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Megan's Law puts entire neighborhoods on alert

1-4-1998 N.Y. Times News Service :

WEST HURLEY, N.Y. -- The last time Rudy Hopkins let someone stay at his house, few people noticed. After 30 years of this, no one kept track. Most likely, it was just another of Rudy's persons-in-need, a stray teen-ager, probably, who had run away from home or drugs or trouble.

But this time, everyone knows who is staying at the gray clapboard house, and a lot of people are scared to death.

Children in the neighborhood are not allowed to play outside. A neighborhood watch has been formed. The West Hurley School has reinstituted a "Stranger Danger" program, offered by the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program. And Hopkins, a former teacher who runs a shop on his property, has been shunned, harassed and picketed.

"We've been taking in kids forever," Hopkins said, "and some of them have had criminal histories. We've never had a problem."

This time, his guest is Steven Heins, 32, a Hurley resident for most of his life and a convicted child molester for the last two. Because Heins is a registered Level III or "high risk" sex offender, his offense, address and photo can be made widely public. And they have been: His conviction in Norwich, Conn., two years ago for inappropriately touching two girls, ages 2 and 12, and his subsequent conviction for confessing to touching another girl made front page news when he returned to town last fall.

When Heins arrived, after a Connecticut judge gave him a 10-year suspended sentence and required him to move in with his retired parents in Old Hurley and receive extensive counseling, stories began appearing that called his sentence into question. This led to outraged pronouncements from Gov. George Pataki that Heins ought to be sent back to Connecticut, which in turn stirred community outrage, leading to a new hearing and a new sentence for Heins of 10 years on probation.

Forced to move because the new sentence dictated that he not live within 1.5 miles of a school, Heins contacted Hopkins, who was one of his high school teachers. Hopkins says he believes Heins wants desperately to be rehabilitated. He has allowed him to stay at his house, under 24-hour electronic monitoring, until Heins can find a new place to rebuild his life. Heins can't leave the house except to attend therapy sessions under his parents' supervision. Still, his presence has led to what the local weekly, The Woodstock Times, called emotions "bordering on hysteria."

The authorities have advised Hopkins' neighbors that if they see Heins violating so much as a technical condition of his parole -- like stepping one foot off the property -- the district attorney's office will petition the court to have him imprisoned. So there have been vigilant patrols around Hopkins' property in recent weeks, by both neighbors and police. Neighbors take turns watching the house around the clock.

No one is sure that this is what was intended when the state enacted its version of "Megan's Law." But this is what has happened in this small, handsome town where the unofficial motto has always been live and let live: There are continued calls from the community to get Heins out of here.

Two weeks ago, more than 100 people showed up at a community meeting at the West Hurley firehouse with police, prosecutors and politicians to see what could be done. There were promises. John Guerin, a Republican assemblyman from Kingston, told the crowd that Heins' case could lead to stricter versions of the law in New York state, because "they are listening in Albany."

That has provided no comfort to those worried about the here and now. Hopkins insists he has received lots of support from the community. "We've gotten calls and letters, and some people have even come in today," he said yesterday.

But there are still people watching from cars across from his house on Spillway Road, hoping to catch Heins with one foot off the property. ..more.. by Evelyn Nieves

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