ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A convicted sexual predator seeking an extremely rare release from Minnesota’s sexual offender treatment program was confronted Friday by one of his victims, who rejected the man’s claim that he no longer poses a threat.
John Rydberg, 69, has petitioned for release from a psychiatric hospital to a halfway house in the Twin Cities, a step that ultimately could make him the first person permanently released from the state’s program.
Attorneys for the state and Blue Earth County, where his last offense was raping a woman at knifepoint in front of her children in 1979, are arguing against his release. They sought to poke holes in his testimony to show that he’s just going through the motions, hasn’t fully faced up to what he’s done and isn’t ready for a next step toward freedom.
Rydberg said he’s no danger but remembers about 94 victims, with offenses ranging from peeping to violent assaults. He admitted he has harmed a lot of people over the years and still struggles with his sexual feelings.
“What can I say? I’m a work in progress,” Rydberg said, adding that he still makes mistakes. “I’m trying to build a relapse prevention plan to ensure that I never hurt anyone again.”
Since it began in 1995, Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program has grown to more than 600 patients and it adds about 50 people per year. Only one man has been released in the program’s history, and his provisional discharge was revoked when he violated conditions of his release. He eventually died in custody.
Rydberg’s case comes as the state grapples with the rising costs of treating sex offenders at a time when it’s awash in red ink. Minnesota has an estimated $5 billion budget deficit, yet lawmakers are being asked to commit millions to expand sex offender treatment facilities. Some attorneys and others have also raised questions about the constitutionality of a civil commitment program if no one is ever released.
The most compelling testimony Friday came from Tom McCartney, 58, who described for a three-judge panel an assault that began when Rydberg burst into McCartney’s country home near Westfield, Wis., with a sawed-off shotgun the stormy night of June 4, 1975. After McCartney and his wife, Janet, were tied up, Rydberg went upstairs where the couple’s 3-year-old son was sleeping to get pillowcases to put over their heads, McCartney said.
Rydberg then raped Janet McCartney with his mask off, McCartney said, describing how he got good looks at Rydberg’s face during lightning flashes. Then, he said, Rydberg pulled down McCartney’s pants and performed oral sex on him for about five minutes. He eventually left, stealing their car.
About a month and a half later, McCartney said, his wife learned she was pregnant. Rather than risking that the child might be her rapist’s, he said, they decided to have an abortion.
McCartney urged the panel to reject Rydberg’s petition, saying he has followed every step of Rydberg’s case since his commitment and doesn’t believe he has reformed.
“This man will do the same thing if he gets the opportunity,” McCartney said. And he urged the three judges — all women — to put more weight on what Rydberg did to his victims than his attorney’s plea that the hearing focus on Rydberg’s progress in treatment.
Near the end of his testimony, McCartney expressed contempt for Rydberg, who was sitting at a table next to his lawyer.
“He can’t even look up. You’re something else,” McCartney told Rydberg. As he left the stand, McCartney glared at Rydberg as he walked back to sit next to his wife. Rydberg did not appear to look back at him.
Rydberg then took the stand. Asked if he considers himself a sex offender, Rydberg replied, “I’m a recovering sex offender.”
It was one of numerous instances where Assistant Attorney General Noah Cashman highlighted examples of his past and current statements and behavior that suggest he hasn’t been fully truthful or amenable to treatment. He also brought up several reports of conflicts with program staff members, including one where he became furious after staffers would not let him buy lottery tickets.
Rydberg told the judges he had been sexually abused as a child by his father and a cousin, and that he often hated his parents and felt emotionally distant from them. He also admitted he committed his first sex offense when he was 12. He said he undressed a 10-year-old girl and touched her vagina but denied any penetration. He also described several other sexual assaults he committed on women, going back to the late 1960s.
Cashman tried to show the court that Rydberg has not faced up to his problems. Rydberg acknowledged he had been diagnosed as a sexual sadist and an alcohol abuser and that he had anti-social personality disorder. Under repeated questioning, he said he wasn’t sure of his formal diagnoses, saying he lets the program’s clinical staff keep track of that for him.
Rydberg also acknowledged that he didn’t participate in treatment in his nine years in a Wisconsin treatment center from which he escaped twice, even though he has also said at times that he spent those years in treatment. He said he declined to participate in Minnesota’s program for his first few years under commitment because he hoped the courts would declare it unconstitutional.
As recently as last November, when Rydberg was preparing for a critical polygraph exam, Cashman suggested that he still had trouble with the truth. Rydberg wrote in what was supposed to be a full disclosure report that he had had between one and 150 victims, when the number he had most often used in treatment was 94. Rydberg testified he that he didn’t think that was a lie — he considered it an “insurance policy” against flunking the lie detector test, in case his count was wrong. He said he feared it would have set his treatment program back six months if he had failed.
Rydberg’s attorney, Brian Southwell, said he would wait until later to question Rydberg, when he presents his case.
Cashwell began questioning Harry Hoberman, a forensic psychologist specializing in sex offenders who examined Rydberg’s records, but he didn’t get to interview Rydberg because Southwell advised his client against it. Hoberman said he concluded that Rydberg doesn’t meet the state’s eligibility requirements for a provisional discharge, but court adjourned for the day before prosecutors could explore his reasoning in detail.
The hearing resumes next Friday and will run to a third date to be determined later.
Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Mark Lindahl urged the judges to go slow.
“We feel that he is an ongoing danger to and ultimately his risk factors are too great for him to be released into the community at this time,” Lindahl said. “This is a precedent-setting case and we need to be cautious.”
If the panel approves a provisional discharge, Rydberg would transfer from the state hospital in St. Peter, where he’s been living outside the security perimeter, to a Twin Cities halfway house with a GPS ankle bracelet and a long list of conditions by which he must abide, including lie-detector tests, random drug screenings and regular check-ins with program staffers.
According to papers filed by Southwell, Rydberg has made steady progress in treatment. He’s employed on the St. Peter treatment center campus. He has spent more than 3,000 unsupervised hours on campus and more than 1,200 hours off campus with supervision. He regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Sexual Addiction Anonymous meetings in the community. He participates in regular therapy sessions on- and off-campus.
Southwell also wrote that Rydberg has developed self-control skills in treatment to avoid reverting to his old ways. Rydberg has also passed a test to see whether he is aroused by “deviant-themed sexual materials,” the attorney wrote.
Rydberg’s case has advanced the farthest out of the seven men in Minnesota who have reached the final stage of treatment before they can seek provisional discharge. The case of one other man, Thomas Ray Duvall, could go to trial this summer. The rest remain locked up in secure facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake.
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