The fight to close an Enumclaw group home for sex offenders continues, but energy and resources could be waning as it drags on.
Locals met early morning Saturday at Headworks Brewery to review what’s already happened in regards to Garden House, known as a Less Restrictive Alternative that homes former McNeil Island Special Commitment Center residents, and future strategies for pressuring operators Jill Rockwell and Rick Minnich to shut down the operation.
The venue was full with an estimate of about 100-plus people, but that’s a far cry from the hundreds that attended a meeting at Wabash Church and hosted by the Department of Social and Health Services, the Department of Corrections, and the King County Sheriff’s Department about LRAs and Garden House last February.
Still, as resident Cathy Dahlquist — who has become the de-facto leader of the group — called for volunteers to help her review official documents, submit complaints to government agencies, organize protests, and, maybe most importantly, crate a non-profit and raise money to retain an attorney, the sign-up sheet that went around was covered with names and emails.
To recap: Garden House, which entered into a contract with DSHS last September to house sex offenders, received its first resident, Stevan Knapp, in January.
Neighbors were caught unaware of the creation of the LRA and the home’s new occupant, as no government agency alerted the neighborhood, the city of Enumclaw, or the Enumclaw School District to the home’s function. The only notice that was sent out was from the King County Sheriff’s Office alerting locals who signed up for sex offender alerts that Knapp was moving into the area, though the alert did not indicate that he was moving into a group home that could house additional offenders.
Outraged, residents from all over Enumclaw, visitors from Tenino (which was experiencing a similar situation), and local elected officials from the city level to the state attended the Feb. 9 meeting at Wabash Church and demanded the LRA to close.
But the power to close the group home lies with the court system, not the government agencies that partner with it, which likely means immediate results to public pressure will not come to fruition.
This leaves locals with two directions. The first is to find a legitimate issue with Garden House, from improper zoning, breach of contract, or conflict of interests, report it, and hope an investigation eventually brings a judge to close the LRA.
The second is to pressure its owners financially, making it unfeasible to operate Garden House by tying up Rockwell and Minnich in costly investigations and organizing boycotts against the LRA and the owners’ other business ventures.
Rockwell and Minnich have not responded to numerous requests for comment from the Courier-Herald, and appear to have declined to speak to any media organization.
King County Council member Reagan Dunn, who attended last weekend’s meeting, shared what avenues of attack he is pursuing as an elected official and urged Enumclaw to stay energized.
“I’m note here to get to get votes today,” he said. “I’m here to change this thing… we want to keep the Plateau a great place to live.”
Dunn continued to describe what he called “guerrilla tactics” at every level of government.
At the state level, he mentioned the three bills that were introduced by local Reps. Drew Stokesbary and Eric Robertson and Sen. Phil Fortunato, though the bills did not make it out of committee and most likely will not be considered for this legislative session.
But there are other state statutes that may come into play, he added.
“I think DSHS has probably — I’m using the word probably because the court will ultimately have to decide this — violated state law,” he said, noting that he’s sent multiple items to the King County Prosecutor for an opinion.
One statute he thinks the facility violates is under RCW 71.09.315, which states that DSHS must give notice when “secure community transition facilities” enter into a contract to operate in a certain area.
However, SCTFs are defined differently than LRAs, in part because the former is staffed and has more security measures than the latter.
Another statute requires LRAs to maintain a certain distance from schools, licensed child care centers, playgrounds, “or other ground or facilities where children of similar age or circumstances as a previous victim are present”.
While the LRA is more than the required 500 feet away from any child care center or school, an Enumclaw School District bus stop was located under than limit when the home was contracted, and the children picked up at the stop are of a similar age to Knapp’s victims.
According to ESD, the district worked with the two families that use the bus stop about whether or not to move it. One family declined to have the bus stop moved; the other did not respond.
Dunn said he will also try to use King County Code Enforcement to review Garden House and find any code or zoning issues that could affect the LRA in multiple ways, from limiting the number of residents, forcing the operators to spend money, or — best yet — close the home down. He mentioned that North Bend fought an LRA a couple decades ago and successfully moved the facility out of its area into a Seattle industrial zone.
“That’s our goal,” he said. “… Put it in a place that has proper policing, proper security, proper transit, [and] proper access to services” to prevent re-offenses by LRA residents.
Finally, Dunn said he plans to introduce legislation at the county level. The legislation would not necessarily close Garden House, but it would require it and other LRAs to go through a conditional use permit, which would at the very least require alerting nearby residents that an LRA is planned for their area and giving them time to push back.
But the real pressure needs to come from the public, he continued.
“…We need a nonprofit… and have a litigation fund of some king that we can give money to and use that as a basis for paying an attorney,” he said. “If we can get $10,000 in the bank, we can get a retainer and get an initial look at this.”
Dahlquist, a former state representative for the Enumclaw area, said she believes the strategy that will ultimately lead to success is financial pressure.
“[Rockwell and Minnich] are currently, extremely, overextended financially,” she said, though details of that were not discussed at the meeting. “Whatever we can do to force someone to spend money on an effort may actually push him to throw in the parts.”
Beyond legal challenges, one strategy brought up was to pressure local businesses, especially those that Garden House might have to hire if they’re found to be out on compliance with code of zoning, to not serve the LRA.
Dahlquist also said a group could organize a mail campaign to pressure residents of other areas where Minnich and Rockwell operate other businesses, like the home they rent out in Leavenworth, to not give them business.
Finally, she urged residents to attend and comment during Sex Offender Policy Board meeting and other agencies. She said the next meeting was March 23.
Dahlquist said the best way people can comment is to focus on community safety, rather than simply requesting this LRA be closed.
More information can be found at sgc.wa.gov/sex-offender-policy-board.
To volunteer or offer services, you can request to join the private Save Our Children – Enumclaw Facebook page at facebook.com/groups/ 559352909410922.