BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- On Friday night, a man claiming to be an FBI agent dropped in on three Level 3 sex offenders living together, supposedly to warn them of an Internet hit list targeting sex offenders.
The man was not an FBI agent, but he may have been enforcing a hit list of his own.
Two of the roommates were found dead of gunshot wounds early Saturday, and Bellingham police are investigating a crime authorities say may be one of the nation's most serious cases of vigilantism aimed at sex offenders.
The killings also highlight a potential problem about Washington's 1990 law requiring sex offenders to register their addresses so the public can keep track of them.
Police Chief Randall Carroll said it is too early to conclude that Hank Eisses, 49, and Victor Vasquez, 68, were killed because they were sex offenders. Police released a sketch of the suspect, who is at large.
But Carroll noted that their address and descriptions of their crimes were posted on the city's website. If someone used that information to target Eisses and Vasquez, it could have a broad impact, Carroll said.
''Certainly if sex offenders were targeted and attacked because of their offense, the Legislature could decide they could repeal our sex-offender notification law," Carroll said.
Eisses owned the house where the killings took place and had rented rooms for the past three years to Vasquez and James Russell, 42.
Russell was there the night the suspect showed up, but he soon left to go to work. When he returned about 3 a.m., he told police, he found his roommates dead. Based on their estimated time of death and the fact that Russell was at work, he is not a suspect, according to police. Autopsy results are expected later this week, Carroll said.
Vasquez was convicted in 1991 of molesting several relatives. According to court documents, his victims endured regular abuse, sexual and otherwise. He was under Department of Corrections supervision at the time of the killing.
Russell was convicted in 1994 of molesting a 3-year-old girl and released from state supervision about three weeks ago after serving 5 1/2 years in prison.
The public is understandably concerned about sex crimes, but Kit Bail, a Department of Corrections official, said the three men had been quiet and law abiding while they were living together. None of the three had violated supervision conditions, she said, and none had reoffended.
''In a sense, they are a success story," said Bail, the field supervisor for Whatcom County. ''These guys were doing fine. They were employed. They were living according to the conditions."
The killings, she said, should ''not be the basis on which we change the laws on registration, but if it is a vigilante act, it gives one pause. It gives me concern about other Level 3 sex offenders living responsibly, or even irresponsibly, in the community. Murder is not the response anywhere."
Eisses was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison in 1997 for raping a 13-year-old youth at his home in Sumas, Wash., near the Canadian border. He was released from state supervision about two years ago, Bail said.
He bought a blue house with a white picket fence in Bellingham's Columbia neighborhood -- about a half-mile from a middle school -- with the help of Theodore Kingma. In a brief interview, Kingma said he met Eisses at church. ''He confessed his sins, and he lived right with God and the neighbors," Kingma said. ''That's all I know."
It is unclear how Eisses met Russell and Vasquez. One of Russell's relatives said Russell's sex-offender status made it difficult to find a place to live until he moved in with Eisses.
According to police, Russell said a man wearing a blue jumpsuit and a hat with an FBI logo dropped by at about 9 Friday night to warn the trio of the alleged hit list.
There were no FBI agents in the neighborhood that day, prompting the bureau to open an investigation of impersonation, said Robbie Burroughs, spokeswoman for the FBI.
The case does not qualify for federal hate-crime prosecution, because the law does not appear to cover sex offenders, she said.
In response to a series of vicious sex crimes against children, Washington became the first state to require offenders to register their address upon release from prison. Level 3 offenders such as Eisses, Vasquez, and Russell, considered the most likely to commit a new crime, must register for life.
Since then, most states and the federal government have passed similar mandatory-notification laws.
A searchable, statewide database maintained by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs provides block-specific addresses for Level 2 and 3 offenders. Other municipalities, including Bellingham, go further by giving exact addresses.
That information has led some to take the law into their own hands. In 1993, Joseph Gallardo planned to move into his family's home in Lynnwood, Wash., after serving about three years for the statutory rape of a 10-year-old girl.
The home was burned after neighbors heard of Gallardo's plan. He then planned to move to New Mexico, but encountered fierce protests there. He returned to Lynnwood, where he still lives. He has not been convicted of another crime.
John La Fond, a lawyer who fought the notification law on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said posting sex offenders' addresses ''almost becomes a confession by the state that they cannot keep the society safe from harm, and invites society to take matters into its own hands."
In researching a 2005 book on notification laws, he found dozens of cases were sex offenders were assaulted or harassed. Eisses and Vasquez, he said, may be the first deaths.
Don Pierce, head of the police chiefs association, said the case will renew the debate on publishing sex offenders' addresses.
''I think there are risks, and this may prove to be an example of one of those risks," said Pierce. ''I also think the public and Legislature have said there's a risk to the general public if they don't know with specificity where a sex offender lives."