To Break the Cycle, Sex Offenders Need Mandatory L
> 9/21/2006 2:57:42 PM

A week ago, Matt Lauer, of Today Show  fame, interviewed Debra LaFave, the 24-year-old high school teacher who made headlines for sleeping with a student 9 years her junior, for NBC’s Dateline program. Interestingly, Dateline producers made the decision to run Mr. Lauer’s interview with one sex offender along side their on-going Dateline exclusive, “To Catch a Predator.” This choice underscored the immense gender bias within the prosecution, punishment and handling of sex offenders in this country. Beyond that however, this episode of Dateline, like many other media outlets and programs, highlights just how far we’ll go to exploit these disturbed mentally ill criminals for the purpose of entertainment.

To avoid any confusion on this controversial subject, I’d like to state my intention up front. I would never imply that those who commit sex offenses: rapists, pedophiles, molesters, abductors and statutory rapists, were not deserving of punishment. If the law has been broken, then this is a judicial matter and psychiatry should not be allowed to cause any mitigation of a criminal act. In my opinion, Psychiatry should stay out of the criminal court room. The problem for our society arises with the way that these individuals are treated once a conviction has been handed down.

Treatment, when and if it is used, is uneven in its application. Prisons are woefully incapable of dealing with the “insane but guilty” prisoner. Sexual offenders when they are incarcerated fear identification because of the potential for retaliation by other inmates. Prison officials are loathe to identify these individuals to treating mental health professionals for the same reason and concern over their potential liability if this identification should lead to such prisoner retaliation. Further complicating the problem is the spot light of media attention, whether on a local or national level, that leads to a “throw away the key” mentality. It is common that serious sex offenders receive no mental health treatment while incarcerated and when their sentence is completed undergo a psychological screening which occurs over 1-2 weeks and a decision is made as to whether a civil commitment for treatment is warranted. This all important decision for commitment comes at the end of years of incarceration that have provided no specific mental health treatment for the sex offense. Can you imagine being the mental health professional that assesses that a sex offender can be released and that individual commits another sex crime? That mental health professional will become an instant reviled media star. Offenders and suspected offenders are also punished not just once, by the state, but a second time, in the court of public opinion that is fueled by commercial publications and television. Each offense and offender is unique. Mr. Lauer’s interview with Ms. LaFave provides a perfect example of that fact.

There are many different indicators that we use to decide what is the best course of treatment and who is likely to be a recidivist, none are perfect science or perfectly predictive. Was this a first offense or a habitual crime? What was the nature of the violence involved? What is the age of the offender? The victim? Are any other existing mental or behavioral disorders present? These are just a few of the questions that we must consider when confronted with a new case. These, and others, will help determine to what extent an offender will respond to treatment. Punishment alone addresses what the offender did. It doesn’t look to the future of the offender as they eventually reenter society.

Despite the fact that treatment has been proven effective in cutting recidivism rates, shows like Dateline and Oprah as well as tabloids and publications like People magazine dehumanize these criminals in a way that reduces their lives to nothing. They present an image of sex offenders that leads the public to believe that they are beyond treatment and unworthy of it anyway. There is a need, certainly, to educate the public about potential dangers, but more often then not these shows cross the line, if not stomp all over it, all in the name of driving up ratings.

Last Wednesday’s Dateline provided a stark look at the contrast between two approaches to sex offenders. During Matt Lauer’s interview of Ms. LaFave, producers shared with viewers a complete, although at times sensationalistic, view of the convicted and registered sex offender. Meanwhile, in their segment “To Catch a Predator,” Dateline unleashes their attack dog, Chris Hansen. He confronts men fooled as part of a sting with cameras rolling, and bears his claws in “service” of a society at constant risk from these “monsters.” In looking at the transcripts of each of the segments (linked above in this paragraph), we can get a sense of not only the gender biases between men and women who commit sex offenses, but also the ruthless, dehumanizing tactics that are all too often employed in dealing with those who do offend. The media has turned the issue of sexual offences into a game of “Gotcha” with little emphasis on what treatment should be for sex offenders and what successful efforts can be made to combat the sex offenders behaviors.

