Megan’s legacy


Sign, Wapello, Iowa. This was put up in reacti...

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A child’s death serves as a call to action

Thursday, February 26, 2004

By RUSS FLANAGAN
The Express-Times

By all accounts, Richard and Maureen Kanka’s living room in Hamilton Beach,
N.J., looks like any other in America.

The sofa and lamps are carefully arranged around the television, the color
scheme of the walls and carpets is warm and inviting.

Atop the entertainment center and television sit three pictures in adjoining
frames. On each side are high school graduation photos of Jessica, now 21, and
her brother, Jeremy, 18.

The one in the middle is instantly more recognizable, standing out like the
Mona Lisa among a collection of children’s drawings.

It is a first-grade school photo of Megan Kanka, the same one that was
flashed across TV screens and reprinted in publications all over the world
following her rape and murder at the hands of her neighbor on July 29, 1994.

That lasting image of an innocent 7-year-old girl with a candid smile and
pudgy cheeks has come to symbolize one family’s crusade to protect children from predators trolling and hiding in plain sight in America’s neighborhoods. It also is the face that helps steady support for Megan’s Law — the sweeping child
sexual offender notification legislation that bears her name.

Before Megan’s rape and murder, child sex offenders could leave prison and
quietly slip into the anonymity of any neighborhood without raising an eyebrow,
their checkered past remaining a well-guarded secret from unsuspecting
neighbors.

But all that changed about 6:30 p.m. July 29, 1994, when Megan picked up her
bicycle and went for a ride around her quiet neighborhood outside of Trenton.

As the second-grader pedaled less than a hundred feet from her front door,
she noticed her awkward, 33-year-old neighbor from across the street, Jesse
Timmendequas, cleaning his boat in the driveway.

Megan stopped by in hopes of seeing the boat, but Timmendequas, a paroled sex
offender who was sharing the home with two other convicted child molesters, had other plans.  (How could he have had other plans; how could he have known she was going to come out?)

He instead asked Megan if she wanted to come inside and see his puppy. He
would later tell police that he couldn’t escape his demons and that when he saw
Megan around the neighborhood, she made his palms sweat and his heart race.

Once inside, Timmendequas, who was twice convicted on child molestation
charges, closed the bedroom door, touched Megan and tried to kiss her. When
Megan tried to run away, Timmendequas put a belt around her neck — strangling her as he sexually assaulted her.

He then tied two plastic bags over her head, placed her body in a toy box and
drove his pickup truck to a nearby park. There, he molested the body one more
time and dumped Megan in a patch of high weeds.

Less than an hour later, Maureen Kanka, now 43, began to search her
neighborhood for Megan. She even questioned Timmendequas, who immediately pledged his help in finding Megan. He told Maureen Kanka he had last seen the bubbly blonde coming from a neighbor’s house.

When Richard Kanka, now 53, arrived home at 7:45 p.m., the concerned Kankas
picked up the phone and called police.

Within minutes, the neighborhood was awash in red and blue lights. Over the
next two days, Barbara Lee Drive was overrun with TV news vans and volunteers
from all over the state, some from as far away as Berks County, Pa., who formed
platoons in search of Megan.

A search’s tragic end

In the hours following Megan’s disappearance, the family held impromptu news
conferences on its front porch, anchored by a tearful Maureen who pleaded for
her daughter’s safe return.

While the Kankas were holding out hope that Megan was still alive, police
were instantly drawn to Timmendequas — the peculiar neighbor with the oversized eyeglasses and pie-shaped face — after learning that he and his roommates were convicted sex offenders.

Timmendequas’ two roommates were quickly dismissed as suspects when they
produced a receipt from an ATM that showed they withdrew money at 6:34 p.m.

All eyes were now on Jesse.

He had no alibi.

Still, Timmendequas played along and agreed to answer questions at police
headquarters.

By the next day, he had confessed to investigators and led police to the
body.

Timmendequas “looked up and said to a hushed room, ‘She’s in the park,’ ”
former Deputy First Assistant Mercer County Prosecutor Kathryn Flicker said at
his trial, describing the end of the interrogation. With a final glimmer of
hope, investigators then asked if Megan might still be alive.

“No, she’s dead. I put a plastic bag over her head,” Timmendequas allegedly
told police.

Police faced the daunting task of breaking the news to the Kankas, who just
weeks before had been vacationing as a family in Seaside Heights along the
Jersey Shore. The year before, they had taken out a loan and were remodeling the house so that each child could have his or her own bedroom.

Megan had even gone so far as to pick out the color schemes from a catalogue.

Now she was gone.

In an instant, the Kankas, the family who had, 15 years earlier, moved into
its suburban neighborhood for its safety, was living shattered lives.

