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The Quiet Man

When a convicted sex offender moves in next door, you want to be told. That's what Megan's Law is all about. But for some offenders, it can turn the neighborhood into a powder keg. And for others, like Frank Penna, the punishment may not fit the crime at all.


After a worried glance past the empty hopscotch courts and patchy playing field, Frank Penna figures it's safe to drive by P. S. 2. He edges his old hatchback away from the tidy house where he lives, cruises past the school and Seventh Ward Park, with its baby swings and solitary seesaw, then steers right, into safer territory on Stiles Street. When he's not examining curbside piles of trash, looking for loot he can sell at flea markets -- that's how he earns his living these days -- Penna, 56, keeps his eyes focused on the road and out of trouble. Once he's safely clear of playing children, of parents who fear him, and of the neighborhood toughs who torment him, he starts talking: "I go out driving innocently, looking straight ahead, and a woman might imagine something because that's the way she's geared to think -- so overprotective of her daughter, she thinks something crazy inside her head and says it to someone else, and someone else. And then I got problems, and I didn't even do nothing, I'm minding my own business. So that's why I don't go out. It's not that I'm scared or real worried . . ." He stops for a minute, realizing it's too late to pretend to anyone, including himself, that he's not afraid. "I just don't want to give them any more reason to give me more problems." Away from South Wood Avenue and 18th Street -- and P.S. 2 on the corner -- few people recognize him. Nothing about Penna would stand out in a crowd. With his oval bifocals, thick, tanned hands, and graying hair that sweeps back from a widow's peak, he could, under better circumstances, fit in nicely around town. He doesn't look like a threat, especially when he's happily fishing a ceramic appetizer plate from somebody's garbage, or triumphantly discovering a salvageable hanging chime. Something about the way he always seems to be buying too much herbal tea, forgetting how much he already has at home, makes him seem almost harmless.

Yet his reputation extends far beyond the run-down Seventh Ward, where he lives; farther even than the 37,000 residents of Linden, New Jersey, a faded industrial town just south of Newark. Penna is one of more than 1,200 medium- and high-risk sex offenders living in New Jersey under Megan's Law, the nationally known community-notification program designed to alert neighborhoods to convicted sex offenders in their midst. When it passed nearly five years ago, New Jersey's notification law was among the country's first, but it took full effect in the state only last year, and Penna is part of the first major wave of released offenders to live under its notification protocol.

Frank Penna was convicted in January 1976 of kidnapping and raping two junior-high-school girls aged 13 and 15. Now, seven years after he was paroled and began quietly rebuilding his life on the same street where he grew up, everybody in the neighborhood suddenly knows what the Union County prosecutors and the press called him: kidnapper, rapist, high-risk sex offender, do-it-again-anytime child molester.

Martin Hanks, a 17-year-old high-school junior and the proud father of a baby girl, got the word on Penna early one afternoon a year ago, when a detective from the Union County prosecutor's office delivered a flyer to homes in the area. sex offender release notice, it read. tier 3. The notice described Penna as 55, five eight and 150 pounds, with salt-and-pepper hair and hazel eyes. It said he had been released June 25, 1992, after serving time for rape, kidnapping, and impairing the morals of a child.

Penna's crimes are pretty typical for a high-risk registrant, if any of them can be called typical. Tier 3 offenders can include teenage serial molesters, two-time statutory rapists, and octogenarian can't-help-themselves kidnappers.

As all Tier 3 flyers do, Penna's also noted his address. His yard was just steps from Hanks's family home, where Hanks lives with his five brothers, his two preteen sisters, and, when he brings her home from his girlfriend's place, his infant daughter, Savannah. Only a tottering chain-link fence separates the two houses. "I would do anything to protect my family, and if I would have seen him even three feet near my sister, I would have attacked him," Hanks says, sitting in the living room of his girlfriend's apartment safely up South Wood Avenue, gently bouncing Savannah on his knees. "He'd grab kids, go into the bushes, do his due. He was just a very sick individual from what I understand. I mean, the paper that they sent us didn't go into detail of what he did."

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