‘Lie’ begets lifetime of regret for Clay County father, son

When Brodie Leap (right) was a 5-year-old boy, he says, he felt pressured to say his father, Earnest Leap, had touched him inappropriately. It was a lie, he says.
When Brodie Leap (right) was a 5-year-old boy, he says, he felt pressured to say his father, Earnest Leap, had touched him inappropriately. It was a lie, he says. deulitt@kcstar.com

Brodie Leap was 5 years old when he told what he now calls The Lie.

He says he knew it was a lie the second he said it. He is 31 now, living in Oakview in Clay County, and he has known his entire life that it wasn’t true.

“Have you been touched down there?” his mother asked him.

Leap insists he told the truth at first. “No,” he recalls repeating to his mother as she asked him time and again. The date was Dec. 1, 1989. Karen Leap, then 36, was asking her son about his father and her ex-husband, Earnest Leap.

The couple, separated for three years, had just ended their seven-year marriage that September. Despite their bitter parting, the parents received joint custody of Brodie and his toddler brother, Josh.

To Karen Leap’s grave disappointment, Earnest Leap was named prime custodial parent, meaning the boys lived mostly with him.

“Have you been touched down there?”

The answer that Brodie Leap finally uttered, and which for the past eight years he has declared in affidavits he felt hounded to give, continues to haunt the life of his father, who both Leap brothers attest has been the most supportive and positive force in their lives.

“The only stable component of my childhood was the immutable presence of my father,” Josh Leap, 27, a computer data scientist in St. Louis, wrote in support of Earnest Leap.

Said Brodie Leap, “I live with the guilt of that lie every day of my life.”

A Navy veteran and one-time financial adviser, he recently came back to the Kansas City area and moved in with his dad, in part to take on the mission of his father’s exoneration and pardon.

At the very least, he hopes to get his father’s name erased from the rolls of Missouri’s registered sex offenders. By state statute, Earnest Leap is required to stay on the registry for life.

The Kansas City-based Midwest Innocence Project notified Leap last month that it was reviewing his records as it considers whether to take up his cause in court.

“This has been going on for 25 years,” said Leap, 57, who retired this year as a driver for United Parcel Service. “I have never had anything to be ashamed of.”

Brodie Leap’s quest to clear his father’s name comes at a pitched moment in the debate over sex offenders and the laws that keep track of them.

Across the nation, attorneys, criminologists and even law enforcement agencies have begun, with greater force, to question the public benefit, legality and appropriateness of making available the photos, names, addresses and workplaces of some 850,000 individuals on the nation’s sex offender registries. Officials also question a tapestry of ever-changing rules that differ state by state on where offenders can live, work and walk.

Kansas, for example, has no residency restrictions regarding how close to a school, church or park a registered sex offender can live or work.

But in Missouri, county sheriffs and prosecutors are still struggling to determine what to do after a 2013 Missouri Supreme Court ruling.

The case, State of Missouri v. Michael Wade, is related specifically to Missouri Statute 566.150, which went into effect in 2009. It prohibits individuals found guilty of a sex offense from loitering within 500 feet of a park with playground equipment or a public swimming pool. The court, in its decision, ruled that the loitering law could be applied retroactively to offenders who were found guilty in the years before the law went into effect.

The ruling went on to say that other such criminal laws also could be applied retroactively.

The problem that sheriffs’ offices now face is that the newer ruling runs directly counter to two previous Missouri Supreme Court rulings. Those rulings found that a different criminal law, 566.147, which restricts sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare, could not be applied to people who occupied their homes before the law went into effect in 2004.

But based on the new ruling, any sex offender who lives within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare is violating the law, regardless of when they were convicted.

In densely populated Jackson County, that essentially includes all of the county’s 2,100 registered sex offenders.

“I don’t know where, physically, you could live in Jackson County where there isn’t a park or daycare or school or playground,” said Capt. Mike Rogers, who said the Sheriff’s Department is still working on what to do. “It would displace thousands of people.”

If sex offender registries are about keeping close tabs on offenders, he said, forcing them to move would send the system into chaos.

“We are not in the position of displacing a bunch of families or displacing someone who has lived in their house for 50 years because they have a park or school down the street,” Rogers said.

Platte County is home to 96 registered sex offenders. The Platte County prosecutor’s office has received no cases of violators, although if it did, a spokesman said, the office would prosecute.

Cass County has 143 registered offenders. Four have been informed they are in violation.