For Maureen, her first feeling was shock, and, inevitably, sadness. But there
were no tears. There couldn’t be, she was too numb.

Then she became angry.

“All this, then you learn a neighbor killed her, and then you learn he’s a
pedophile and that there are two more pedophiles living with him,” Maureen Kanka said at her home. “You have three pedophiles living together — my God, on a street full of kids. It blows my mind. How can that be?”  (yet, I believe the Courier Post asked 50-60 neighbors to see if they knew if a sex offender lived there and, I believe over 95% did, while the remaining knew he had been a criminal, but were not sure of what crime he had committed.   How could the Kanka’s not know?  Just asking.) 

Within 48 hours of Megan’s murder, Maureen Kanka knew something had to be
done. The fact that she couldn’t protect her baby from a trio of pedophiles who
had somehow slipped into the neighborhood unnoticed was eating at her.

A little girl’s legacy

It didn’t take long for Maureen Kanka to figure out what needed to be done.
Fortunately for the Kankas, as soon as Megan’s story hit the news, thousands of
dollars in donations began pouring into their home. There was so much money
coming in that the Kankas weren’t sure what to do with it. That’s when a friend
told Maureen she should put it to good use.

And they did.

On Aug. 1, 1994, two days after their daughter was murdered, the Kankas
formed the Megan Nicole Kanka Foundation, with the mission to expose convicted child molesters living undetected among the masses. That mission would later become Megan’s Law.

“You can’t have any more need than a need for something like that. It never
should have happened,” Maureen Kanka said. “My daughter was across the street. That’s where she was killed, right across the street. I thought it was safe for my kids to play in the neighborhood and it wasn’t.

“The police department never knew three pedophiles were in the neighborhood.
There was nothing in the law to tell them. Now there is.”

Since then, Megan’s Law has withstood numerous court challenges and was
adopted in varying forms across the country and throughout the world. The Kankas have traveled to the White House on several occasions; their first trip was when President Bill Clinton signed Megan’s Law and again on April 30, 2003, when President George W. Bush signed the Federal Children Act. (And over the last almost 2 decades multiple researches from NJ to England have proven that Megan’s Law is ineffective, costly and has unintended consequences on the family members of F/RSO, like grandparents, mothers, fathers, spouses, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, and supporters.   There have been continual reports throughout the country of children being harassed at school, camps, and other places because one of their parents is on the PUBLIC REGISTRY.  Parents have lost employment and grandfathers have literally died from a broken heart, in my opinion)

Since her daughter’s death, Maureen Kanka has become a tireless fighter for
Megan’s Law, sometimes at a sacrifice to her personal life.

She also has become a child advocate, giving numerous speeches around the
country each year. She even spends a few hours a week giving advice to those who contact the foundation.  (yet, when I wrote to her over 2 years ago, I never heard back from her and my child was molested by a close family friend – which is the usual case.)

Whenever there has been a court challenge to Megan’s Law, the Kankas set
everything aside to be in the courtroom when the decision is delivered. The only decision they missed was the most recent in 2003 in Philadelphia because of a scheduling mix-up.

Maureen Kanka also accepts most interview requests and willingly invites most members of the media into her home.

The struggle within

In just three years, the Kankas went from anonymous citizens living out their
lives in a suburb, to dealing with the murder of their daughter and sister, to
fighting for Megan’s Law in the courts of law and public opinion.

For their hard work they received death threats, which the Kankas and police
believe were from sexual predators who wanted to scare the family into giving up
its fight for Megan’s Law.

Then there was the stress of trying to creating a normal life for Jessica and
Jeremy, whom Richard and Maureen watched with extremely close eyes. In the
months after Megan’s death, Richard slept with a baseball bat, fearing someone
would kidnap and murder one of their other children, either by chance or to make a headline.  (But Megan was not kidnapped?  I am confused)

“We were so afraid that we would have our police department do drive-bys,” she said.   (Yet Maureen accepts most interviews and WILLINGLY invites most members of the press into her home. hmmmmm? I am confused again)

All of this was wearing on Maureen, who at the end of each day was still a
doting stay-at-home mom, but one who was coping with the brutal murder of her 7-year-old daughter. (This is the most horrific thing to have to deal with and we all prayed for her and her family)

To help her survive, Maureen’s doctor prescribed anti-depressants. While the
medication helped numb the pain, it was never able to erase it, and Maureen now fears she will remain on the drugs indefinitely.

“I’ve tried to get off the anti-depressants and I just can’t do it,” she
said.

The family also has been to counseling to deal with Megan’s death and the
upheaval that followed.

