf that he may exercise his authority to revoke the permit.
Ochensbein said she's frustrated by the lack of information Luke-Dorf provided both the neighborhood and the planning commission.
'I think Luke-Dorf has an obligation to be up front and honest with planning commissions and cities and saying that it has the potential of housing these kinds of people instead of not saying anything at all,' Ochsenbein said.
Ochsenbein added that more care should be taken to distance facilities like the Connell House from residential areas.
'There are plenty of places they can provide fair housing that are not in residential neighborhoods filled with children,' said Ochensbein. She added that because of her role in the neighborhood she will not vote if the issue comes before the planning commission.
Howard Spanbock, Luke-Dorf's executive director, said he understands where the sheriff and neighbors are coming from, but insists his facility's location is appropriate.
'We feel that we have a safe facility. We feel that we adhere to all the Oregon administrative rules around that facility,' Spanbock said.
Thompson said a major sticking point for the sheriff's office was that the Connell House residents are being taken for walks in the community, accompanied by a staffer.
'These offenders are not wearing restraints,' Thompson wrote in a press release. 'If an offender decides to walk away from the group, staff members will take no action to detain them. These staff members are not armed, and their plan if an offender walks away is to call 9-1-1 and wait for police to respond.'
Spanbock said that the Connell House residents have civil rights under their conditional release.
'They're citizens,' he said. 'They can walk in the community. It's not a jail.'
Spanbock is quick to point out that the Cornelius police haven't been called to Connell House since it's opened, though he wouldn't hesitate to call police if there was a need.
'This is a long process that has been done for many, many years,' Spanbock said, 'It's a proven method that the state has developed to move these folks out of the state hospital and back into the community.
While the Connell House is the first secure residential treatment facility run by Luke-Dorf, the non-profit has operated a number of other houses throughout the region for years, including facilities in Gresham, Tigard, Portland and Beaverton.
The Cornelius facility is funded by a $1.72 million state contract for mental health services.
And although the Connell House is the first treatment facility of its kind in Washington County, others exist in Oregon. In Albany and Milwaukie, efforts to locate similar facilities have drawn have drawn strong opposition from residents.'
Sheriff's office holds public meeting
WHAT: Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon will host a community meeting about Connell House.
WHEN: 6 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 3.
WHERE: Washington County Sheriff's Office, 215 S.W. Adams Ave., Hillsboro.
MORE INFO: There is also information about the Connell House on the sheriff's office web site at www.co.washington.or.us/sheriff/investig/notify.htm .