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Sex offenders move to Antioch area 'because they can'

A small, scruffy, unincorporated area largely surrounded by the city of Antioch is home to more than 100 sex offenders. It's also where Phillip Garrido allegedly held Jaycee Lee Dugard for 18 years.

August 31, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga, Maura Dolan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske

ANTIOCH, CALIF. — Dawn Cordy always knew her neighborhood was an easy place to hide -- a semirural San Francisco suburb where housing is cheap, sheriff's cruisers rarely appear, residents don't snoop and registered sex offenders have found a refuge.

It's a small, scruffy, unincorporated island largely surrounded by the hard-knock city of Antioch, a region synonymous with the foreclosure crisis in the Bay Area but now linked to yet another outrage.

This is where Phillip Garrido, who was charged last week with rape and kidnapping, allegedly held Jaycee Lee Dugard for 18 years and fathered her two children in a warren of tents and soundproofed outbuildings behind his gray cinder-block house on Walnut Avenue.

Garrido's and Cordy's 94509 ZIP Code is home to more than 100 registered sex offenders, according to the Megan's Law website, and officials say the region has a higher concentration of offenders than other areas.

At least four sex offenders, including Garrido, live within easy walking distance of Cordy's house; they move to the area "because they can," said Cordy, 52. "We're mostly an older bunch, and we don't pay that much attention. This is Boonieville."

Besides, she said of her unwelcome neighbors, "Honey, I collect knives. I wouldn't mind doing them harm."

On Sunday, Dugard remained secluded with her mother, daughters and half sister in Northern California, where her stepfather said the family is working with counselors to overcome the last 18 years.

"They are doing fine -- not fine, but fine for the situation," Carl Probyn said. "My wife says that Jaycee is an excellent mother, and they are bonding, playing little games like checkers. They are doing OK for the situation."

Law enforcement officers with saws and cadaver dogs swarmed Walnut Avenue on Sunday looking for clues that might link Garrido with a host of unsolved crimes in the region, including four slayings in Pittsburg in the late 1990s.

The main focus was the house next to Garrido's, where Damon Robinson, a 38-year-old driving instructor, now lives. Garrido cared for the property before Robinson moved in and lived for a time in a wooden shed behind it, according to sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee.

Three of the people whose killings remain unsolved were prostitutes. The fourth was a 15-year-old girl named Lisa Norrell, whose body was discovered a week after she left a dance alone on Nov. 6, 1998, and disappeared.

Capt. Daniel Terry of the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department said Friday that investigators were looking at Garrido because "several bodies were dumped at an industrial location where the suspect supposedly worked."

Minnie Norrell, 66, said a Pittsburg homicide detective contacted her Saturday about her daughter's slaying and called Garrido a person of interest.

"They said they didn't want to get my hopes up, but this guy was of interest," said Norrell, who lives in Pittsburg, where she spends her days on oxygen and in a wheelchair because of advanced emphysema. "He said they were going to be [in Garrido's neighborhood] for days. . . . I am hopeful."

Under recently passed laws, sex offenders' movements are severely circumscribed.

They generally must stay away from schools, parks, churches and places where children congregate, said Joan Petersilia, a law professor and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

Such laws, combined with the high price of housing in California, "push sex offenders to less populated and more rural areas," Petersilia said. "They want a place where they can remain anonymous and people leave them alone."

Terry, who heads the Sheriff's Department's investigative division, said Contra Costa County has about 1,700 registered sex offenders. His station is responsible for about 350, "349 more than the number of detectives I have dedicated to monitoring these people."

He called the region's concentration "significantly higher" than other areas and rued that "this is the reality. These people are walking amongst us everywhere."

Antioch, with a population just over 100,000, has struggled in recent years with crime, rampant growth and foreclosures. One San Francisco Chronicle columnist dubbed the city "the finest slum this side of Stockton."

According to RealtyTrac.com, the median home price has plummeted more than 40% in the last year and the foreclosure rate is still rising. There were 699 new foreclosures filed in July.

Mayor Jim Davis acknowledged the economic pressures his city has faced. But he was quick to note that Garrido's neighborhood is not part of Antioch proper, although the city would like to annex it and "be able to get out there and police it properly."

"There's a lot of building out there violating code," he said. "If the city were out there, all the sheds and tents out there would not have been tolerated. . . . There are lower-priced rents out there. It allows those who are on probation and can't find good employment to congregate."

Betty Unpingo, a mother of 10, always knew her neighborhood was "an easy area to get lost in for a while." But until her family threw a backyard party two years ago, Unpingo didn't know exactly who was taking advantage of that anonymity.

As the party ended, Garrido stood in front of his house across the street and motioned for the teenage girls leaving the event to come on over, she said. Unpingo's daughter was so suspicious that she checked his name on the Megan's Law list.

On the list were Garrido and several others nearby, including two living in one home. Since then, Unpingo has instituted the "buddy sys- tem." None of her children are allowed to leave the house alone.

Sex offenders have "got to have someplace to go," acknowledged the 52-year-old retired businesswoman, "but not here."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

maura.dolan@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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