Missouri sex offender presses for chance to be off registry

Trapped by his past

Julian Ryno climbs on the back of his father, Sean Ryno, during one of their visits.

Julian Ryno climbs on the back of his father, Sean Ryno, during one of their visits. Photo by Gerry Tritz.

Miniature hockey skates slide across the ice, scarring the surface.

A boy jerks his hips back and forth, his eyes trained on his dad who is skating backward smoothly. Six-year-old Julian does his best to imitate the movements.

But he falls on his butt. His oversized helmet nods like a bobblehead.

His dad, Sean Ryno, waits near the edge of the rink, watching Julian clamber back to his feet.

Later, giggling and worn out, Julian lets Ryno help peel off the gear. The boy’s row of blond cowlicks, a feature he shares with his dad, springs free as he yanks off the helmet. His little face is bright red. The pads are encrusted with ice. The red hockey stick rivals his height.

Once the pads are off, Ryno, 29, scoops up his son and swings him around. Julian’s rolling giggles resonate from his gut.

“Go to Gramps for a bit, OK?” Ryno says.

The boy scampers off.

Ryno waits a beat. Then —

“Can you imagine losing that?” His voice drops, breaks.

Added to registry

On Friday, Ryno’s wife, Cassandra, was granted custody of their son. The two agreed on the stipulations prior to their divorce hearing. Ryno didn’t fight for custody because he knew he would lose. Sean Ryno is a registered sex offender.

In 2003, Ryno pleaded guilty to deviate sexual assault, which is defined as deviate sexual intercourse without that person’s consent.

Ryno contends the incidents were nonviolent but manipulative. The girl was 14 years old. The case involved three instances: two when he was 16 and one when he was 17. They involved oral sex and undressing.

As a result of his guilty plea, Sean Ryno was added to the Missouri Sex Offender Registry.

In Missouri, Statute 452.400 prohibits a registered sex offender from being granted custody in the case of a divorce if the offender pleads guilty to any of a litany of offenses, including deviate sexual assault.

Ryno has tried for years to be removed from the registry.

Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, has sponsored a bill for the past three years that would allow more sex offenders such as Ryno to petition off the registry. Introducing House Bill 1561 to the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee this session, Hinson said it’s time for the legislature to give those who were juveniles at the time of their offenses a better chance of getting off the registry.

Ryno’s dad, Michael Ryno, had temporary custody of Julian while the boy’s mom served overseas in the Navy. She was transferred to Bartlett, Tenn., in early April, where she will take Julian.

Sean Ryno was granted visitation the third weekend of every month. His visits must be supervised, according to Missouri law. He will be responsible for all travel expenses, which he fears will keep him from seeing his son as much as he would like. Bartlett is about 350 miles from Jefferson City. He also will pay $330 a month in child support.

Ryno’s wife filed for divorce in April 2013, stating that the marriage was irretrievably broken. Ryno said it was hard keeping up with her service in the Navy. The military requires movement, and for someone on the registry, moving can be a nightmare. Every state and city is different in regard to sex offenders. Finding housing isn’t easy when looking to rent. In Ryno’s experience, many landlords don’t want to lease to someone registered as a sex offender. It’s even harder to keep a job.

Ryno ruminates on the nine years spent with his wife, constantly gridlocked by the complications that come with the registry.

“Most people in my life, they understand and have so much sympathy that they get on board completely until they realize how actually (hopeless) it is,” Ryno said. “They make the decision that they don’t actually need to carry this burden. They really can walk away, and they do. It’s difficult to fault them for that.”

He said he believes that had he not been on the registry, he would still be married, serving his country and never having to worry about losing his son.

Up until divorce proceedings began last May, Ryno was a stay-at-home dad. He went from taking care of Julian full time to only seeing his son while supervised. Every Monday, Ryno drives from Columbia to Jefferson City to skate with his son during hockey lessons.

“In some ways, it’s good that he’s living with my father,” Ryno admitted earlier this spring. “My father has far more resources. I need to find a job.”

Finding and holding down a job as a registered sex offender can be hard. Although it isn’t a part of his criminal history, the registry is included in background checks. Multiple times, Ryno has landed a job and worked a few weeks as a probationary employee pending the background check. But once that information comes back, a lot of times he’s been let go.

“Over a dozen times, I have had to sit there, look at an employer across the table and remove that (stereotype),” he said. It comes with the label “sex offender.”

Sometimes employers send a letter: “We are sorry to inform you that your application has been denied.” Short, sweet and no reason necessary.

And other times, employers want to sit down to extract the details. But Ryno isn’t comfortable sharing that information. When asked the specifics of the crime, he says that it wasn’t violent, that it was consensual. But he won’t share the details.

“With respect for your victim, you don’t release any identifying information regarding the victim at all,” he said, stressing his words.

This is a notion he said is ingrained in those sex offender patients who go through years of the Missouri Sex Offender Program, known as MoSOP.

