6abc Investigates: Plea deals for accused sex offenders in Philadelphia

November 18, 2013

These accused sex offenders could live in your neighborhood, next to a school, or a swimming pool, and you'd never know it.

Now, one State Representative in Pennsylvania is expressing his outrage that Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is making plea deals that he warns could make Philadelphia less safe.

John Mahon, Joseph Reif and Andrew Wilson have a secret that families who live and work around them may never have known. Police say these three men all admitted to downloading and viewing extremely explicit sexual videos and pictures of young children.

"These are very disturbing images. Kids being forced to endure all types of sexual acts. And deplorable, deplorable images... I think it's outrageous," former Montgomery County sex crimes prosecutor and State Representative Todd Stephens told Action News.

He says it is exactly these kinds of offenders who should be flagged, and prevented from working with our kids by putting them on the sex offender registry.

Authorities say John Mahon confessed to investigators the youngest person in the nearly 2 dozen pornographic images he downloaded was only 8 years old. State Police told Action News that Mahon admitted having the images in his possession on his computer.

State police arrested Joseph Reif after they say he downloaded a sexually explicit video involving a 5-year-old child. They then found 18 illegal videos on his computer at his Port Richmond home. Authorities told Action News he was charged with 4 different felonies involving possession of child pornography.

Investigators nabbed Andrew Wilson in an undercover sting after they say he downloaded a video of a girl between the ages of 5 and 8 involved in an illegal sex act an adult man. In addition, police say, investigators found 67 images depicting child sexual acts taking place that he "readily" admitted to investigators that the images were his.

But you won't find Wilson, Reif or Mahon on the Pennsylvania Sex Offender Registry.

"After reading the descriptions of what they've done," Rep. Stephens says, "it's pretty clear to me that these are folks that the public should be aware of. I certainly wouldn't want them living in my neighborhood around my son."

But Action News has discovered Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has allowed all 3 men to plea down to lesser crimes like criminal use of a computer. That charge doesn't require sex offender registration and wouldn't show up as a sex crime in a background check.

In fact, when Action News went to Wilson's home, there was a disturbing note on the door soliciting kids to go inside the home of this accused sex offender. Action News investigative reporter Wendy Saltzman spoke with the woman who answered the door:

Wendy: "Now are you running a daycare out of there?
Mother: "I'm not running anything."
Wendy: "Because there is a sign on there."
Mother: "Oh, I got a little candy stand, in the summertime. I did water ices for the neighborhood and chips and cakes and stuff."

Wilson's mother defended her son and his presence around unsuspecting children and that he's not on the sex offender registry: "I know my son, I raised my son and he did not do this."

When Action News found Joseph Reif, he didn't want to speak with us about his plea deal:

Wendy: "I wanted to chat with you about the Child Pornography Charges."
Reif: "No, I don't want to talk about it."
Wendy: "We wanted to see what happened with that case."

Mahon didn't answer the buzzer at his Center City home.

District Attorney Seth Williams also refused to speak with us on camera after numerous requests. Instead, his spokesperson issued a statement saying in part:

"Working hand in hand with sex offender probation officers, we have found that supervision to be more effective. The only requirement for being on the Megan's Law registry is the offender must report to the State Police any new address and verify their address every 3 or 6 months... While it is useful that the public can go on the website to find registrants in their neighborhood, registration does not require sex offender treatment." (You can read the entire correspondence at the end of this article or by following this link now)

But after serving as a sex crimes prosecutor for 10 years, Representative Stephens isn't buying that alternative.

"I haven't heard anyone say that they are willing to stand up, sign their name on the dotted line and swear to me that an individual is going to be rehabilitated," Stephens said. "And I'm not willing to risk our kids." A potential sentence for these offenders could have included both registration and treatment, but the district attorney's office says defense attorneys are more likely to fight registration and force a trial because of the stigma of being on the sex offender registry. So it's easier for them to get a plea if they lessen the charges.

Action News received the following response and answers to follow-up questions while gathering information for this report:

There is no blanket policy for any case that this office prosecutes, and your assertions about "concerns that have been brought to your attention about Megan's Law charges being plead down by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office" are ridiculous. Every case prosecuted in this office is prosecuted on its own merits, every case is different.

Here is information on the cases you mentioned, which involved first time offenders with no prior arrests or convictions, who were found with pornography on their computers.

1. Joseph Reif - waived his preliminary hearing in exchange for a plea to Criminal Use of Communication Facility and 3 years sex offender probation, $1000 fine, had to forfeit his computer

2. John Mahon - waived his preliminary hearing, pled guilty to Criminal Use of Communication Facility, 6 years sex offender probation, $1500 fine, had to forfeit computers and electronics.