In setting the scene for Mr. Lauer’s interview Dateline writers refer to Ms. LaFave as “a beautiful blonde 23-year-old” who “seduced a 14-year-old boy.” Mr. Lauer, with only his second or third question, asks why LaFave thinks she got so much attention, was it “because you’re pretty?” Later she is described as having a “pretty face and the hourglass figure.” Dateline minces no words in establishing Ms. LaFave’s sexuality and desirability. Another phrase, however, points to how this admitted sex offender will be treated differently from the parade of men featured in the same program.

“Behind the lurid details of the case, [LaFave] says there was a deeply troubled young woman with a lifetime of problems that finally led to a terrible crack-up—and a crime tailor made for the tabloids.”

The implications here are numerous, and the brevity of this quote betrays the depth to which it informs our engagement with sex offenders. Ms. LaFave, this statement would have us believe, committed a crime filled with “lurid details.” This isn’t uncommon. Whether we are prepared to admit it or not, it is these same lurid details that draw public interest into sex crimes. The lurid details are at the center of shows like Dateline or Oprah and her own “Child Predator Watch List,” but they also fuel shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Without a Trace or CSI. Each of these shows traffic in details, often lurid ones, the very corporeality of which hits viewers like a gut punch. We may be disgusted or repulsed, but we can’t look away.

But LaFave, and with her Mr. Lauer and Dateline, says that underneath these details was a “deeply troubled young woman with a lifetime of problems that finally led to a terrible crack-up.” After informing us of the lurid details we love so much (“accused of having sex with him at her apartment, in her car, in her classroom”), we are asked to consider, for the sake of this beautiful blonde, the fact that maybe her past held some desperate troubles that fueled her criminal behavior.

Indeed, Ms. LaFave did have a troubled history—a rape victim herself at age 13, she was “drinking heavily” at 15 and developed an eating disorder. LaFave got into some modeling, lower-end cars-with-women type stuff. But moved on, cleaning up her act in college. She would continue to battle mental illness though, taking medication for depression. It would be revealed after her arrest, that Ms. LaFave’s original diagnosis was incorrect, and instead of depressed she was bipolar.

Mr. Lauer and Dateline present these details, not to excuse Ms. LaFave’s criminal behavior. She herself states many times that she doesn’t want to pass the blame or have anyone confuse her behavior with what bipolar disorder can do, but she does state, and doctors supported her during trial, that BPD and her personal history contributed to her mindset.

In either case, Dateline’s presentation of Ms. LaFave, and Mr. Lauer’s interview of her, seems geared, if not to illicit sympathy, then at least to illicit understanding. She is shown as she is: a complex, troubled, convicted felon. She is allowed to speak, in her own voice, and present her perspective like a human being. They also note on several occasions that Ms. LaFave received zero out of a possible 30 years of jail time for her crime. She has been allowed to serve her sentence on house arrest and then on probation. She also has had the opportunity to enter intensive therapy that is helping her face her bipolar disorder but also deals with her crime, its motives and implications.

On the other end of the spectrum is Dateline’s seemingly monthly feature To Catch a Predator. Started nearly two years ago with a sting in the Long Island, NY area, To Catch a Predator has become a staple of Dateline’s schedule. The show grew out of a partnership with a group called Perverted Justice—a web based organization that aggressively hunts online sexual “predators.” Posing as 13 to 15-year-old boys and girls and hanging out in Internet chat rooms, Perverted Justice operatives engage in explicit sexual chat sessions with those they are targeting with the hope of setting up a meet.

These men (they have all been men to this point) show up at the agreed upon location. The house, they learn, has been rented by Dateline, who films the men upon arrival and confronts them about their behavior. For the sake of this post, we’ll put aside discussion of Perverted Justice’s methods and Dateline’s journalistic integrity, instead focusing on how these suspected felons are treated once the trap has been sprung.

Chris Hansen, the Dateline correspondent for To Catch a Predator, has made a niche for himself by utilizing a confrontational and shaming tone when he reveals himself to the largely unsuspecting men. In last Wednesday’s episode, he treated these men with a mixture of scorn and disdain bordering on derision. Like other news shows that deal with sexual offenders, Mr. Hansen uses details as a weapon as he easily makes his argument in the court of public opinion. In this case he need not even rely on witness testimony or memory, he has actual chat logs (all of which can be found on Perverted Justice’s website).

