Sex offender's past shows how easy it is to slip through justice system

Tribune reporters

Jeffrey Jewitt's red Nissan Altima slid through the side streets of Chicago's Northwest Side until he spotted his quarry: 11-year-old Crystal Landa walking home alone from St. Constance elementary school.

The tree-lined street was empty. Her pink backpack bobbed behind her, and her nose was buried in a book.

Jewitt quietly nudged his sedan into an alley a block away, slipped the car back a few feet until it was hidden, and waited.

When Crystal reached the alley, his Nissan lurched forward to block her path.

"Come over here, I want to show you something," Jewitt said through the open passenger-side window, according to a police report.

The slender girl stared at the hulking 27-year-old. She could see he had his pants off and was fondling himself.

Crystal froze momentarily. When Jewitt unlocked the car doors, she bolted down the alley. Jewitt threw his car in reverse and barreled back after her.

"Help me! Someone is trying to get me!" Crystal recalls screaming. Spotting an open garage where an elderly couple were starting their car, she waved her arms at them.

Jewitt's car screeched to a halt, then sped away.

Crystal's brief but harrowing October 2008 encounter — captured by a neighbor's security surveillance camera and told through police reports and interviews with the young victim — was just one episode in Jewitt's troubled, years-long history of crimes targeting children.

Light punishment and lack of treatment allowed the repeat offender to stay on the streets as his behavior grew more aggressive and his criminal record escalated, from luring a 5-year-old day camper into a storage room to a six-month jail stint last year for the attempted abduction of Crystal and for the sexual exploitation of another child.

Jewitt's story is emblematic of the many child predators who fall through the cracks in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs, leaving victims' families feeling frustrated and unprotected. A Tribune investigation documented 530 police reports of attempted child abduction by a stranger since 2008, but only 30 prosecutions.

The Tribune is identifying those youths who, along with their families, wanted to tell their stories.

Crystal's father, factory quality assurance technician Ramiro Landa, said he was outraged to learn of Jewitt's rap sheet from reporters — and disappointed with the way authorities handled his daughter's case.

"He got out of jail after five or six months — that's not enough for a person who has a history of doing these things," Landa said. "He should be locked up."

Jewitt, now 29, told the Tribune that he is in treatment and hopes for a second chance in a life that began with dreams of being a hockey star or lawyer.

"What I did is horrible and wrong," he said from behind the screen door of his parents' northwest suburban home.

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Jewitt was asked whether his deviant behavior might have been stopped if a court had forced him to undergo intensive sex offender treatment after his first conviction, in 2003.

"Maybe if they would have come down a little bit harder on me the first time around —" he began, before pausing and saying: "That's woulda, coulda, shoulda, and there's no way to know."

A clean-cut kid

A rugged, square-jawed youth, Jewitt was a standout hockey defenseman at Maine West High School, known for protecting his teammates with hard checks.

At 21, the pre-law junior at Southern New Hampshire University took a summer job as a maintenance worker for the city of Des Plaines, where his father was a part-time Police Department custodian and his mother was a veteran secretary for various city departments.

While doing chores for the Park District, Jewitt was arrested on a hot day in July 2003 when he allegedly lured a 5-year-old day camper at Lake Opeka into a storage room by asking if she wanted to see "something cool."

Inside the room, Jewitt told the child to open her mouth and close her eyes, court records show. The frightened girl "observed him opening the zipper to his pants," screamed "No!" and ran outside, a police report said.

Jewitt later told police he was trying to get a watering hose so he could spray down the child. "This was supposed to (be) a gag and it has been totally blown out of proportion," he wrote in a police statement.

Illinois law makes it a felony to lure or attempt to lure a child under age 16 into a building or vehicle without the consent of the child's parent or guardian. But Jewitt was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

"They believed his story," the 5-year-old's father said in a Tribune interview.

Des Plaines police Chief James Prandini said his department charged Jewitt to the full extent of the law. Police weren't certain that the 5-year-old saw Jewitt's private parts, Prandini said, so the crime "didn't qualify to be handled as a sex case. ... We took it as far as we could given the evidence."

Outraged and suspecting his daughter was not Jewitt's only victim, the father posted an item about the incident in a neighborhood newsletter.

Another suburban father contacted him and described a similar experience involving his 4-year-old daughter, according to the father and court records. At a Glenview skating rink where Jewitt was working, he allegedly exposed himself to her.

Jewitt later recounted to a court-appointed psychologist that he was briefly interviewed by police but the Glenview family did not want charges filed.

As the summer camp case headed for trial, Jewitt pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and in September 2003 was sentenced to one year of court supervision and ordered to avoid contact with children. He was not required to register as a sex offender or be placed in the specialized adult probation sex-offender program, which imposes more restrictions and closer scrutiny on convicts than regular probation.

"I didn't think it was enough for what was wrong with him," the girl's mother told the Tribune. "He had convinced everybody he had seen that there was nothing sexual about this."

Among those Jewitt convinced was pediatric behavioral specialist Dr. Richard Saul, who concluded in an April 2004 court evaluation that the ice rink and day camp encounters were not sexually motivated.

"Neither incident involved anything of a sexual nature," Saul wrote in his report to the court. "In the second incident, it was poor judgment to ask this girl to watch while he got a hose out to spray her at the park district."

An aide to Saul told the Tribune that Saul could not comment.

Girls 'less risky'

Only four weeks after Saul's report, Jewitt was arrested again, this time after he lured and exposed himself to a 10-year-old Des Plaines girl who was riding her scooter on a quiet street bordering Lake Opeka.