Rehabilitation for sex offenders

After he pleaded guilty, Ryno was put on Suspended Imposition of Sentence probation, meaning that as long as he pleaded guilty to his offense and completed the probation requirements, then his conviction wouldn’t show up on his criminal record. One requirement was to complete MoSOP. He spent the next five years attending the weekly outpatient sessions. He was successfully discharged in 2008.

Completion of the sex offender program is mandatory for an offender’s release prior to the sentence completion.

The Department of Corrections website states that the program consists of about 12 months of therapy, but Ryno said he’d never heard of anyone in prison completing it in less than two years, and for those in the outpatient program, it’s a few years more. The Farmington Correctional Center for men and the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia for women both provide the program.

Ryno doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the rehabilitation program. It’s rough. It’s scary. It’s no “Breakfast Club.” There is no camaraderie. Your thoughts, motivations, secrets, the good, the bad — these no longer belong only to you.

“Going in the first time is like a minnow being dropped into a tank of sharks, a Boy Scout stepping into the Marines,” Ryno said, shaking his head, envisioning that 17-year-old boy who first stepped into the room. “They are not nice. Most people don’t make it.”

Groups consist of three to 12 people. Ryno was part of an outpatient group. If the counselor determines that someone isn’t participating, that person receives probation violation and likely is sent to prison. Ryno watched several participants choose prison over the program.

“You have to spill your guts across the highway,” Ryno said. “You no longer have a stitch of privacy in your life, and that reality is difficult to succumb to. It’s oppressive. But I knew that if I went to prison, I’d probably never get out.”

The patients generally do the talking while the counselor guides the discussion. Ryno’s examples of the discussions are uncomfortable, at the least.

“They’ll ask you, ‘How often do you masturbate? Where do you masturbate? What do you fantasize to? Blonde? Brunette? The torso? Does the look on the face mean anything to you?’ They comb through details and find fallacies in your logic. It’s very intrusive. It builds a fear. You approach problems in life from a more analytical, critical perspective.”

When a new member comes to the group, they work through the case report detail by graphic detail, grinding through like rusty gears.

“Case reports are tough to do, especially if the person is very, very remorseful,” Ryno said. “It’s hard to talk, but you have to. They don’t care about your feelings.”

Then there are assignments. One is to write a letter to the victim. These are never sent. Then the participants write a letter from the victim’s point of view to try and understand the other perspective. It is meant to explore empathy and sympathy in the patients.

Ryno said he believes that he is a better person because of the program. He points to its low recidivism rates that he feels validates his trust in the process.

Missouri requires offenders convicted of sexual assault to complete the Missouri Sex Offender Program before they can be considered for probation or parole. Data from 2004 through 2013 show a higher percentage of sex offenders who failed or refused the program had new convictions after their release compared to offenders who completed the program.

He learned that despite one’s feelings, emotions or intentions, hurting someone for the sake of hurting them is always wrong.

“It doesn’t matter how fluent I become with the jargon and the language associated with the challenges that I have to face,” he said, looking down at his hands, frustrated. “The general perception that people are most likely to have regarding sex offenders is a tough mountain to climb.”

Petitioning for removal

Ryno wanted nothing more than to join the Navy like his father, who spent 16 years with the military. In 2008, after completing the rehabilitation program, Ryno applied. He was physically fit. His aptitude assessment scores were more than sufficient. But the Navy wouldn’t take him. The background check includes the sex offender registry, and inclusion on the list automatically disqualifies a prospective recruit.

Ryno loathes the Missouri Sex Offender Registry. He’s worked for years to be removed. But it’s a hard process with little return.

In 2006, Sean Ryno met then-Rep. Bill Deeken in Jefferson City. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was moving through the legislature. Ryno suggested an amendment for the bill that allowed offenders to petition to be removed from the registry if no physical force or threat of physical force was involved in the crime.

The amendment passed.

Ryno petitioned for removal from the registry in 2008. No luck.

He tried again in 2010, this time with letters from his Missouri Sex Offender Program counselor, an employer and his wife. It was dismissed.

He tried once more in 2012 with a video testimony from his victim, testifying that there was no threat. Dismissed.

In a hearing of the House committee, Rep. Mike Colona of St. Louis, said there is a fear that many judges won’t allow offenders off the registry simply because it is difficult to justify to the public, advocacy groups and victims and their families when they seek re-election.

“If you were a judge with unlimited discretion, why would you let someone off the list?” Ryno asked.

In the beginning, Ryno held his hope close, believing that his doggedness would get him off the list soon. The years have changed his outlook.

These days, he says, “Now what? What can I work toward? What do I have to do in order to be happy 30 years from now?”

For now, he’s focused on legislation that will give him a chance to get off the list. His motivation is the drive to keep the relationship he has with his son.

“Julian obviously loves his dad, and his dad loves him,” Michael Ryno, Sean’s father, said. “It’s a hindered relationship, though. It’s not a normal father-son relationship because of the situation, because of the law.”

Sean Ryno is worried about what his son is going to think of him. It eats at him that he might not be as big of a part of Julian’s life, that his son will slowly become alienated from him.