The compassion showed for Debra LaFave by the very same program has evaporated rather quickly. Here, Mr. Hansen uses his hidden cameras, his undercover Perverted Justice agents and his chat logs to publicly and impudently chastise these potential predators until they can take no more and flee into the waiting arms of police. Gone is any discussion of past experiences, past abuses or even mental illnesses that may have driven these men to these houses. The question, “Why?” is asked, but only ever as a rhetorical one. Mr. Hansen, and presumably the audience, already knows the answer: because these men are depraved monsters, below even basic human decency. We don’t dispute that these men broke the law and must answer for their actions.

While the irony of Dateline’s two-faced presentation on sex offenders exposes the different ways that these men and women are treated in modern media and society, on her program Oprah Winfrey takes the rhetoric to an even higher level. Using words like evil, sickness and darkness, Oprah portrays a world where our children are “being stolen, raped, tortured and killed by sexual predators who are walking right into your homes.” In Oprah’s world, stopping the sexual predation of children involves society taking to the streets to shout “enough!”

In these “good vs. evil” terms, arguing on the side of these people can be difficult. When we try to defend the very humanity of sex offenders, many will probably write us off as soft, overly sympathetic or even fostering an environment that breeds further sex offenders. That is how shows like Dateline and Oprah have conditioned us to think. Sensationalistic TV productions like these can and do boost ratings (and in Oprah’s case sell magazines). But they have eroded our sense of  compassion and understanding of human trauma and the cycle of abuse that this trauma can recapitulate. 

These men (again in Oprah’s case all convicted and suspected felons are male) have been accused or convicted of committing crimes. That point has never been put up for debate. Those who would say that the men captured by Dateline would have ONLY committed statutory rape, a law contingent solely on state sanctioned age-of-consent laws, have already lost the argument. These men have broken the laws of their state and those laws do not make distinctions.

The fact is that these potential criminals, especially in the case of Dateline and Perverted Justice, are still just that—potential. These men have been dehumanized by the likes of Chris Hansen and Oprah Winfrey. They have been painted in broad strokes as “evil” or “dark” monsters. While we saw Dateline treat one sex offender with compassion and respect, we need only wait ten minutes to get back down to good old fashioned hatred. Debra LaFave was injured; she was a broken person who did a bad thing. These other men were nothing more than names and faces put to a nebulous “bad guy” who’s constantly stalking our children and peeping through windows.

These men, as well as the many men whose chats have been posted at Perverted Justice’s website, have also been denied their due innocence. We like to talk in this country about “innocent until proven guilty.” But for those “exposed” using these types of aggressive tactics, this is not usually considered. The most recent To Catch a Predator boasted about exposing 129 men as potential predators. Meanwhile, Perverted Justice only lists 81 convictions—that’s a conversion rate of nearly 63%. It also means that some 48 men have been EXPOSED but were not convicted. This exposure is not a treatment. It’s not going to CURE any of these potential offenders. It may drive them further underground or teach them to be more careful; it won’t stop their compulsions to have sex with minors.

Law enforcement and society in general needs to take a second look at the entire area of sexual offenders and realize that we are dealing with mentally ill adults and teenagers who require a unified approach to their offences that incorporates compassion, understanding and expert treatments. We all live in glass houses and throwing stones at sex offenders only breeds more sex offenders. The cycle of abuse can only be stopped by a rational approach to “understanding” what psycho traumatic events lead to the development of sex offenders. Sex offenders are not born; they are created and nurtured by toxic and traumatic environments that need to be addressed through behavioral health treatment and sometimes incarceration with treatment. There are many myths that have been perpetrated by the media regarding sex offenders and they should be clarified to better understand this problem. The kangaroo courts run by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Matt Lauer and Chris Hansen serve to stigmatize and dehumanize groups of people who are in desperate need of mental help.


