Awareness, general safety stressed upon Level 3 sex offender's move to Cottage Grove
A Level 3 sex offender’s move to Cottage Grove led public safety officials to inform the public about the man’s background, but it also provided an opportunity to discuss what can be done to keep families and children safe from other potential predators.
State corrections staff and local police stressed the importance of knowing about the Level 3 offender, Shannon Michael Benson, while maintaining awareness of suspicious activity by others. They recommended talking with kids in generalities about being able to identify inappropriate behavior and encouraging them to speak out.
Adults, too, have a responsibility to monitor their neighborhood for suspicious behavior, said Michele Murphy, Minnesota Department of Corrections community notification coordinator.
“You are the frontline defense for your communities,” Murphy said at a community meeting Thursday, May 1, at Cottage Grove Middle School. “You know everything that’s going on before law enforcement. Take it upon yourselves to call them.”
The public meeting was organized by Cottage Grove police after Benson moved to the city last month. Benson, 34, was convicted four times in southern Minnesota for sexual conduct offenses he committed against children when he was a juvenile.
Benson’s sentence for his last conviction expired in August 2007 and he was released from the Department of Corrections, said MaryEllen Amland, a community notification specialist with the department. He will retain the Level 3 offender designation until August 2017. That designation is given to someone deemed the highest risk to re-offend.
State law requires law enforcement to notify the community when a Level 3 offender moves in. Police Chief Craig Woolery said by his count Benson has moved at least 40 times. It’s not known how long he will live in Cottage Grove.
There are 52 predatory offenders living in Cottage Grove. Not all have been assigned a risk level, and some remain on supervised release. Benson is the only Level 3 offender living in Cottage Grove and one of two living in Washington County. The other lives in Oakdale.
Predatory offenders are required to check in annually with law enforcement, but Cottage Grove police Sgt. Gwen Martin said she tries to contact them four times a year.
Parents and others at the community notification meeting who live near Benson’s home in the 8700 block of Greene Avenue asked about his proximity to Pine Hill Elementary School, whether their children can play safely at local parks and what they should do if they see something suspicious.
Authorities said an offender’s residence is far less a factor in a sex offense than the relationship with the victim. Ninety percent of Level 3 predatory offenders victimized someone they knew, Murphy said.
Murphy said that a multi-state study found that residency restrictions, such as prohibiting offenders from living near a school or day care center, did not have an affect on re-offense rates.
“It’s not about where the offender’s living,” she said. “It’s about the relationship that’s being used to gain access to potential victims.”
Corrections officials encouraged parents to talk to children about inappropriate contact. Murphy suggested the “swimsuit rule,” setting parameters with kids about who is allowed to touch them in areas covered by their swimsuits. Parents also should be aware of who their children are spending time with and whether they receive gifts or unusual attention from an adult.
Benson’s last criminal sexual conduct offense occurred 16 years ago. All four offenses happened when he was a juvenile, the last happening in 1998. Three times he was sentenced as a juvenile. He was sentenced as an adult for the final conviction, which came in 1999. Benson’s victims were boys and girls ages 7-13 who were known to him. All of the relationships were different.
“He was well-acquainted with the victims,” Murphy said.
An offender’s specific address, work location or school are not public information under state law.
That those details are private bothered some residents.
“Who are we protecting?” one man asked.
Murphy said residents have the benefit of knowing what Benson looks like and other information that can help them be safe.
“He knows that you will all be watching him,” Murphy said, adding that Benson also has rights to live in the community.
The meeting helped ease the mind of Cottage Grove resident Teri Dobos. She doesn’t live near Benson’s home but said she was “blindsided” earlier this year when a man was arrested near her home for a sexual offense. She wanted to attend the meeting just to get information about Benson’s case.
“I think that we have to be vigilant as a community of Cottage Grove to keep all our children safe,” said Dobos, a mother of two teens.
Click here to watch the Department of Corrections presentation, recorded by the South Washington County Telecommunications Commission.