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Ventura County

Molester Seeks His Freedom

Courts: Former Simi Valley resident who had surgical castration says he's no longer a threat.

June 30, 2002|HOLLY WOLCOTT and STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 41-year-old former Simi Valley resident with a long history of molesting young boys is waging a battle for freedom in a Ventura County courtroom, contending that surgical castration has eliminated his predatory behavior.

If the jury hearing the case agrees, Stephen Norten will become one of a very small number of repeat sexual offenders across the country who has been freed after voluntarily undergoing the controversial procedure.

"Mr. Norten has a diagnosed mental disorder that makes him a danger to others," prosecutor David Lehr said in his opening statement in Superior Court last week. "And he will be a threat if freed."

Defense attorney Neil Quinn contends a lifetime of uncontrollable sexual urges that drove his client to prey on children has been fixed by the surgery that was performed this year.

"Those impulses have been removed," Quinn said during his opening remarks.

Norten, a slight, bespectacled man who looks like a Hollywood version of a mild-mannered bookkeeper, is a sexually violent predator who has lived at Atascadero State Hospital in San Luis Obispo County since 1997.

Prosecutors have brought his case before Judge Donald D. Coleman in a bid to keep Norten at the hospital, even though he has served all of the prison time imposed on him for several past sex crimes.

Under the state's 1996 Sexually Violent Predator Act, repeat sexual offenders can remain in custody indefinitely if judges, juries and mental health experts deem them a continuing threat to society.

To do so, prosecutors must return to court about every two years to prove that a patient remains a danger.

This is Norten's third attempt at freedom but the first time he has been able to raise such an unusual defense.

"His long-range plan is to have a life that is not dominated and destroyed by a hyperactive sexual drive," Quinn said.

According to witnesses in the trial, which is expected to conclude this week, Norten has admitted to sexual contacts with hundreds of boys during the last three decades.

A courtroom display next to the jury of 12 men and women places Norten's criminal convictions on a grim timeline: He was convicted of molesting four boys in May and June of 1981. After five years of treatment at Atascadero, he was convicted of paying a developmentally disabled 15-year-old $20 for sex in Santa Barbara.

After further treatment at Patton State Hospital and a stretch in prison, he pleaded guilty to indecent exposure and attempted kidnapping in an incident with a 13-year-old in Arizona.

He met three of his early victims while rooming at a family's home in Simi Valley. The fourth was a 10-year-old boy he befriended at Simi Valley's Sequoia Park.

After just a month in Simi Valley, he attracted the attention of police officers, who warned him not to associate with young boys.

A Simi Valley patrolman repeated the warning when he saw Norten and the 10-year-old together at a pizza restaurant.

But Norten ignored the warning, driving the boy to a remote spot and ordering him to lie on his stomach and spread his legs, according to a court document cited by psychologist Dawn Starr, who works with prisoners at Atascadero.

"Don't make me mad," Norten reportedly said. "If you do, I'm going to shoot you."

The pivotal issue in this trial will be how the jury interprets testimony from half a dozen mental health experts who have offered differing opinions about the effectiveness of castration to stop or limit sexual desire.

When a man is castrated, his testes are surgically cut off. The procedure, called an orchiectomy, essentially removes the glands that produce a majority of a man's testosterone, which contributes to sexual desire.

Supporters of the procedure point to studies that show recidivism rates for castrated offenders are often below 5%, a statistic highlighted by Quinn during his opening remarks.

Opponents, though, say the procedure does not always eliminate deviant sexual urges and that violent predators exhibit behavior that is motivated more by psychological reason than physical urges.

Additionally, hormones that assist sex drive can be found in other glands, including the adrenals.

At Atascadero, Starr has evaluated more than 400 sexual predators. She met with Norten twice--most recently just a few days after his surgical castration.

In court last week, she said she didn't believe the procedure has made him less dangerous to young boys, despite his assertion that he no longer has sexual drives.

"Simply receiving some sort of snip or castration won't reduce the preoccupation he's had for over 20 years," she said.

She predicted Norten would continue to seek out young boys because he can't "relate to adults in a positive manner."

By his own account, Norten has claimed to have had sex with dozens of young boys, picking them up mainly at shopping malls and parks.

Scanning a group for the most vulnerable youths was not difficult, he told Starr.

"He said that it comes with being a predator," she testified. "He could tell by looking at them who would be receptive."

She also said Norten had not been honest with therapists in the past, refusing to acknowledge his sexual activities with other patients.

"It's not just a question of genital arousal," she said. "It's what kind of person you're attracted to. Castration wouldn't change the focus of his sexual interests."

Norten is expected to take the stand this week.

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