One of the most misuderstood aspects of the Middle Ages (circa 900 to 1300 AD) was the central place Pilgrimages had in the religious and indeed cultural heart of Europe... In a nut shell, people who were convinced of personal guilt sought conversion and cures via 6 month to multiple year long journeys OUT of their former circle of friends, OUT of the former circumstances and habits they once lived, and into a new group of friends, circumstances and conditions which would support their conversion.So central was the concept of Pilgrimage being the ideal way to convert and heal oneself, that entire regions and cities were established to aid in this international commerce and convention.Pilgrimage has now been replaced with modern therapy sessions, 12 step programs, group therapy, etc. but the key insight that to cure certain illnesses a person needs to exit his or her environment for months at a time remains key.
Posted by: John 9/22/2006 10:49:36 AM

I am a convicted sex offender and I want to try to help stop sexual abuse of children and if nobody listens to what I (or anybody else like me has to say) then it wont stop. We are not saying to entrust us with your children because we deserve teh shame and humiliation that we get, but when we try to tell people what needs to be done to stop child sexual abuse and nobody listens, then we are the first group of people who are targeted (ex. residency restrictions, etc.) when 95% of sexual offenders have turned thier lives around and made something of themselves.As I said, nobody wants you to trust us with your children, but listen to what we have to say if you truly want to protect your children. Child sexual abuse needs to be stopped, it's that simple, but it's not going to stop until the public panic over the word "sex offender" stops.
Posted by: Al Arment 12/29/2006 10:08:29 AM

