In the News

Predator in Armagh: Megan’s law offender stirs uproar

By BERNIE HORNICK for the Tribune Democrat
September 27, 2008

ARMAGH — Deana McLaughlin recently sat her kids down to tell them sobering news: A violent sexual predator had moved to town, not 200 yards from their home.

The reactions of her daughter, 13, and son, 11, were quite different.

“We showed them the flier,” McLaughlin said.

“Abbi understands more. With my son, Derrick, it’s sex stuff. He giggles.”

But it’s no laughing matter to McLaughlin, nor to most of the borough of 123 people. Printouts of the Megan’s law offender dot telephone poles and are taped up at businesses.

Townsfolk are practically climbing the walls – as upset with landlady Nancy Luther as with convicted molester and new neighbor Richard Vavro.

“Why in the world would she do it?” McLaughlin wondered aloud. “What was she thinking. Everybody is floored.”

McLaughlin let her children ride their bikes along the road just this summer. Now, she said, she’ll let them go outside only if she or her husband, Rob, is there to monitor them.

Vavro, however, said residents need not fret.

“They have nothing to worry about with their children,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Tribune-Democrat. “It’s something that I don’t want to have to relive and I don’t want another child to have to relive.

“I accepted what I did was wrong,” the soft-spoken Vavro said in his tidy, sparsely furnished trailer on West Philadelphia Street. He spent six years in state prison for having sex with a teen-age boy in Butler.

“It’s something that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.”

‘My remaining time’

He said his neighbors acknowledge him and, “the other day, a few ladies walked by and waived.” He smiled, just recalling it.

The slightly built Vavro expects that he’ll feel at home in Armagh despite the auspicious beginning.

“I spend my days watching TV and I took some painting classes and paint pastels,” he said.

“All I want to do is live out my remaining time in peace,” Vavro, 54, said. “I have MS, cancer.”

He’ll have a tough time getting around: He’s on disability and doesn’t have a car.

Luther drives him around when he needs a lift.

At Mack’s Mini-Mart at the Route 56 four-way stop, they weren’t buying the good-boy routine:

n “My daughter, she’s 4, and she doesn’t know the difference between someone who’s just being nice and someone who’s not,” said employee Jennifer Mack of Vintondale. “There’s a bus stop right across the road. It’s ridiculous.”

n Customer Jeff Kinnan had a ready answer: “Do what the Muslims do. You steal something, you cut off their hand.”

n And Barb Stephens of Brush Valley was bothered that schools of the United district aren’t all that far away. “He could take somebody and be gone,” she said. “There’s only woods and fields between here and there.”

‘Countless phone calls’

The sexual predator designation is a relative rarity, said Trooper John Fisanich of the Indiana barracks. In fact, of the scores of registered sex offenders in that county, Vavro is the only violent sexual predator.

That designation is made by a judge after a mental-health review of an offender following his conviction.

As per state law, Fisanich recently went around Armagh handing out fliers for the mandatory notification of neighbors, schools and day-care centers that a man so designated was coming to town.

“We’ve received countless phone calls,” he said. “People want to know what can we do, what about initiating a Crime Watch community.

“That’s a positive so long as we don’t run into a vigilante-type atmosphere,” he said, and that hasn’t developed.

He said supervising Vavro now is up to state probation/parole officers. Parole terms, for example, can restrict offenders in their contact with children and in keeping them off the Internet. They also can require ongoing counseling.

Fisanich wasn’t aware of any restrictions on Vavro’s actions and said terms of his release might not be public information.

“As a parent myself, I understand their concern,” the trooper said. “Small communities are much tighter-knit.

“Legally, there is nothing they can do. He’s done his time, he’s a citizen and he should be afforded his rights as such,” Fisanich said.

Residents can put notices up that Vavro is in town and be on the lookout, but little else.

Even the state Web site – pameganslaw.state.pa.us – issues a caution: “The information provided on this site is intended for community safety purposes only and should not be used to threaten, intimidate or harass. Misuse of this information may result in criminal prosecution.”

‘People are livid’

Attorney Tim Burns of Ebensburg thinks the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the criminals. He is the solicitor for neighboring East Wheatfield Township, which is considering restrictions for sex offenders.

“These people are livid,” he said.

“It’s almost like the ACLU and the state of Pennsylvania are bending over backwards to accommodate child sexual predators at the expense of the public.”

Municipalities can restrict where offenders live, preventing them, say, from living within 500 yards of a school, park or day-care center. Trying to outright ban someone from a town likely would not pass constitutional muster.

Burns said smaller locales, though, might not have the code enforcement staff to enforce those laws.

He said the difference between those who have to register for 10 years with the state police and those who have to sign up for a lifetime – such as Vavro – can be stark.

“It’s more than a bad judgment call when around a child,” he said. “These people put themselves in a position to be around kids. They’re smart guys. They’re Little League coaches, Scoutmasters, priests, ministers … they’re predators.”

He also was concerned that lifetime registrants were more likely to have committed crimes of a “recidivist nature.” In other words, they’re more likely to re-offend.

‘This man did his time’

Landlady Luther said everyone just needs to settle down.

“The man did his time. He’s a sick man. He served six years in the prison and I don’t feel he will be a danger to the community,” said Luther. “It’s only fair, and everyone deserves a second chance.

“If I felt he’d be a danger, I wouldn’t have brought him in.”

And she wanted to dispel some talk going around that she’s getting paid by the state to assist Vavro, and that she plans to rent to more inmates.

“The state doesn’t give me 5 cents,” she said. As far as bringing in another parolee, she said, “I don’t even know what I’m doing day to day.”

Though Vavro has been in town for only a few weeks, Luther expects no problems from her newest tenant.

“I have kids that just party all day and put holes in my walls, couples that argue and are involved in domestic violence,” she said. “He just watches TV all day. You know what I’m saying?”

McLaughlin is not so sanguine.

“I don’t know where this guy is, where he’s at,” she said. “Everybody says he’ll have a (tracking) bracelet on, but that’s not true.

“He’s been in jail six years. what do you think is on his mind?”

And she fired a barb at Luther.

“She’s in it for the money,” McLaughlin said. “She gotta be. There’s no other reason.”

Luther also dodged the insults from upset residents who were phoning her.

“They should go back to church and learn to forgive and forget,” Luther said.