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To Understand a Pedophile 

How could I not see that my camp counselor would become a sex predator?

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Scott, Thanks for all the excitement with your knee and all. You did a great job this last week. I really hope you keep playing. I’ll see you next summer. See Ya! Tim

I have read and re-read that note so many times in the past five years that the words have almost no meaning, like when you say a word over and over, it eventually sounds like useless garble.

In 1997, Tim Kellis wrote that note to me in a yearbook of sorts, a commemorative picture book that all campers at Ross Point Music Camp in Post Falls received after a week studying music. Attendees played in various bands and ensembles and performed an end-of-week concert for parents.

Kellis was a counselor, a percussion instructor and one of two adults who supervised and slept in bunks near me and the 10 other teenage musicians in my cabin. The “excitement with your knee” refers to getting hurt and needing to leave camp one afternoon to visit an urgent care clinic.

Ten years later, Kellis worked as a camp counselor and shooting sports director at Camp Grizzly near Harvard, Idaho, run by the Inland Northwest Council of the Boy Scouts. It was there, in the summer of 2007, that he had “sexual contact” with underage staff members in their tent, on the shotgun range and in the staff lounge, according to court records. He was convicted the following year of 12 counts, ranging from attempted lewd conduct with a minor and sexual abuse of a child, and sentenced to life in prison.

My connection to Kellis goes little beyond the summers at Ross Point Music Camp. (Coincidentally, we met again in 2002, at a Boy Scout training in California called National Camping School, and later shared a return flight to Spokane.)

His case made headlines for a while, but eventually faded from the spotlight. But it’s stayed stuck in my mind for the past five years. Kellis was never inappropriate with me, and I have no memories of feeling uncomfortable, unsafe or even “weirded out” by him. That’s just it — I didn’t see it.

And when you’ve been that close as a youth to someone convicted of such crimes, it makes you recount all the interactions you had with him and every other adult you’re supposed to know and trust. You look for clues where there was perhaps nothing but a hypersensitive imagination.

That time he put his arm around me — was that anything? When he patted me on the back to say “good job on the trumpet solo,” did that mean something more? And when we swam during free time, was he watching?

Now, after time and from a safe distance, I’m left wondering: What is it about some people that allows them to do such unspeakable things to children?

Born This Way?

Merely asking the question of whether those who commit sex crimes against children are somehow predisposed to do so is inviting a healthy dose of impassioned reaction. Are pedophiles born that way? What about free will?

The answer to the “born that way” question: maybe, possibly, we’re not sure.

It’s an uncomfortable topic to raise, even for researchers like Anna Salter, who’s spent her life trying to get the answers to these questions.

“I don’t think that’s been established,” Salter says of whether pedophiles are predisposed. “It’s just such a politically unpopular answer that people don’t want to raise the question. We don’t have a definitive answer.”

As a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist, she has spent her career counseling and evaluating child sex abuse victims and offenders, penning three academic books on the topic. And despite all the numbers, studies, psychology and evaluations, it’s still difficult from a societal and scientific perspective to understand why people commit such horrible crimes, she says.

Psychologists tend to classify adult males who commit crimes against children into three broad categories. (Female offenders are generally different, and far less prevalent.)

1. Pedophiles: Men with a “deviant arousal pattern,” i.e., they’re sexually attracted to children.

2. Antisocial offenders, including psychopaths: Men who harm others in a variety of ways, including sexually, though sexual arousal of the offender is not the primary factor. Psychopaths are a subclass, a group that lacks the capacity for empathy. “At the extreme, they have no conscience,” Salter says.

3. Men who identify with children: Those with a “Peter Pan syndrome,” for lack of a better term. They never grow up emotionally and feel threatened by other adults, preferring the company of children.

Within these categories, there is gray area and room for crossover. Those men with a “Peter Pan syndrome” might be sexually aroused only by children, but they might not be.

Also necessary to remember is how many incest crimes take place. About 10 percent of child abuse cases are incestuous, according to Salter. A father molesting his daughter may very well be a pedophile. But he may not be. He may, rather, have antisocial behavior and view the child as his property. Or he may molest the child as a form of revenge or malice toward an ex-spouse or to exert dominance over what he sees as his.

Abhorrent, no doubt. Pedophile, perhaps not, says Salter, adding: “There is no psychological profile of a pedophile.”

There are all kinds of numbers thrown out in this realm — how many females are sexually abused as children (20 to 30 percent ) versus males (7 to 16 percent), how many adults who were abused as kids say they told someone about it (about a third).

What is known is that there are offenders who are particularly prolific. Gene Abel, a psychiatrist and one of the top researchers in the sex abuse field, estimated that about 5 percent of sex offenders commit 70 percent of the crimes.

Power Brad

“Dear Scott, My name is Brad Schilling (pls. don’t Google until you’ve read this letter).”

Too late.

Brad Schilling, or “Power Brad” as he was dubbed in the news media, grabbed headlines in 2002 after his arrest on multiple child sex abuse charges. He posted bail and fled to Mexico. After being caught and returned, the one-time Spokane radio disc jockey pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years.

Schilling’s letter randomly arrived in January, a few weeks after The Inlander published an essay I wrote about my affection for — and active choice to live in — Spokane.

