Galen Baughman seemed like an ideal spokesman for sex offenders’ civil rights. Then he got arrested for texting a teenage boy.
By Leon Neyfakh
Galen Baughman had been out of prison for about three years when he came to Queens last spring to meet a friendly crowd of reporters, activists, and academics over lox and bagels. Baughman, then 31 years old, had been invited to tell the story of how he came to be incarcerated and labeled a sex offender. His goal for the day was to educate his audience about how the legal system mistreats people like him, and to convince any skeptics in attendance that he was not the dangerous monster that his criminal record might suggest.
Lenore Skenazy, the New York journalist who hosted the meet and greet, billed the event as a “sex offender brunch.” Skenazy had met Baughman while reporting out her parenting book, Free-Range Kids, about the virtues of letting children take risks and the perils of trying to protect them from every conceivable danger. In the course of her research, Skenazy came to believe that American sex offenders were being oppressed by the criminal justice system—that in the name of protecting children, lawmakers had turned hundreds of thousands of people into helpless pariahs while doing next to nothing to make kids safer.
Baughman, who grew up in the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia, and attended Indiana University to study opera, arrived at the brunch wearing a blue collared shirt and a bright, friendly smile.* As he told his story, he spoke with the deliberate diction of a former theater kid.
“When I was 19, I went to prison for what was supposed to be 6½ years for having a consensual relationship with a high-school–age kid,” he said. “He was 14½. He was someone I’d known for a while and was really close to.”
After he completed his prison sentence, Baughman said, the state of Virginia refused to let him out. Instead, he was kept behind bars for more than two additional years because prosecutors believed he might fit the profile of a sexually violent predator. That meant Baughman could be held against his will under what’s known as “civil commitment,” a form of long-term psychiatric treatment that in practice amounts to indefinite detention. (Civil commitment is legal at the federal level and in 20 states. According to the New York Times, roughly 5,000 people convicted of sex crimes are now being held under civil commitment laws around the country.)
Despite Virginia’s best efforts, Baughman won his freedom in 2012, at which point he was placed on probation and added to the state’s sex offender registry. Upon his release, he set about becoming an activist on behalf of the population he would later start calling “my people.” He co-founded a nonprofit called the Center for Sexual Justice, dedicated to changing “the cultural beliefs leading to unjust sex laws that effectively target sexual minorities.” He got a job as communications director for Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE, a criminal justice reform group. He started attending conferences, showing up at important court hearings, and networking with other people in the movement. …
About two months ago, Baughman’s work was abruptly interrupted when he found out that his probation officer suspected him of violating the terms of his release. There were allegations that Baughman had exchanged inappropriate text messages with a 16-year-old boy. On March 3, Baughman was ordered to hand over his cellphone and his laptop. A month later, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.
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The official violation report, compiled by Baughman’s probation officer at the Virginia Department of Corrections, accused him of carrying on a monthslong correspondence with a boy in Minnesota whom he’d met at a mutual friend’s funeral. In late 2015, the boy’s mother had found text messages on her son’s phone that disturbed her, saved some of them, and alerted the Virginia State Police. Later, in an email to Baughman’s probation officer, she stated that she considered him a threat and expressed concern that he was “contacting other underage boys” he had met at the funeral.
The violation report, which I obtained from someone who received it directly from Baughman, noted that the terms of Baughman’s probation forbade him from having verbal or written contact with anyone younger than 18. The report included pages upon pages of text messages between Baughman and the unnamed 16-year-old.
In one of the messages, Baughman invites the teenager to come visit him in D.C. In another, he advises him to use Kik or Snapchat for “conversations you don’t want to be seen” by police or parents. Elsewhere, Baughman flirts (“Are you the best looking boy you know?”), shares wisdom (“If you’re magnetic, you can draw people into you and hold them there—they buy into you, believe you, love you”), and boasts (“My work is helping people and winning ever-increasing support!”).
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