The first sense of closure didn’t come from a therapist’s couch or a
prescription pill bottle. It came in December 1994 when the local Rotary Club
bought the Barbara Lee Drive home where Megan was murdered and had it torn down. Before the home was razed, Maureen Kanka walked through the rooms to record a lasting mental image of where her youngest child lost her life. (That must have taken so much courage, our hearts go out to her)

A few days later, the house was gone. In its spot stands Megan’s Place, a
quiet park dedicated to Megan’s memory.

“To look over there and see that pretty park as opposed to that house has
really helped,” Maureen said. “That’s probably the biggest fear I had since she
died was whether I made the right decision to stay here.”

After thinking about it, the decision was easy.

“All my memories of her are here. This was our home — our safe haven,” she
said.

Unwanted fame

While nothing has been more traumatic than dealing with Megan’s murder, the
Kankas have also been overwhelmed by the celebrity that has followed.  (yet Maureen WILLINGLY invited the press into her home)

“It was very, very hard. I was a very private person,” Maureen Kanka said. “I
was home for 12 years, and a year bere Megan’s murder I went to work part
time. We were like everyone else out there. But to go from one extreme to being
in the limelight all the time was very difficult. It took a lot of adjusting.

“You don’t appreciate your privacy until you lose it.” (but they could have reclaimed their privacy, like many others who lose their loved ones in a horrific way.  It is horrible, but the choices we make after are choices, and the Kankas made a choice to stay in the public eye.  Even now, Richard is running for Senator in District 14.  Clearly that is not a person who is looking to reclaim their privacy, in my opinion. )

The Kankas desperately tried to keep Jessica and Jeremy out of the public eye
but weren’t always successful. On the day a jury of Hunterdon County residents
found Timmendequas guilty of Megan’s murder, a New Jersey newspaper was at
Jeremy’s school and quoted the 12-year-old’s reaction to the news.

“We tried to keep things as normal as possible for them but it was very hard
to do,” she said.

Living normal lives was difficult for Jessica and Jeremy, who often became
identified as Megan’s brother and sister, not as individuals. Luckily, they had
understanding friends.

“Their identity kind of got squashed, but they’ve had very good support with
friends over the years,” Maureen said.

After Megan’s Law went into effect and Timmendequas was sentenced to death in May 1997, the Kankas slowly shrank from the public eye and life began to take on that missing sense of normalcy.

The down time gave Maureen a chance to look for a deeper meaning behind
Megan’s murder. Maureen said her family was never deeply religious but she now believes that Megan was destined to die in order to save the lives of other
children.

“I will tell you with absolutely no hesitation that God’s hand guided us on
everything we did,” she said. “I’m not a holy roller at all, but I will tell you
that this was meant to be.”

This summer will mark the 10th anniversary of Megan’s death, but time hasn’t
made the adjustment to the loss easy.

“I don’t cry as much,” Maureen said. “She’s always here and she’s always on
my mind. What happened is always there.”

Another constant reminder of Megan’s murder is the foundation the family
started just days after Megan’s murder. Although it provided the financial spark
for Megan’s Law, it’s loathed by the Kankas.

To them it doesn’t represent hope but is a daily reminder that a convicted
child molester raped and killed their daughter. (there is nothing that says they have to keep the foundation up and running.  In fact, in my opinion the website is outdated in appearance and the information has not kept up with current research.) 

“A lot of people think that I like the foundation — I hate the foundation. I
hate everything it represents,” Maureen said. “I do it because there is the
necessity to do it. It’s not a love/hate relationship, it’s a distasteful/hate
relationship. I hate everything about it. There will be a time when I walk away
from it but that time is not now.”  (It has been my experience, right or wrong, that people stay with foundations that they say they would prefer not to be with because of the money and “celebrity” they get from it.  The foundation could run without the Kanka’s.  MADD runs without Candy Lightner! Just a thought, my experience and opinion)

When she does, perhaps it will be a sign that she has finally been freed of
the pain of losing her youngest daughter. Or that she has simply decided to move
on.

“All I ever thought about was raising my kids and thinking that one day they
would fall in love, get married and have grandchildren. That’s what it was all
about. Now I think there is nothing more horrible than losing a child,” she
said.

“I can’t think of anything worse than losing Megan. When I lost my mother (in
the summer of 2003), I grieved. But nothing like losing my daughter.”

  • Jesse Timmendequas, who is still on death row at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, declined to be interviewed for this report.
  • Prison officials said Timmendequas has never had a visitor and does not give interviews.
  • The foundation’s Web site can be accessed at megannicolekankafoundation.org/mission.

Reporter Russ Flanagan can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at
rflanagan@express-times.com.

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