Just as video engineer Fred R. Smith was settling into his new home in north Payson, copies of a scarlet letter were mailed to his neighbors, unjustly branding him a child molester.
Smith's neighbors on West Bridle Path Lane opened their mailboxes last month to find letters printed on bright red paper stamped "official notice of child molester" and claiming Smith had been accused of molesting his two young daughters.
The 44-year-old former Californian was never charged with such a crime.
"I was shocked," Smith's friend and next door neighbor Leroy Daughenbaugh said. "I couldn't believe it. We have him over for dinner. His kids play with my kids when they're in town. But I had no reason not to trust him. He never gave me a reason not to trust him."
The eight paragraph letter, which was attributed to a fictional organization -- the Western Region of the National Committee to Enforce Megan's Law -- alarmed more than a dozen other people in the neighborhood.
They called the police department and the school district to report Smith. The school district promptly moved a bus stop stationed in front of Smith's house to a new spot half a mile down the street.
"In these kinds of situations, we move to protect the children first and ask questions later," Payson School Superintendent Russ Kinzer said. "We don't have a policy that covers this specifically, but if we have a bus stop we don't feel comfortable with, for any reason, we move it when we can."
The accusations in the letter, however, were false.
"I found no factual basis for the flier," Payson Police Lt. Don Engler said after a two-week investigation prompted by Smith. "It seems to be a malicious situation where somebody was trying to defame his character."
Engler coordinated the investigation, which ended Wednesday, with police officers in Los Angeles, where Smith lived for nearly 15 years before moving to Payson in September.
Officers in Los Angeles conducted a statewide criminal background check on Smith and searched for molestation complaints that didn't escalate into criminal charges. They found nothing, Engler said.
The lieutenant also interviewed Smith's estranged wife Betsey, who lives in Colorado with the couple's two pre-teen daughters. She said Smith has never been accused of molesting their daughters or any other children, Engler said.
"I feel comfortable saying there is no basis for any of this," said Engler, who also is a member of the Payson School Board. "It's totally fictitious."
Smith said he thinks a former landlord is behind the mailing, which correctly lists Smith's address, phone number, age and physical description. When contacted by the Roundup, that landlord flatly denied any involvement in the matter.
"I've been tried, sentenced and lynched based on one man's word," Smith said. "In my opinion, this is an act of violence. You couldn't ask for a worse label in the whole world."
Smith's only recourse, however, is to sue for libel damages in civil court. Although the letter sullies Smith's name, it doesn't violate any criminal laws, Engler said. Libel and defamation of character are civil offenses.
Earlier this week, children in the neighborhood were staring and pointing at Smith's house, daring each other to walk up to the front door and ring the doorbell, Daughenbaugh, who has two pre-teen sons, said. "This whole thing just isn't right."
Smith said he plans to pursue a civil suit, but he's worried his money will run out before the case is settled in court.
"This didn't just affect me," Smith said. "This worried parents and other people. It was really an unfair thing to do to the community."
How the sex offender notification law works
For more than a year, law enforcement agencies have been required by Megan's Law to notify a community when a convicted sex offender, deemed to pose a danger to the public, plans to settle there.
During that time, two convicted sex offenders have moved to Payson, Police Lt. Don Engler said.
"The first moved out of the community before we could enact notification," he said. "The second offender moved in from Gisela and failed to register -- a probation violation. His probation was relinquished and he was arrested within 10 days of his move."
That arrest is listed in today's police report.
Megan's Law is a federal notification requirement named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl who was raped and killed in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender. The Kankas, who lived in Hamilton Township, N.J., were unaware the sex offender lived across the street from them.
Here's how Megan's Law works:
When a convicted sex offender plans to move, is released from prison or placed on probation, the state agency responsible for that individual must notify the police department in the community where the offender plans to reside.
The police department assesses the threat the offender poses to the public based on the individual's crimes, modus operandi and other factors, and assigns the offender a rating.
The most dangerous sex offenders are rated level-three offenders, while the least dangerous are classified level-one offenders.
When a level-three offender moves to a community, the police must notify schools, prospective employers, community groups and affected neighbors. The same level of notification can be provided for level-two offenders.
For level-one offenders, only the individual's prospective employers and roommates may be notified.
Normally, the police department notifies the community when dangerous sex offenders move to town, Engler said. Private organizations are rarely involved in the notification process.
The police department distributes fliers -- which include the offender's picture, name, address and criminal history -- door to door to notify residents in affected neighborhoods, the lieutenant said.
Anyone with questions or concerns about a sex offender in the area can call the Payson Police Department at 474-5177.
Public information regarding sex offenders who have not been the subject of a notification is limited to public court records.