In Clay County, Earnest Leap was among 57 of the county’s approximately 330 registered sex offenders who received a letter from the Sheriff’s Department in August. The letter said his house on the border with Gladstone is too close to a school. It is 990 feet away.

“All of the sex offender laws are really screwed up because they contradict each other,” said Capt. Tommy St. John of the Clay County Sheriff’s Department. “All the sex offender laws are a mess.”

Leap has been in his home since 2000, rebuilding much of it himself. He raised Brodie and Josh there through their middle school years, after they voluntarily left their mom. His wife, Natalie, 41, has lived there with him since before their marriage in 2008. Her son, Austin, from a previous marriage, also eventually lived with them there.

But Clay County’s letter, St. John said, was carefully worded. It placed no deadline on leaving.

“It’s a basic, generic letter,” St. John said. “We take a criminal report and file it with the prosecutor. The prosecutor decides whether to file or not and that gets the monkey off our backs.”

At least seven registered offenders already have opted to move. The prosecutor, as of recent events, had opted not to prosecute others among the 57.

But the Leaps said the letter is vague and leaves them wondering what their future holds.

“They won’t tell you,” Natalie Leap said. “Are they going to prosecute you if you stay? Even if we move, where do we live? If we move into another neighborhood, all the red flags come up with him being a registered sex offender.

“You can’t go to a park. You can’t go camping, If he goes to another state, you have to register there.”

Registries exist in every state, with many studies showing that the public overwhelmingly supports them for keeping people informed and thus feeling safer.

“I think sex offender registries are an important part of an overall child-protection strategy,” said Staca Shehan of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Her division at the center helps authorities by collecting information on the whereabouts of “noncompliant” sex offenders, those who have failed to register. No clear number exists, but she estimated there are tens of thousands nationwide.

Over the last two decades, state and federal lawmakers have responded to public sentiment with strong legislation. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act became the first federal law to require that states operate a registry.

The act was named for Jacob, 11, who was riding his bike with friends when a masked man abducted the boy near his Minnesota home. Neither Jacob nor the man was ever found.

In 1996, Megan’s Law allowed registries to publicly disclose offenders’ private and personal information, such as where they lived. Megan Kanka, of Mercer County, N.J., was 7 years old when in 1994 she was raped and murdered by a neighbor who was a twice-convicted pedophile.

Another law passed that year further allowed offenders to be tracked from place to place.

In 2006, 25 years after the death of Adam Walsh, a 6-year-old Florida boy abducted from a department store and later found murdered, Congress enacted the the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Title I of the law is the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act which, among many provisions, expanded the list of offenses for which one was required to register, as well as penalties.

Under SORNA, failing to register is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Offenders also must notify authorities when and where they move or take a new job.

“It allows the public and families to have knowledge about who is in their community,” Shehan said of offenders required to register, and provides “the opportunity to create a safety plan, to educate themselves about what the risks are.”

Certainly national headline-grabbing stories have tended to reinforce the need for vigilance.

Shehan offered the example of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the 11-year-old California girl who was grabbed off a street as she walked home from school. Dugard remained missing for 18 years until, in 2009, she was recognized and found in the company of convicted sex offender Phillip Craig Garrido, who had kept her captive.

“There’s others,” Shehan said. “It is anecdotal, for the most part, but we have seen cases where registered and noncompliant sex offenders have re-offended and raped or murdered a child.”

Case in point, she said, is John Albert Gardner, who in 2010 pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of 14-year-old Amber Dubois in 2009 and 17-year-old Chelsea King in 2010, both in California. Gardner was a convicted sex offender who had been imprisoned previously for molesting a 13-year-old girl.

The most common argument against the registries is that they go too far, in that they publicly brand offenders with a felony scarlet letter for anywhere from 10 years to a lifetime, long after offenders have completed the terms of their convictions.

“My reputation has been ruined,” Earnest Leap said.

Others say the registries cast too large a net, placing rapists on the same registry with those convicted of public urination or so-called Romeo and Juliet crimes — consensual sex between underage teens that is prosecuted as statutory rape.

The registries’ effectiveness also is being questioned.

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice published a research brief on sex offender management. In effect, it offered a summary of what collective research shows on how effective strategies such as residence restrictions and registration requirements have been in reducing sex offender crime rates and recidivism, meaning repeat crimes by previous offenders.

The Justice Department brief was absolute regarding residence restrictions.

“(T)he evidence is fairly clear that residence restrictions are not effective,” the brief said. “In fact, research suggests that residence restrictions may actually increase offender risk by undermining offender stability and the ability of the offender to obtain housing, work, and family support. There is nothing to suggest this policy should be used at this time.”