The Special Commitment Center has rows of jagged razor wire, 190 surveillance cameras and metal doors that clang shut with an eerie finality. But state officials are quick to point out that it's not legally considered a prison.The center is run by the state Department of Social and Human Services -- not the state Department of Corrections. Its security personnel are considered rehabilitation counselors and don't carry guns. Residents wear street clothes, decorate their rooms like college dorms and -- for the most part -- amble at will between their rooms, common areas and even an outside courtyard.And, unlike prison, none of sex offenders at McNiel have a release date. They remain on the island indefinitely until they're deemed cured. And past history shows most will never be cured.Officials say the current center -- the latest of several locations -- is designed to augment treatment and to comply with U.S. Supreme Court rulings that the center is only legal if it's a legitimate treatment center.Created by the Legislature in 1989, the center was initially located inside state prisons but had too much of correctional institution feel -- a fact detractors were quick to point out.Accordingly, it is now housed in a former federal prison renovated in 2005 to resemble a community college campus, complete with units named Cedar, Redwood and Gingko and buildings washed in Northwest hues of salmon, ocher and hunter green."We try to provide a lot softer environment than a prison," said Kelly Cunningham, one of the center's operational managers, as men milled around the outside quad, checking their mail, smoking and gossiping. "And we're always struggling with respecting the fact that residents have more rights than inmates but also maintaining safety and security."The residents' status as patients rather than prisoners grants rights not afforded in prisons.The two halfway houses -- one on the island and the other in Seattle -- provide even more freedoms, including holding outside jobs and trips to the mall, albeit in the company of around-the-clock escorts and electronic monitoring. Five of the 18 men granted conditional release have been returned to the SCC for program violations -- one is awaiting a hearing -- but none have been known to reoffend.Residents must establish a history of good conduct in the center, participate in extensive therapy and undergo a battery of tests and evaluations before center officials recommend them for conditional release. They also must go back to court and convince a judge they're safe to be let out.Still, it's a constant uphill battle to gain public acceptance when any of the center's residents are released, Richards said."I think the perception is we should be running it like a prison even though it's not," he said. "So we provide treatment and an opportunity to leave in the face of the reality that society does not want these people to return."No cooperation, no releaseDespite the more open atmosphere officials try to instill at the center, critics such as Vancouver defense attorney James Mayhew maintain treatment behind locked doors is more prison than hospital. And he says keeping the residents here against their will illegally punishes them twice for the same crime."The law says civil commitment is indeterminate until they're rehabilitated, treated or whatever word you want to use," said Mayhew, who is defending Alsteen at his Cowlitz County commitment trial. "But it's basically a life sentence."Some residents agree."I'm here for something I might do, not for something I did, and I think that's completely wrong," said Anthony Rushton, a 33-year-old Spokane rapist who has been civilly committed since 1999. "This law was created out of spite."Rushton raped a child as a juvenile and then, at age 20, raped a 17-year-old girl and attempted to rape an 18-year-old woman in a two week period."If this is a treatment center then why has no one ever really graduated (to total freedom)?" asks gray-haired Richard Scott in a well-rehearsed spiel that officials say is delivered to any reporter who tours the facility. The child rapist has been at SCC for three and half years but refuses treatment, calling it a scam. "This is a prison."Superintendent Richards likens the center -- and it's so-called graduation rate -- to a cardiologist who handles the most life-threatening cases of heart failure."If the worst patients aren't talking to their doctor and not taking their medicine, how many do you think would be alive in 10 years?" he asks. "Here we work with the most pathological sex offenders, and many have lawyers telling them not to talk to us. ... We can treat them, but the motivation to participate in treatment is harder won."He also adds that some residents seem to prefer the safety of the center compared to the risks of reoffending or facing a vengeful public. The targeting and killing of two sex offenders in Bellingham last year rocked many residents, Richards said. (The men killed were not SCC residents)."After that, a lot of (residents) were saying 'Why should I go back out there?'" Richards said. "So we have to encourage a lot of them that this is not a retirement center."A land of pedophilesMany residents scorn treatment altogether -- either to protest the center or because they don't want to confront their own demons.Center officials say they can't force residents to attend individual or group therapy sessions. Overall, about 50 percent of residents attend treatment. The percentage jumps to 70 percent among those who have been formally committed.Those awaiting their commitment trials, like Alsteen and LaBaum, often refuse treatment because they fear the total disclosure required in the sessions will hurt their chances in court, said Richards.Sex offenders "qualify" for civil commitment based on a psychiatrist's finding that they're more than 50 percent likely to reoffend in a violent, predatory manner. They're transferred to McNeil Island at that point, but it's not until a jury rules that they do meet the standard that they're formally committed.Cowlitz County's four SCC residents were not available for interviews during a tour of the facility. Because of their mental health status and some ongoing legal claims, officials can't require any resident to consent to an interview.Sex offenders can be treated with behavior-modification therapies, Richards said, but those on McNeil Island have such severe problems that they're far more likely to reoffend. About 62 percent are pedophiles, according to center officials.Despite the odds against a complete cure, some residents praise the treatment even while chafing at once again being locked away from society.Rolando Aguilar was the second man sent to the center in 1990 and the first to be officially committed. He admits he'd like to be free and called the center a Nazi concentration camp in a 1993 interview. But Aguilar adds that if he hadn't been made to face his crimes and disorders he would have raped again."I could be in here all day feeling pity for myself ... but we also have to look at what we've done and the lives we have destroyed," the 46-year-old said of therapy at the center. He hopes to one day leave the facility, but only when he's sure he'll be safe back in society."I don't want to get out just to not be locked up," he said. "And I don't want to create any more victims."Big-dollar answer One day the state may no longer need McNeil Island though that day is still decades away.Public demands to get tough on repeat sex offenders led to the center's creation, and lawmakers also substantially lengthened sentences to keep sex offenders in prison longer. They also created a "two strikes" law for sex crimes in 1996 that carries a mandatory life sentence."The two strikes law may eventually reduce our population here," said Steve Williams, the DSHS spokesman for the center.That would be good news for the state's pocketbook, because the SCC, complete with intensive treatment, 24-hour escorts at its halfway houses and electronic monitoring, doesn't come cheap.It costs roughly $160,000 annually to house someone at the SCC. At the halfway houses the costs are between $250,000 and $500,000 per man each year. A prison inmate, by comparison, costs the Department of Corrections about $27,000 a year.The state will be paying those higher costs for years to come because the new sentencing laws aren't retroactive and each year brings a new batch of candidates.On average, prison officials recommend 26 soon-to-be released inmates annually for civil commitment. Roughly 15 of the recommended prisoners proceed to commitment trials while the remaining 11 are set free because they don't qualify. Of the cases that go to trial, almost all result in a permanent stay on McNeil Island."We rarely lose," Todd Bowers, assistant attorney general in the state's Sexually Violent Predators Unit, said this summer. "In 16 years we've lost five cases."That means statistically that Alsteen and LaBaum are likely to be committed and remain on McNeil Island. Likewise, it's likely Reimer and St. John also won't ever walk free."It will be hard for most (residents) to successfully work the programs," Richards said. "These are people with severe disorders."Rushton, though, would leave tomorrow if he could.He can't guarantee he'll never rape again, but he said therapy has helped him to control his anger problems and recognize his risk factors. Beyond that, he said a transition back into society should be the next step -- not an indefinite stay on the island."I can understand the fear," he said. "But we're also human."
Posted by: Kelly Martin 3/4/2007 2:59:41 AM

