Man defends attacks on sex offenders
Crusader gets jail term
CONCORD, N.H. -- Lawrence Trant sees himself as a righteous crusader who put muscle behind his boiling outrage against pedophiles.
The state of New Hampshire sees Trant differently. He is serving a 10- to 30-year sentence in New Hampshire State Prison after pleading guilty to attempting to murder two convicted sex offenders whose names and addresses he found on an Internet registry posted by the state.
"I don't want people to steal the souls of little kids," Trant, 57, said in an interview in prison last week. "I'm doing 30 years for something I think is morally justified."
But prosecutor John Weld says Trant is one of the most cold-blooded criminals he has encountered. If Trant had not been arrested, Weld said, the native of Cambridge, Mass., probably would have killed someone convicted of a sex crime against children.
"He doesn't seem to have any conscience about violence to other people," Weld said. "These people have as much right to justice as anybody else."
The case has become more complicated than a simple question of right and wrong. The sordid histories of Trant's victims, his impassioned testimony on the witness stand, and his use of an Internet list to track down his targets have infused the case with controversy and conflicting senses of justice.
He is not considered the hero he thought he would become in April 2003, when he stabbed one man and lit fires at two buildings where at least seven convicted sex offenders lived. But he was able to persuade a Superior Court jury not to convict him of attempted murder in his trial on the stabbing charge, even after he took the witness stand and admitted he used a kitchen knife to assault Lawrence Sheridan, who had been convicted of sexually assaulting a child in 1999.
On trial in June for the stabbing, in a half-hour, uninterrupted speech from the witness stand, Trant looked directly at the jurors who, he believed, sympathized with him.
Trant recalled that he pointed a finger at the jury and said: "I wasn't about protecting anyone from my family. This was about protecting you!"
Three of the 12 Superior Court jurors refused to convict him of attempted murder. The judge declared a mistrial on that charge; the same panel of jurors eventually agreed that Trant had committed first-degree assault.
Prosecutors realized they would face a problem trying to convict Trant of attempted murder in the other cases: He had targeted a class of victims for whom a jury of his peers had no sympathy.
"Experienced prosecutors learn that verdicts are based almost as much on emotion as they are on fact," Weld said.
In a change of strategy, prosecutors offered Trant a plea bargain on the seven remaining charges of attempted murder. Trant, who said he was weary of the court process, agreed to plead guilty to two of the charges.
"I think I'm a good guy; I don't think I should receive this kind of punishment," Trant said Tuesday in his first interview since his arrest on the night he stabbed Sheridan. "I thought that people would accept it. But I was wrong."
In Trant's eyes, the penalties for sexually assaulting children are scandalously lenient, and the public is not adequately protected against pedophiles who return to the streets after prison.
"I hope I've done a service to the community," Trant said. "These guys are sexual terrorists."
While Trant's ability to avoid a murder conviction rankled prosecutors, rights advocates were concerned by another aspect of his case: his admission that he had downloaded the names and addresses of convicted sex offenders from a state Internet site.
Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said the list on the State Police site indelibly stigmatizes offenders and shatters the lives of their families.
Although 43 states post information on sex offenders on the Net, vigilante acts against them are rare, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
However, Trant's crimes were the kind of reaction that convicted sex offenders in Massachusetts feared when they asked the state's Supreme Judicial Court to ban a sex-offender registry the Commonwealth posted on the Internet. The Massachusetts high court swept aside those concerns and found that the information on the website could benefit the public. The Massachusetts site began operation Aug. 4.
Prosecutor Weld defended New Hampshire's decision two years ago to post the names and addresses of state residents convicted of crimes against children. The warnings the site provides children and their families, he said, far outweighs the potential for vigilante crimes.
Weld's stance is shared by state Representative William Knowles, a Dover Democrat who cosponsored the bill that established the Internet registry. Previously, New Hampshire residents needed to visit local police stations to discover where pedophiles live.
"Probably about 80 percent of people have access to a computer, so they can find this information a lot easier," Knowles said. "They can find out who these sex offenders are, alert their children, and keep them aware that they are in danger."
However, the registry has encountered some problems, including the posting of addresses where convicted offenders no longer live. Now, authorities are ordered to regularly check addresses, which convicted offenders are required to keep up to date.
The registry lists 93 names for Concord, including 10 people who live at a building on North Main Street. There, in April 2003, Trant lit newspapers outside the apartment door of one of the convicted sex offenders. Located directly across from the state Capitol, the building also houses the headquarters of the state Republican Party, as well as an adjacent shop for lingerie and sex toys.
Trant also lit a fire at a boarding house on nearby Spring Street, where six other convicted sex offenders lived. He said he was not trying to kill anyone, but to generate publicity about the tenants.
"If bin Laden moved into the house next door, wouldn't we tell people about that?" Trant asked.
Trant, who has spent 15 years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire prisons, said he was molested several times as a teenager by a youth worker at a Back Bay church. The memory was tucked away, Trant said, until news surfaced about the clergy sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. At the time, Trant was on parole after serving a sentence for receiving stolen goods.
"I just freaked out when I started reading all that," Trant said. "It tore my soul apart, and I guess I decided to do something about it."
Trant said he saw Sheridan walking to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in his neighborhood on April 25, 2003. Trant returned to his home, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat and kitchen knife, and confronted Sheridan after the meeting.
As a bystander looked on, Trant stabbed Sheridan in the back and then in the arm.
Trant denies he was trying to kill Sheridan. "If I wanted to murder the guy, I would have stabbed him in the heart," Trant said.
"I wanted to tell him . . . 'Stay out of my neighborhood,' " he said. "I started to say something, and then I just snapped."
Trant was arrested that night. Later police discovered in Trant's apartment a manifesto he had written, which appealed for the help of like-minded people "genuinely committed, willing to sacrifice ourselves if necessary, to bring about the results that can [ensure] that our children will be protected." Police also found a downloaded list of sex offenders with check marks next to the names of residents whose apartments had been hit recently by fire.
Trant was charged with eight attempted murders.
"I had this fantasy that I'd be getting lots of letters from people," Trant said. "Doesn't anybody realize why I did this? I could have lived the rest of my life, become an old man, and lived happily ever after. But here I am, in . . . prison.
When he wrote his manifesto, Trant said, he had hoped to set up a "Protect Our Children Foundation." "I wish I had found another way to do it," he said.
That's one sentiment that Trant and the prosecutor share.
"It's scary when you have someone who has no conscience about inflicting violence on other human beings," Weld said. "He wanted the limelight. He wanted the soapbox of the first trial."
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.