In February, the California Supreme Court struck down sex-offender living restrictions in San Diego County, with Justice Marvin Baxter declaring the county’s restrictions “unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive,” an “infringement” on offenders’ constitutional rights that “bears no rational relationship to advancing the state’s legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators.”

In New York that same month, the state Court of Appeals struck down a 2006 Nassau County ordinance that prohibited sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school.

And in August, Massachusetts Associate Justice Geraldine S. Hines likened sex-offender living restrictions to some of America’s darkest historical moments. The state Supreme Judicial Court unanimously struck down local ordinances banning sex offenders from living near schools or parks.

“Except for the incarceration of persons under the criminal law and the civil commitment of mentally ill or dangerous persons,” Hines wrote, “the days are long since past when whole communities of persons, such as Native Americans and Japanese-Americans, may be lawfully banished from our midst.”

As to whether registration and notification actually reduce the rate of sex crimes, the Justice Department brief concludes the results were mixed. Some studies have found no effect; others have noted decreases in the rate of sex crimes.

But the brief was more conclusive regarding recidivism, the effect of registration on reducing repeat offenses by sexual predators. The majority of studies found “no impact.”

Separately, Arizona State University law professor Ira Mark Ellman this summer took on the very assertion, used in dozens of legal cases to justify the use of sex offender registries, that sex offenders should be tracked because their rate of re-offending is “frightening and high,” as much as 80 percent.

But as he notes in an essay to be published in the law journal Constitutional Commentary, the assertion that offenders re-offend at an alarming rate stems from data offered to the U.S. Supreme Court in an amicus brief in a 2002 Kansas sex offender case, McKune v. Lile.

Looking deeper, Ellman tracked the 80 percent number to what he determined to be its original source, a 1986 story in the popular magazine Psychology Today. It stated that “most untreated sex offenders released from prison go on to commit more offenses — indeed, as many as 80 percent do.” But the story provided no studies, data, experts or sources to support that statement.

“There was no study at all. There is no reference or anything. That was pretty surprising,” Ellman said in a telephone interview. “Fear, the fear of what a person might do, drives people to reach these conclusions. They don’t hear the facts.”

It is difficult to calculate a single percentage of sex offenders who do re-offend, Ellman said. But the number, he said, is not close to 80 percent and is lower than the re-offense rate for other felony crimes.

Ellman cites a meta-analysis of some 8,000 sex offenders that showed that, among the highest risk offenders, 20 percent committed another sex crime within five years of prison release, and 32 percent within 15 years. But the longer one goes without re-offending after release, the less chance for any new crime.

No high-risk offenders who were offense-free after 16 years committed a sex crime thereafter, Ellman wrote.

Earnest Leap said that for him recidivism is not an issue because he didn’t sexually abuse Brodie in the first place.

“Never. Not my son, any other child, or adult,” Leap said last week.

Leap’s former wife, now Karen Harris, 62, lives just over a mile from the home Leap shares with his wife and Brodie.

She insisted in a recent interview that although she never witnessed her ex-husband abuse their son, she nonetheless believes now as she believed nearly 26 years ago that Leap molested him.

“It happened,” Harris said. “I believe my child. … My son would not have lied to me back then. I don’t know why Brodie is lying now.”

Brodie Leap holds that in 1989 any truth of his father’s innocence quickly became buried beneath the landslide of dysfunction, family drama and the desire to please his mother that both sons have said came to define their childhoods.

Harris hardly denies that life had been difficult.

She was 28 when she met and married Earnest Leap in 1982. By then she had been married four times and had four children, all boys.

She said she was about 14 years old when she was sexually assaulted by one of her father’s Army buddies and became pregnant. She was forced by her family to wed the man shortly after. They had a baby.

“He was a rapist,” she said. “They made me marry him. They sold me out.”

Leap said he met his former wife while she was cutting hair at a Northland salon. He was 23 and already working for UPS. They wed a few weeks later. In February 1984, Brodie was born.

Although the couple separated after four years, they got back together briefly. Josh was born in August 1988, less than a year before the divorce became legal. The marriage was dissolved in Clay County on Sept. 13, 1989.

The court named Earnest Leap as primary custodian. Harris recalled that she quickly came to think that her husband was keeping Brodie and Josh from seeing her.

“I said, ‘You can’t keep them away from me forever,’ ” she recalled telling him at that time.

The accusation of child sexual abuse came less than three months after the divorce. Earnest Leap maintains that the “false accusation” had everything to do with custody.

