Town's way with rapists is to hang 'em high: The good burghers of a rural Californian community are gunning for a notorious convict who will be released into their midst

NO VISITOR to Sheriff Bruce Mix's office is likely to leave without a clear grasp of the ruddy-faced lawman's views about what to do with rapists and murderers, but he has provided an aide-memoire just in case.

A large noose hangs behind his desk, a few feet from the mounted deer's head and the United States flag. 'Hang 'em, and hang 'em high,' he explains from beneath his Stetson, crunching a mouthful of sunflower seeds.

As the shiny star on his chest confirms, Mr Mix is the sheriff of Modoc County, a wild stretch of high desert and wooded mountains sweeping from north-eastern California into neighbouring Oregon and Nevada. He is also the coroner, director of emergency services, county fire co-ordinator and constable to the lower courts of Alturas (population: 3,000), a scruffy ranching town which serves as his headquarters.

In normal times, he and his eight deputies can expect to handle bar fights, petty thefts and other two-bit crimes common to rural communities in America's far West. If someone goes missing, Sheriff Mix mobilises his official posse of 80 hand-picked men to scour the cattle fields in pick-up trucks or on horseback. But these are not normal times.

One night after dark nearly three weeks ago, a car rattled up the dirt road which leads to the Devil's Garden Conservation Camp, a minimum-security prison on a wooded hillside three miles from the town. In the boot lay Melvin Carter, a 49-year-old engineer otherwise known as the 'College Terrace Rapist'. His guards hid him because they were frightened he would be attacked. Ever since, the 10,000 people who eke out a living on Sheriff Mix's turf have been brimming with bloodlust.

Twelve years ago Carter was sent to jail after spending a decade terrorising women at colleges in the San Francisco Bay area, 270 miles to the south-west. Every month or so, he would break into a woman's lodgings, cut the telephone and electricity lines, and rape her at knife-point.

He was convicted of 23 assorted charges but confessed to 100 rapes. The judge at his trial could have imprisoned him for 52 years but gave him 25, saying - to the amazement of

some - that at least he did not subject his victims to the gross physical and verbal abuse char acterising some sex attacks.

Now the serial rapist is due for release through remission. The state's Department of Corrections sent him to live in a bungalow in Devil's Garden - a camp for non-violent low- grade offenders who are used to fight forest fires - as a halfway house where he will begin his parole. He is guarded round the clock and can only travel within a few miles. He must also take regular lie-

detector tests and wear electronic monitoring devices.

The people of Alturas are furious. Mindful that Carter will eventually be a free man, its residents are terrified that he will move in for good. Campaigning is uncommon in such a remote community, where the loudest noise is the latest Clint Black song and the hottest issue is the prime ribs at Chuck's Grill.

But the town has organised rallies, candlelight vigils, lawsuits, and petitions.

Shops on the main street display mug-shots of Carter's face in a rifle's sights. 'Wanted - Dead Only', says one. In the laundromat, handwritten comments have been added: 'We all hate you]'; 'Let's kill him]]]'; 'No, let's castrate him]]]' A headstone saying, 'RIP - Rapist in Place', has appeared over a hole in the ground.

Applications for gun permits have gone up - and not because of the forthcoming squirrel shoot in the alfalfa fields, or the mountain lions that the Department of Fish and Game has been releasing in the area.

The last time the mood was like this was 83 years ago, when villagers in nearby Lookout grew so tired of being preyed on by thieves that they hanged five of them from a bridge. 'We bury our trash here,' said Jack Boyd, a hotel proprietor. He has two pistols and a rifle, in case Carter should seek out his wife.

Bravado? Probably. But such comments are echoed in Alturas, along with assurances that if the townspeople do not get Carter, the cowboys from the surrounding ranches - the toughest of Modoc County's rednecks, by all accounts - will. Sheriff Mix takes his citizens at their word. 'Carter would be at serious risk if he came into town, with or without his guards,' he said.

The sheriff, who is standing for re-election in June, has seized the moment to push state legislators to adopt tough laws against rapists. He believes some should face capital punishment after a second rape and all other second offenders should be imprisoned for life without parole. Such measures are a distinct possibility.

Despite evidence that violent crime has dropped slightly, Americans are in a panic about crime. A Los Angeles Times opinion poll indicated that the number of Californians who feel that it is the most important problem facing the Golden State almost tripled in the last year.

Politicians have responded predictably. California's Republican governor, Pete Wilson - who ordered Carter to be banished to the wilderness - is also up for re-election this year and lagging badly in the polls. Desperate to hold on to office, he is proposing increasingly draconian laws to appease the public's scalp-hunting mood. He is not alone: in Florida, state legislators are trying to introduce laws chemically to castrate rapists.

Mr Wilson has backed 'Three strikes, you're out' laws, echoing baseball ter minology, under which three- time felons may automatically receive a minimum of 25 years in jail without parole. Now he has another proposal: 'One strike, and you're out.'

Under this law, rapists would be jailed for life, with no parole for their first offence. It would be the toughest anti- rape legislation in the United States and polls indicate public support, even though experts and pressure groups - for instance, the National Organisation for Women - take the opposite view.

Opponents point out that juries will be reluctant to convict suspects, and that victims of 'acquaintance rape' will be deterred from reporting attacks if they think assailants could be jailed for life.

While the public and politicians fume, the College Terrace Rapist is following events from his house on the hillside. His lawyer has said he is 'extremely remorseful and very, very frightened of people's reactions and for his own safety'. Sheriff Mix dismisses this with a wave of his hand.

When he visited Carter, he claims the rapist refused to answer questions, looking about as sorry as a rattlesnake. 'Anyone who believes that these people reform their ways needs to be sent for rehabilitation themselves,' he said, grinning in front of his hangman's knot.

(Photographs omitted)

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