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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Isolated Town Protests Molester in Its Midst : Placement of Thomas Hetherington angers many residents of tiny Salton Sea community. But Wilson will not order his relocation because the convict 'has to go somewhere.'

April 24, 1994|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOMBAY BEACH, Calif. — Barbara Wright, wife of a Baptist minister, doubts that even Jesus Christ would think that paroled child molester Thomas Max Hetherington belongs here.

"The Lord loved everyone, but he knew that some people who are confirmed evildoers must be separated from society for the protection of others," Wright said. "That's how Bombay Beach feels about Mr. Hetherington."

California Department of Corrections officials might have thought they were separating Hetherington from society by paroling him to this tiny, isolated Salton Sea community with the improbable name.

But instead they provoked another community into anger about having to accept a molester from somewhere else into its midst.

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Hetherington, 78, a retired construction worker, was released from state prison in San Luis Obispo two weeks ago after serving 11 years of a 21-year sentence for repeatedly molesting eight girls in rural Ramona north of San Diego.

When three victims invoked their right to prevent him from being paroled within 35 miles of them, officials were forced to scrap a plan to parole Hetherington in the San Diego area.

After a week of indecision, parole agents installed Hetherington in the B-B Motel in Bombay Beach. He was ordered to wear an electronic anklet, call his parole agent before he leaves his $450-a-month room and keep 100 yards away from children.

The 200 or so residents of Bombay Beach--many of them low-income pensioners and struggling families on the lip of poverty--were not consulted. In announcing that Hetherington would not be allowed near San Diego, officials declined to disclose where he was being sent.

Hetherington's whereabouts and sordid past quickly became public when a reporter learned that he had registered as a sex offender with the Imperial County Sheriff's Department. The response in Bombay Beach was volatile.

About 100 residents packed the community meeting hall last week to berate corrections officials on their choice. Dozens of phone calls were placed to legislators, who could only respond feebly that Gov. Pete Wilson alone could override the decision.

"I feel every child on this beach is in danger while this monster is here," said Anita Flores, who has a 10-year-old daughter. "We shouldn't have to live in fear because of him."

Corrections official Art Lucero said Bombay Beach was chosen because it provides medical services (a paramedic unit), has few children and is within driving range of San Diego if Hetherington's relatives want to visit him.

"No matter where we put him, somebody is going to complain," Lucero said.

A man with saggy features and a gait slowed by a heart ailment, Hetherington came to the door of his room to tell reporters that he just wants a chance to live in peace. An offhand remark that he would like to attend church only added to the furor.

The Rev. John Wright announced that Hetherington will not be allowed in Seaside Baptist Church, the community's only church.

"As much as we, as Christians, want Mr. Hetherington to be right with the Lord, we know parents in our congregation who won't let their children attend if someone like him is with us," Barbara Wright said.

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Squeezed between the desert and the smelly waters of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach is a collection of trailers and small homes set amid a dozen irregularly spaced and gravel-strewn streets.

As the sea's ecological fortunes plunged, so too did Bombay Beach's hopes of becoming a resort community. Stores are closed, lots are undeveloped and the marina is only semi-active.

Bombay Beach is so bleak that Michael Jackson used it as a backdrop for the "Out of the Closet" video that accompanied his song "Dangerous."

Located on the sea's barren north shore, Bombay Beach is said by residents to have gotten its name in the 1920s from a world traveler who compared its breezes to those of Bombay, India. In the summer, the temperature breaks 100 by midmorning and keeps going.

The arrival of Hetherington thrust the desert community into the center of one of the political season's hottest issues: What should become of sex offenders once they have served their sentences. Starting with his decision to parole a Bay Area rapist to remote Modoc County, the governor has been put on the defensive.

Like residents of Modoc County, the residents of Bombay Beach say they cannot understand why they should have to accommodate a sex offender from another area. The community grocer said Hetherington is not welcome in his store. A handful of protesters Saturday picketed the B-B Motel.

"We got him because we don't have enough voices to scream loud enough," resident Petre Melvin said.

Wilson, attending a reelection fund-raiser Saturday night at a golf course outside El Centro, was met with questions about Bombay Beach. Imperial County Supervisor Brad Luckey implored him to move Hetherington elsewhere.

"I am sympathetic to the residents of Bombay Beach," Wilson responded, but added he would not order relocation because "Hetherington has to go somewhere."

There also are those in Bombay Beach who say Hetherington should be left alone.

"He's 78 and he's tied down real good," Joe Huckeba said. "What harm can he do?"

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