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Singleton: He's a Symbol of the Public's Fear

May 31, 1987|DAN MORAIN and MARK STEIN | Times Staff Writers

CONCORD, Calif. — Grim-faced, petition in hand, Danny Baronian, father of two young children, did his part to get parolee Larry Singleton, the man who raped and mutilated a 15-year-old girl, out of town.

"I don't know where he should go. I just don't want him here," Baronian said last week as he urged each customer of the Lucky market on this town's main street to add his or her signature to the petition demanding that Singleton be placed anywhere but in this Contra Costa County city.

All but a handful signed without hesitation. One of the few who didn't was even more adamant. "Shoot 'im," the man said.

For five weeks, public outrage eddied about the 59-year-old Singleton; his parole inspired invective, threats, even his evacuation under guard from a threatening mob, 500 strong.

Amid the swirl, psychologists, sociologists and others familiar with the case said, Singleton emerged as a symbol for what many people fear most--random, unexplainable, violent crime, particularly threats to family and children.

'Modern-Day Leper'

"People don't want this polluted individual, this modern-day leper, in their community," said Neil J. Smelser, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley. "It's a kind of vigilante reaction: 'Keep this leper out.' "

"In historical times, cases like this would have been exiled, or just sent to a monastery," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco. "But in modern industrial societies, we can't do that.

"Maybe," he paused and added, "the solution is for some religious group to step forward and offer sanctuary."

On Saturday, Gov. George Deukmejian announced just such a novel solution: exiling Singleton at San Quentin prison for the remaining 10 months and three weeks of his parole. It will be a sort of island, not inside a prison cell, but on prison grounds in the same complex where prison guards live. On the grounds, he can be closely watched and will be kept separate from the public that is so repulsed by him--until his parole is over and he can roam free.

With the reaction so severe, experts in criminology said, the state had no choice but to try to assuage community concerns by implementing an intensive supervision of Singleton for his remaining time on parole, a sort of cooling-off period. Whether the authorities manage to keep him away from the community long enough so that people begin to forget remains to be seen.

Several experts said the case again illustrated a basic problem of what to do with criminals once they are released.

Parole Conditions

Singleton will continue to be subject to random searches and drug and alcohol testing, and must attend counseling and abide by a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Singleton attacked his victim while he was heavily intoxicated.

Not only are the parole conditions novel, but social psychologists, legal scholars and criminologists throughout the country were at a loss to cite another case where the reaction to a parolee was so severe--and grew rather than diminished over time.

One historic case cited by criminologists as somewhat similar involved the 1924 Leopold and Loeb "thrill kill" murder in Chicago. Richard (Dickie) Loeb was killed in prison, but in 1958 Nathan (Babe) Leopold was paroled to Puerto Rico, where he spent the rest of his life in relative anonymity researching tropical diseases. He died there in 1971.

In Singleton's case, experts said, the outrage is rooted both in his nightmarish crime and his refusal to acknowledge his guilt or show remorse for the girl he raped, maimed and left to die in a culvert outside Modesto on Sept. 29, 1978. The girl, Mary Bell Vincent, whose forearms were chopped off with an ax, survived and testified against Singleton at his trial.

Only last week, he seemed to try to minimize the crime when he spoke with Contra Costa County Supervisor Nancy Fahden and, Fahden related in an interview, said the girl had her "hand cut off," not her forearms, as was the case. He also reportedly called her a "PCB queen," evidently referring to the illicit drug, PCP.

Experts noted that people intensely resented Singleton's relatively light sentence--14 years, reduced by nearly half by good-conduct credits gained by working in prison. The outrage was fueled by elected officials stridently denouncing him, and close media attention, several experts said.

"In cases like this, people tend to see it as a moral issue," said Malcolm MacDonald, president of the American Probation and Parole Assn., based in Austin, Tex. "It becomes like a religious crusade to correct what many people see as a major injustice."

Shared Concerns

These elements, bundled into the form of an aging, alcoholic merchant seaman who talks defiantly of his victim and women in general, heightened basic concerns shared by many Americans. Those concerns may be especially prevalent in suburban Contra Costa County, where encroaching urbanization has been the issue of the decade, and where the Corrections Department sought to place him.

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