“Before I go on about my affection and connection with Spokane, let me preempt my preamble with the deviant, disgusting truth I’m encouraged to divulge to any stranger/prospective acquaintance, landlord, employer or stranger I intend to converse at any extended length with. I am a sex offender,” Schilling writes in his letter. “I had molested and exploited a 10-year-old child in 2001...  I not only did untold damage to a child and broke the hearts of his family and friends, I destroyed my place in my community.”

Ten years after going to prison, Schilling is back in that same community and is now legally required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He must attend a community-based therapy class for the first year of his release and is prohibited from being alone with children. As part of his parole and continuing rehabilitation, he must work to identify behaviors and triggers that led him to commit the crimes he did, an effort to reduce the chances of him reoffending.

When we meet at a coffee shop in May, just a few months after his release, Schilling strikes me as a completely affable, articulate, relatable guy. He talks not only about Washington’s sex offender treatment program, but about the things he’s now able to do that he hasn’t done for more than a decade — like golf.

His voice is striking and distinctive. He talks exactly the way you’d expect a former commercial radio disc jockey to talk. I half expect him to take a request from a listener and give away concert tickets.

He didn’t appear evasive or manipulative and didn’t try to excuse or rationalize his crimes, as I thought he would. Schilling did, however, try to offer an explanation or at least point out that he’s more aware of himself now, in an effort to make sense of his crimes.

“I was an alcoholic, smoker, marijuana smoker. There again is another excuse that I could have given,” he says. “I’ve learned that it was a mind-set, that it was a ‘woe is me’ pity party that I was learning.”

But he seems very aware that there’s little he can say to repair the damage he caused or to make most people think he’s anything but a monster.

As he says of himself and his fellow sex offenders: On the social ladder, “we’re right below rats.”

Law Meets Science

Even though psychologists are still trying to understand sex predators, legislatures and law enforcement agencies around the country have tried to devise safeguards: Registration lists, limitations on where offenders can live, public alert protocols.

Though state laws differ on how sex offender registries are administered, the basic structure holds true: Upon release, an offender is evaluated and labeled on a three-tiered system based on the perceived risk to the community and to reoffend.

Depending on the jurisdiction and classification level, an offender may not be able to live in certain areas, such as close to schools or parks, or work in certain jobs. Information about the offenders is publicly available, including background on the offense and most recent known address.

But such laws aren’t necessarily based on data, but rather are emotional responses to anecdotal situations and the advocacy of groups for or against a particular issue, says psychologist Salter. She consults for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and has testified before legislators about why residency laws don’t work.

“We live in a mobile society where everybody has a car. The assumption doesn’t work that people molest their neighbors,” she says.

In Washington, released offenders must have a living arrangement approved by their assigned Community Corrections Officer. The CCO must approve future requests to move, according to the state Department of Corrections.

The problem, according to Salter, is that sex offenders don’t choose victims based on geography, but rather “vocation and avocation.” That is, anyone can drive to a school or playground. Offenders encounter victims because of where they work, who they know, and other activities such as being a leader in a youth-serving group.

Put another way: Where someone lives doesn’t help reduce sexual abuse; denying the opportunity for a potential offender to be alone with a child does.

“I want this culture to get serious about sex offending, and it doesn’t get serious by connecting policies that don’t work,” Salter says.

(Still) Searching for Answers

Orofino, Idaho, is a pretty, little town, almost delightfully so. It hugs the Clearwater River as steep, forested hills rise quickly out of the valley. Most of its roughly 3,000 residents work in one of two industries: timber or corrections.

The Idaho Correctional Institution is located there, not removed in the least from the rest of the town. Indeed, it is next door to the high school. (Its mascot: the Maniacs.) Students driving into the parking lot have a school on their left, and razor wire and a prison exercise yard on their right.

This is where Tim Kellis — my former music camp counselor — is serving out a life sentence. And it is here where I meet Kellis for the first time in over 10 years.

He is escorted out of his cellblock and into a room where I wait with the warden to interview him. He pauses at the open doorway, raises a finger and turns around, as if to say, “Hold on a second, I’ll be right back.”

And I wonder if he’s actually coming back. Did he see me and change his mind? Was he expecting someone else?

When he reappears, he has a stack of file folders and a pen in hand, and I think, “Really, you can have pens in here? What about the whole, you know, potentially stabbing people thing?”

Kellis maintains he’s innocent and only agrees to speak on the condition that I don’t ask questions about his case, citing an ongoing appeal. It makes for a challenging interview to dance around a subject and not ask the only questions on my mind.

We instead talk about prison life, how he became a music teacher after first working as an architect, how he married and later divorced.

I find myself intrigued and almost entranced by his conversational skills and an almost humorous tone of voice. Where is the monster I — and society — expect? Where is the obviously disturbed personality we’re supposed to see so clearly?

The longer you converse with a sex offender, the more clearly you see that all those preconceived notions of who is a danger are completely skewed.

I remind myself why I’m here: to better understand someone convicted of sexually abusing children, people not much older than me when I first met him more than 15 years ago, to try to understand what made him tick, what happened in his life.

I can feel a kind of tight anger in my chest. I want to shout: What the hell is wrong with you? And what the hell went wrong with you?

But I realize he doesn’t necessarily know, and wouldn’t tell me if he did. And then our time is up, and it’s over.

Before leaving Orofino, I drive up a steep forest road to a viewpoint overlooking the town. Below is the prison, just beyond it the high school. I remind myself that if Kellis were ever to be freed, he would never be allowed to live this close to a school again. 

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