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Under Siege 

Paul Franz, Sunday News &, Aug 03, 2008

Tom Armstrong believes sex offenders have become the 'lepers of our society.' He believes men like the three he invited into his Mareitta home can change. His words can't convince those protesting in front of his house.

"The true measure of a community is how it treats its weakest," said Richard Owen, one of the three convicted sex offenders who live in former state representative Tom Armstrong's Marietta home.

While he spoke, 15 sign-carrying protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside the house in the 700 block of East Market Street.

Owen, 51, said Saturday he wasn't upset by outrage over his arrival in Marietta, but criticized the way the American legal system treats sex offenders.

He moved to Lancaster County in 2001 hoping to begin anew, but his life here has been troubled.

Owen spent a year in Lancaster County Prison from May 2007 to April of this year only because he couldn't find approved housing. By that time, he had already served out his 20-year prison sentence for rape in the state of Illinois.

"There is a dire problem," he said. "It's designed to lock you up and throw away the key and not worry about the problems later."

"They've become the lepers of our society," Armstrong said.

Owen was charged with rape in 1981, he said, after he was caught with a woman by her husband. A week later, Owen said, the wife filed a rape charge against him.

Paul W. Studdard, a former science librarian at Millersville University, was convicted of possessing child pornography on school computers. Richard Glen Barker was convicted of aggravated indecent assault of a minor.

Both Studdard and Barker were at the house Saturday but declined to comment.

"People can change," Armstrong said.

Since moving into the large three-story blue-sided house in early June, the men have lived with Armstrong and his son. Armstrong said his daughter and wife are away taking care of his ill mother-in-law, who is in hospice care.

Armstrong said his family has been supportive of his decision to house the men. And, he added, he hasn't just picked up any ex-convict who has come to him for help.

"They have to prove they want to change," he said.

Armstrong said he is a mentor to the men and accompanies them shopping and on church visits.

"I have access to everyone's room and I haven't seen a single thing happen," he said. "I really believe Richard has been brought into this by God," Armstrong said. "He's a good man."

Not here - Others disagree.

The protesters gathered in front of Armstrong's house around 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

Many voiced concerns over the safety of children in the community.

"I have children," Shelly Evans said, "Marietta children walk to school and it worries me. We can't be there to keep an eye on them all day long.

"We're out here to protect our kids."

Armstrong argues that the current situation is safer than if the three men were somewhere else.

"There's a lot of light coming in here. This is God's house," Armstrong said. "If anything, it's the complete opposite. It's one of the safest houses."

Armstrong's house has 15 rooms and five bathrooms, more than enough space to accommodate the men, he said.

The home, which sits on the eastern edge of Marietta, is surrounded by similar houses and duplexes. It is just north of Sunnybank, an 1897 Greek-revival mansion designed by renowned Lancaster architect C. Emlen Urban for a lumber baron.

Armstrong has worked for eight years with the nonprofit Justice and Mercy group and said he is a mentor for seven other convicts in the county. He really began to pay attention to reforming ex-convicts after his brother, Max, was convicted of exposing himself to schoolgirls in Millersville in 1997.

"It really opened my eyes," he said.

Protesters were courteous and stood outside on the sidewalk holding signs and placards. Some passing cars honked their horns in apparent support of the protesters.

"We took a vote; you lost!"
"Hit the road!" 
read some of the signs.

"I'm against what Armstrong is doing to the town of Marietta," said Mark Jardel. "He's bringing in individuals who don't reflect the community here.

"He just doesn't care about the children or the community."

Owen walked outside several times and waved to the protesters, who largely ignored him. At one point, Owen started taking pictures of the protesters, saying he was putting together an album of all the newspaper 
articles and events in this controversy.

A police officer in a cruiser kept watch at the end of the block.

Armstrong had set out a cooler with sodas for the protesters earlier in the morning.

An Old Testament verse from the book of Jeremiah printed on cardboard above the cooler read: 

"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sin no more."

Below the verse, the message was:

"If God be for us, who can be against us?"

"I don't think they have the full picture," Armstrong said of his opponents, adding that he thought he has gotten more support than opposition for his actions.

"I just want to congratulate you on what you're doing. Those [protesters] are all wrong," said a female supporter in a message left on Armstrong's answering machine. "They deserve to have the right [to live] somewhere. Everyone deserves to have the right to have another chance."

Armstrong said he has received a lot of anonymous support, but also direct support from local churches and charities. He said that Marietta Community Chapel has told him the men are welcome at their church.

Three protesters were still outside Armstrong's home around 12:30 p.m. One engaged Armstrong in a heated argument as he walked in front of his home.

"Their actions define how they think," the protester said.

"You don't know them, they're good men," Armstrong replied.

"Twelve people don't represent the mind-set of Marietta," Owen said. "It's unfortunate that people can get locked into their fears and judgments, but they have a right to express themselves."

Legal battles

Armstrong moved the three men into his house in early June after they had left a halfway house in Conestoga Township.

Controversy surrounded the complex where they lived on Main Street. Residents and zoning officials pressured Armstrong to move the men out because the halfway house didn't comply with township zoning regulations.

He denied the men were "run out of town" in Conestoga, saying that the move was more of a consideration of transportation problems.

Marietta residents found out that the men had moved into Armstrong's home via the Pennsylvania Megan's Law Web site, which is maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police and lists offenders by their addresses.

Convicted sex offenders who live, work or attend school in the state are required to register on the Web site.

A cease-and-desist order issued by the borough on June 16 notified Armstrong that housing unrelated adults in his home is not permitted. Armstrong appealed the order.

A hearing on Armstrong's appeal will be heard by the borough Zoning Hearing Board at 7 p.m.,Wednesday, Aug. 6, at the Marietta Community House, 264 W. Market St.

Since the issuance of the order, Armstrong hired Lancaster attorney Jim Clymer to represent him at the appeal.

"Jim will go with me as far as we have to go with this," Armstrong said.

'I'm safe' Armstrong was confident that he'll win the appeal.

"I know I'm safe," he said. "We have Supreme Court law on our side and town precedent."

In the 1980s, he said, Marietta allowed three unrelated war veterans to stay at Armstrong's house in a similar capacity.

If the town rules against Armstrong Wednesday, he said he'll appeal.

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