Karen Harris recalls it differently.

She remembers picking up Brodie from his father’s place — Earnest Leap was living in Blue Springs at the time — to stay the weekend with her. She said Brodie was moody, acting “antsy” and “nervous.” He had been playing aggressively with a toy car. She thought he might be mad at an older half brother.

“I said, ‘Brodie, why are you doing this?’ He didn’t really answer. But there was a cover over the couch and he kept covering his head and everything.”

Harris said she thought he was just acting strangely.

“I took him to the bedroom and sat him on the side of the bed,” she said. “I said, ‘Brodie, you’ve got to talk to me. I don’t know what’s going on.’ 

Harris said that it was in that moment that the notion he might have been sexually abused crossed her mind. She had been following the news, and in the 1980s, child sexual abuse was making national headlines. The McMartin preschool case — in which it was later determined that preschool workers were falsely accused of abusing some 360 children in their care — was still working its way through the courts.

“All of sudden something hit me,” she recalled. “If you remember, that was about the time everything started coming out, saying, ‘Ask your kids if someone has touched them.’ 

Harris said she held Brodie, told him she loved him and said he could reveal anything to her.

She recalled his response: His father had told him that if he talked, he would be “dead meat.” She said she persisted and that Brodie, in a child’s words, indicated that he had awakened to find his father performing a sex act.

Recently, Brodie Leap shook his head at hearing his mother’s recollection. By choice, neither he nor Josh has contact with their mother. Brodie said that when he thinks of his mom, “I don’t feel anger. I feel more pity for her.”

He thinks his mother came to believe what she wanted to believe. His memory of that day is vastly different. He recalls her asking him countless times whether his father had touched him in an improper way.

“It was just incessant,” he said. He remembers saying no over and over again until, after two hours of questioning by her, he finally relented so that he could go to bed.

His mother took him to the hospital. There was no physical evidence. But he said he repeated what he knew to be a lie to others, including a counselor and worker for the Missouri Division of Family Services, its name then.

“I repeated the story … because I did not want to get into trouble for making up the story,” he wrote in a 2007 affidavit used in a petition for pardon sent to Gov. Jay Nixon.

Trouble came for Earnest Leap. His children were taken away and given to his ex-wife.

The Jackson County prosecutor, using the evidence of Brodie’s statement to his mother, police and others, charged Leap with first-degree sexual abuse. Documents back his assertion that for more than a year and half he refused to plead guilty.

But on the advice of his public defender, he said, he finally agreed to terms that he thought would make it all go away. It was an Alford plea, in which the defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that if the case went to trial, the prosecutor would have enough evidence to convict.

Going to trial was the last thing Leap wanted, he said, and not just because of the risk of jail time. A trial would mean that Brodie would be compelled to testify against his dad.

Leap broke into tears recently as he said, “I didn’t want him to have to go through that.”

The agreement seemed right: A sentence of three years that, most important to Leap, allowed him to maintain his innocence and also offered suspended imposition. That meant Leap would get no jail time. If he stayed out of trouble for three years, any record of his conviction would be wiped away.

That’s what happened. A search of public documents shows no record of his conviction.

But all of that was before the creation of the sex offender registry: before residency restrictions, before past offenders had to add their names, before the eruption of the Internet allowed all of Leap’s co-workers, friends and neighbors to find his face and address with the click of a mouse.

The Leaps have for years been deeply involved in dog rescue. In late August, Natalie Leap received a two-sentence letter from a group for which they had volunteered.

“This weekend your husband’s criminal record was brought to our attention,” it stated. “Given the nature of his conviction and our involvement in the community (our group) can no longer continue our relationship with you or your family.”

It’s a miniscule example, Leap said, of what they experience.

“I’ve been harassed by police officers, co-workers, bosses, neighbors,” Leap said. To everyone who looks on the Internet, he said, he knows he’s seen as the area pervert.

Except, that is, to his family. His wife has become an active member of Women Against Registry, a national group based in Arnold, Mo., that attempts to bring fair treatment to the families of individuals on the registry.

Registry aside, in middle school both Brodie and Josh left their mother’s house and chose to live with their father. Both attended college. Brodie became a top wrestler at Oak Park High School and later in the Navy.

Brodie has had his troubles, he said, including a divorce. Injuries from wrestling, rugby and mixed martial arts have made work difficult enough for him to seek disability. For the time being he’s moved back into the home where he feels safest.

“My dad,” Brodie said, “is the one I always come back to.”