“I’m just glad it’s not happening when he’s 9, 10, 14 years old. I don’t know what I’m going to do then,” Ryno said. “One day, he will understand, but there’s going to be periods of time where he’s going to not be sure that his father’s a good man. And that’s what I’m dedicating my life to.”

Ryno has argued for years that the Missouri Sex Offender Registry is a waste of time and taxpayer money. He contends that the list eats up law enforcement’s time when problems arise. He advocates that Missouri look to rehabilitation programs such as the Missouri Sex Offender Program and perhaps set up a system where judges could refer to risk assessments of petitioning offenders. He thinks these measures are more likely to keep Missouri residents safe than the list.

House Bill 1561

Bill 1561 would allow any offender who was 17 or younger at the time of the offense to petition for removal. According to data from the Missouri Department of Corrections depository, as of May 4, there are about 17,340 registered offenders. About 2,360 of them are incarcerated.

Ryno is one of 20 offenders in Boone County who would be eligible to petition off the registry under these new parameters. In Cole County, 10 registered offenders would be eligible. Across Missouri, there are about 730 sex offenders who would be able to petition.

A substitute to the bill would allow any sex offender who was under 17 years at the time of the offense, and no more than five years older than the victim, to petition for removal after five years as long as the victim has reached 18 years old. This restriction would apply to about 400 offenders as long as they wait the allotted time.

The bill would also allow juveniles to be removed from the website.

These parameters are only for offenders whose offense was in Missouri; those who moved from another state must follow those states’ guidelines. These numbers include all offenses; however, the substitute could decrease these statistics by allowing only those whose offenses involved no physical force.

Bills to rework the sex offender registry have been making ripples in the House the past few years. Former Rep. Rodney Schad carried this bill while Hinson was a representative.

“He came to me and said, ‘Hey, you seem to be level-headed, and this is a good cause. We need to give these kids a second chance,’” Hinson said. “I picked it up from there.”

Last year’s version of the bill made it through the legislature only to be vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon because it completely nixed judicial discretion when it came to petitioning offenders.

But this bill still strives to address the fear that outside political and social pressures influence judges’ decisions in these situations.

The substitute would add the stipulation that offenders complete all court-ordered treatment in order to petition to be removed. The treatment could mean a risk assessment that a judge could use to make a decision. The offender would have to foot the cost.

The substitution would allow only those offenses that involved no physical force to be considered. Hinson also changed the age gap from six to five years, after several groups at the public hearing expressed consternation at the stipulation.

“I talked to the victims’ advocacy group, and they understand the situation,” Hinson said. “I’ve tried to compromise the best I could on this bill to make it legitimately able for them to petition to get off (the registry).”

Hinson went to work with senators, the governor’s office, the victims’ advocacy groups and prosecutors on the new bill.

“I will tell you that not everyone likes it, not everyone hates it,” he prefaced in the hearing. “So it could be a fairly decent bill.”

Dialogue on the bill

Some opponents of the bill fear its proposed five-year gap would put Missouri out of compliance with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, the federal standards for registration. Noncompliance could risk losing grant funding.

Tammy Byrd, the registry supervisor at the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the national sex offender registration act states that the age difference between offender and victim should be no more than four years.

“If that passed, it could be a bad mark against us at the federal level and could throw us out of compliance,” Byrd said.

Emily van Schenkhof, the deputy director of Missouri KidsFirst, said there were two major problems in the bill: pushing past the four-year age difference and removing all juveniles from the website.

“When you get outside of that four-year age gap, people are at different developmental levels, and there’s a pretty big power differential,” she said.

She worries there won’t be public accountability for those juveniles. She says the registry and the website let offenders know that their communities know what they did and they are watching.

“In general, we don’t put juveniles on the adult register,” she said. “In order to get on the registry as a juvenile, you have to have committed a very serious sex offense. This is messy, dirty business.”

She did, however, point out that juveniles have much lower recidivism rates than adults.

“A 17-year-old has a much greater chance of being rehabilitated, and they have a greater chance of not repeating that offense,” she said.

The Missouri State Bar Executive Committee reviewed the bill in March and voted in support of it; however, the committee does not support including forcible crimes among those that would be removed.

Charles Rogers, a member of the Criminal Law Legislative Review Subcommittee, was quoted in a memo: “This bill would alleviate in part some of the most unfair aspects of sex offender registration.”

What now?

With the legislative session drawing to a close, neither the bill nor its substitute has made it to a House calendar. Hinson said he hopes to look into some Senate bills to bring the issue back, if it doesn’t move forward this session.

Ryno has accepted that he will be, at least for the time being, one more name included on the Missouri Sex Offender Registry.

But he has a job, 40 hours a week as a telemarketer. He has passed the probationary period and said the company is allowing him to stay on despite his name being on the registry. He plans to continue to advocate for programs such as the Missouri Sex Offender Program and can see himself lobbying for legislation that he feels would help rehabilitate offenders.

“To be labeled a sex offender forever, that’s ostracizing people from society,” Ryno said. “You’re telling a lie to all of society that these people cannot be helped, that rehabilitation doesn’t work and that you shouldn’t have hope for people who make mistakes.”