Jewitt drove his car past the girl, circled back, then pulled up alongside her, police reports show. He drew the child toward him by asking if she had seen his dog. The girl got close enough to peer into the car. She screamed when she saw Jewitt holding his genitals and fled, a police report said.

Police quickly picked up Jewitt. As the girl identified him, she "became visibly shaken, and began to cry," one police report said.

Jewitt initially "was evasive" but then confessed, telling police he exposed himself because "I enjoy random public display and not because I have any fascination with little girls."

He said: "I feel that by showing a younger girl my sexual organ rather than an older girl it's less risky of getting caught."

Jewitt told police he decided to tell the truth to the detective investigating the case after talking to his father and realizing he needed help.

But when that detective questioned him about two similar episodes that had occurred a month earlier near a Des Plaines elementary school, Jewitt said "he would not want to be implicated in another incident but reassured me that he would have never tried to harm any of those kids," the detective's report said.

Asked whether he might have exposed himself to kids more than 20 times, Jewitt "stated that he would rather not comment ... but did say that he did not believe it was more than 20 times."

Jewitt was sentenced to 12 months' court supervision for misdemeanor public indecency in August 2004. He was again ordered to avoid contact with children; again, he was not required to register as a sex offender.

Over the next three years, Jewitt would undergo periodic court evaluations in which counselors tried to foster empathy for his victims and force him to be honest about his powerful and deviant compulsions — all standard strategies for treating sex offenders.

Jewitt attended group therapy sessions and briefly took a medication that "reduced his urges," but he soon discontinued the drug, according to court records. His probation would be extended into 2007 as therapists questioned his honesty and Jewitt acknowledged that he continued to follow young girls and arouse himself to fantasies about children, court records state.

A 2006 progress report described him as "an intelligent man" who "has admitted to continuing to engage in high-risk sexually deviant behaviors, and remains a risk to the community."

Forced to undergo a court polygraph, Jewitt was asked whether he masturbated in public places. He initially said no, then admitted doing so in his car, a 2007 court report stated. Asked if he had downloaded child pornography, Jewitt refused to answer.

Still, Jewitt's court supervision was terminated satisfactorily in June of that year.

Sixteen months after that, about 3:15 on a crisp and cloudless October afternoon, Jewitt's car was caught on a household security camera as he targeted Crystal Landa in her Jefferson Park neighborhood.

Afraid to go out

Chicago police arrived quickly at Crystal's house, but Jewitt had vanished. All police had was Crystal's description of her attacker and a video from a neighbor's security camera that captured the 2006 Altima with its unusual after-market "rain gutters" above the windows, but no clear image of the plates.

A month later, on Nov. 17, Jewitt struck again on the Northwest Side. He used his car to follow then suddenly block the path of a 12-year-old girl as she walked home from school.

"Do you want to come with me?" Jewitt asked the child twice, according to court records and an interview with the girl's father, Christos Koungoulos.

The 12-year-old saw Jewitt shaking as if masturbating and scrambled away, according to a police report. She called her father on her cell phone as she fled, screaming: "Baba! Baba! Somebody takes me!"

"I thought my heart would stop," Koungoulos told the Tribune. A maintenance worker and Greek immigrant, he shook and sobbed as he recalled running out to retrieve his daughter.

But again, Jewitt had vanished.

On Jan. 5, 2009, off-duty Chicago Detective Ralph Benavides spotted a car resembling the one on the surveillance video driving back and forth outside a North Side Catholic elementary school "in a suspicious manner" as students were being let out for the day, according to a police report.

Benavides called in the plate number, and police took Jewitt into custody.

As police questioned him about the two recent attempted abduction incidents, Jewitt "would either deny knowledge or remain silent," a Chicago police report said.

When Crystal and the second girl were brought in to view him in a lineup through one-way glass, they both "became visibly shaken and stated they were too afraid to continue" but managed to regain their composure, a police report said. Both identified Jewitt.

Jewitt was initially charged in both cases with attempted kidnapping — a more serious felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But in July 2009, he pleaded guilty to lesser offenses: child abduction in Crystal's case and sexual exploitation of the other girl.

Sentenced to six months in jail and 30 months' probation, he was finally required to register as a sex predator and undergo treatment in Cook County's intensive sex-offender probation program.

That court sentence didn't ease the anger and pain that still resonates among his young victims and their families.

Koungoulos said there were only two days that year when he allowed his daughter to walk home from school alone. "I let her by herself and look what happened," he said. "I was devastated."

Crystal Landa said she had recurring nightmares and for months struggled to muster the courage to leave her family's house. "I am always scared to walk home alone now, afraid to go out by myself," she said.

Her father, Ramiro Landa, said he taught Crystal to keep her cell phone in hand and walk in the center of the sidewalk, not near walls — and most of all, to share every anxiety she had with her parents.

"We spent a lot of time talking to her, trying to make her secure," Landa said. "Kids are going to live forever with that trauma."

Landa added that parents and communities need to band together to protect their youths against sexual predators, and demand more accountability from law enforcement. "Responsible parents need to stand up," he said. "We are the ones who have to say: Enough is enough. We don't want these people to ruin our kids' lives."

On a recent October day, Jewitt was back in court after authorities asserted he had violated his probation by skipping therapy sessions, failing to obey home-confinement rules and possessing pornography.

Jewitt told the Tribune he had missed counseling sessions because he was temporarily short of cash and could not afford to pay for them.

Standing in a suit and green tie on the steps of the Cook County Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue, Jewitt was polite and soft-spoken as he repeated that he was taking responsibility for his crimes.

He noted that there are thousands of sex offenders in Chicago, and asked: "Why are you picking on me?"

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