The Magazine

The Once and Future Offender

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

EARLY ONE EVENING in September 1986, a 17-year-old local girl was walking along West North Street in Wooster, Ohio, a rural town about 50 miles southwest of Cleveland, when Joel Douglas Walton Yockey, 30, also of Wooster, rolled up next to her in a pickup truck and asked if she'd like a ride. Thinking she recognized Yockey as the man who did janitorial work at her church, the teenager accepted the offer. But Yockey was not her church janitor, as it happened, and he did not take her where she wanted to go. Instead, he drove her to a cornfield near his parents' house west of town, told the girl he'd kill her if she made any noise, and then sodomized and raped her. After it was over, Yockey took his victim back to West North Street, handed her a $10 bill, and pushed her out of the truck with a warning that next time she should take a cab. For this crime--and for his remorselessness about it; Yockey insisted that the girl had "come on" to him--he was given a maximum prison sentence of 10 to 25 years.

By all accounts and to all appearances, however, Yockey spent the next 15 of those years doing everything possible to turn his life around. He recanted his trial testimony and acknowledged responsibility and regret for the rape. He joined a series of ad hoc self-improvement workshops: "Convicts Against Sexual Abuse," for example, and the "Power Rapists Group." He completed a more formal, 18-month sex abusers treatment program in 1990, and went on thereafter to earn an associate of arts degree from Ashland University even while holding down a full-time job as groundskeeper in the Chillicothe Correctional Facility's horticultural department. Joel Douglas Walton Yockey, in other words, became a model prisoner. And on that basis--given that he had "family support and a reasonable plan including employment possibilities"--the Ohio Parole Board voted this past January to approve Yockey's release.

By March he was back in Wooster, living with his parents on Porter Drive. One street over, on North Smyser Road, their backyard almost touching the Yockeys' place, Mark and Sharon Jackson were raising two teenage daughters, Katie and Kristen.

Twelve weeks ago, on September 9, six months after Yockey had returned to town, the Jacksons, as a special treat, let both their girls spend the evening before a school holiday with a large group of friends at Wooster's annual Wayne County Fair, where virtually everyone in attendance was a lifelong family acquaintance and where their safety seemed thus assured. Sometime after nightfall, for no particular reason, the younger Jackson sister, Kristen, got separated from her companions in the crowd. But she was a sensible girl, and the fairgrounds were indeed under well-meaning watch by dozens of people who knew her, and many of those people vividly remember catching sight of her at around 9 P.M.: a five-foot-five-inch 14-year-old with a brown pony tail and a purple T-shirt walking toward the fair's main gate.

There, on Vanover Street, maybe a hundred yards from the spot where her recently paroled neighbor Joel Yockey had abducted another teenage girl 16 years before, Kristen Jackson was shortly due to meet her mother. Mere minutes later, Sharon Jackson arrived on schedule for this rendezvous. But by then her daughter had gone missing.

No doubt you have already guessed how this story will end. And your guess is correct, which fact might mercifully obviate the need to recount the rest of the thing in such grisly, slow-motion detail--but for a coincidence of the U.S. Supreme Court docket that suddenly accords this kind of grisly detail a more than ordinary public policy relevance. Specifically: The High Court has just heard, and some time in the next few months will decide, two cases out of Alaska and Connecticut that threaten to invalidate a nationwide system of law designed to protect tens of millions of Americans, women and children primarily, just like Kristen Jackson, from hundreds of thousands of other Americans, recently paroled sex offenders, who either are--or are not--just like Joel Douglas Walton Yockey. The central question is whether it is possible to make reliable, individualized predictions about how such men will behave once they've been released from prison. And, if it is, whether it is constitutional for us to keep tabs on the "safe" ones, too, just in case.