3. Andrew Wilson pled guilty in Municipal Court to possession of instrument of crime and also received sex offender probation.

Each of the defendants was placed on Sex Offender Unit Probation which is far more effective supervision than placement on Megan's Law. Under such probation, each defendant is supervised by a probation officer who has special training in supervising sex offenders. Conditions of such probation are stringent:

Defendant must receive an evaluation at the Joseph J. Peters Institute
(link added by Action News) and then undergo sex offender treatment there, usually for a lengthy period. (The Joseph J Peters Institute is one of the top treatment and control centers for sex offenders on the East Coast). Defendants are subject to lie detector tests to confirm they are no longer offending.

Defendant's computer use is monitored in real time by probation officers so they see whatever they are doing

Defendants cannot possess any type of pornography

Defendant's home and computers are subject to search at any time without a warrant.

Defendant cannot be in the presence of any minors without a responsible adult being present and defendant cannot work or volunteer for any position that involves regular contact with minors.

Action News reporters and producers had several follow-up questions, which were answered in the following e-mail correspondence:

QUESTION: How has the DA's office determined that Sex offender probation is "far more effective than placement on Megan's Law"

ANSWER: Working hand in hand with sex offender probation officers, we have found that supervision to be more effective. The only requirement for being on the Megan's Law registry is the offender must report to the State Police any new address and verify their address every 3 or 6 months, as well as the car they drive and other personal information. While it is useful that the public can go on the website to find registrants in their neighborhood, registration does not require sex offender treatment, polygraphs, restrictions on computer use and contact with minors. Citizens can go online to see if someone in their area is on Megan's law but there is no intervention and supervision of the actual offenders to ensure they do not reoffend. Frankly, the burden should be on the offender to comply with the law rather than requiring each citizen to check the website and then somehow protect themselves. Rather than counting on every citizen to each check the website and then protect themselves, we feel it is more productive to directly supervise and control the offender to prevent him from reoffending. A person can be on megan's law (sic) but still be hosting parties in their home for kids. If they are on sex offender probation and do that, they will go directly to prison. Again an offender on sex offender probation must do the following things and has a specially trained probation officer making sure they comply or else they go to prison:

  • Get a sex offender evaluation and risk assessment by the Joseph J. Peters Institute (JPPI)
  • Attend sex offender treatment at JPPI
  • Be subject to polygraph examinations to confirm they are not re-offending
  • Have all their computer activity monitored in real time by outside officials
  • Not have unsupervised contact with children under age 18 or work with children
  • Submit to regular drug testing
  • Not possess pornography of any type
  • Not travel outside of Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester or Delaware county without prior permission from their probation officers
  • Not stay overnight outside that area without the permission of their probation officer and the court
The sex offender officers work in coordination with experts from the Joseph J. Peters Institute to employ best practices to prevent recidivism by any sex offenders and to respond promptly to any violations.

QUESTION: Can't a person on this "stringent" Sex Offender Probation still be registered with Megan's Law?

ANSWER: Yes. However, defense attorneys will often take a case to trial rather than place their client on Megan's Law because of the public stigma and the fact that it may devastate their client's ability to find employment. Forgoing Megan's Law registration to obtain the certainty of a conviction produced by a plea along with sex offender probation is a consideration for us in appropriate cases.

QUESTION: One of the provisions of Megan's Law allows for the public to be notified about the whereabouts of sex offenders. This is most commonly done through internet access to a state's Megan's Law database. Is there any public notification taking place with these three defendants (Reif, Mahon and Wilson)?

ANSWER: No, those three defendants are not on Megan's Law which means citizens visiting the state ML website would not see them. Sex Offender probation officers may notify family members and others living with the defendant that they may not be around children and may require that the offender move out but there is no public listing of persons on sex offender probation.

To obtain the certainty of a conviction with a plea, where a trial could end up in suppression of evidence or an acquittal, our office may at times agree to forego ML registration in order to convince a defendant to take responsibility and be placed on sex offender probation which better protects the community. Of course, we could take every case to trial and offer no concessions for pleas but that would increase the chance that the offender would escape with no consequences. The DA's Family Violence & Sexual Assault Unit
(link added by Action News) is recognized nationally as one of the most aggressive units in the country in prosecuting sexual offenders, as evidenced by the Pentagon's recent visit to gain our advice in how to improve their prosecution of rape cases in the military. We have made a careful calculation in each of these cases that certainty of a conviction and intensive sex offender probation was worth forgoing ML registration.

Copyright © 2023 WPVI-TV. All Rights Reserved.