A registered sex offender is locked up again on McNeil Island and the counselor assigned to him is on paid administrative leave after police found the two together in a Lakewood home.Casper Ross is a registered sex offender, who lives in a special center at McNeil Island. He is allowed to leave for appointments and visits during the day, as long as he is with a counselor and his plan is approved in advance.The state must also alert local police departments when a convicted sex offender from McNeil Island will be in their jurisdiction. Lakewood Police randomly checks up on these sex offenders to make sure they are where they say they're going to be, when they're supposed to be there and with their counselor.An officer checked up on Ross Sunday afternoon. He knocked at the door of Ross' cousin's house where he was supposed to be, but nobody answered. A neighbor then told him to look around back. There, the officer found the state van the counselor uses to drive inmates. He again knocked - this time on the back door - but nobody came to the door.The officer started knocking on the kitchen window, when he saw the female counselor come to the back door. The officer's report states that she appeared disheveled and was fixing her shirt. The officer also said Ross came out a bedroom, adjusting the belt from around his waist."There were indications that something was not quite right, when the officer saw these two people," said Lt. Steve Mauer with Lakewood police.The officer said the relative was not home at the time, contrary to the plan Ross submitted for the visit.KOMO 4 News went to the cousin's house to ask why, but was turned away at the door.Casper Ross was convicted of rape with a deadly weapon in 1987. He spent 12 years in prison and now lives at the special commitment center on McNeil Island. He registered as a sex offender in Pierce County four years ago and, during the day, can leave the island with a counselor.But following Sunday's incident, he will no longer be allowed off the island and will be kept confined, state spokesman Steve Williams told KOMO 4 News. Williams also said the female counselor is on paid administrative leave and under investigation.Lakewood Police Chief Larry Saunders has written a letter to state officials, demanding answers. Saunders wants answers to the following questions:Why was the transport van parked out of sight behind the home and not visible for ease of review by our patrol checks?What was the approved purpose of this visit and if it was a home visit to relatives, why didn't the escort report immediately to supervisors when the relatives were not home and cancel the visit?Why was Mr. Ross allowed an exclusive relationship with an escort and is there a sexual or other inappropriate relationship between the two?
Posted by: Margot Walker 4/22/2007 6:41:20 AM

Hi, I'm a graduate student in clinical psychology with an interest in treatment of violent youth and sexual offenders.Dr. Hapworth makes an excellent point. Sex offenders need to be treated and taken out of situations where they can cause damage to minors and their (own) families. However, demonizing the sex offender as news and television programs tend to do can have an unintended serious negative consequence:Society forces the complete blame for acting upon compulsive sexual behavior on the offender. Let us not excuse illegal behavior, but if we want to prevent it, we cannot continue with a permissive attitude toward (or even actively endorsing) sexually provocative and lewd materials made available to children, teens, and adults at the levels of television, film, and internet.If you want a clean society, you have to start at its base: the system by which individuals recieve education and acculturation. Parents can only do so much to shield their children from society's sexualized message. Schools provide only a portion of our young people's learning. Increasingly, people turn to television and internet for their source of 'valid' information. Many people deny or are blissfully unaware of the criminally damaging sexual messages we are sending to your young. Indeed we have become so callous to it that images of a half-naked woman on a billboard are not viewed by many as sexual. This is their sole purpose! Sex sells!I use the phrase 'criminally damaging' to describe this sexual message, because it teaches individuals to treat sexual imagery and sexual hedonism as 'normal,' all without offering any (or very little) education in the way of responsible sexual behavior.Civil liberties such as free speech are limited in the United States Constitution as quickly as they cause personal harm to another person. Many could deny that our flagrant proliferation of sexual imagery in American society causes personal harm to anyone. Research supports this observation: As more sexually suggestive materials have become available to the public, rates of sexual offenses, irresponsible sexual behaviors (by adults and adolescents), and prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have increased. Coincidence?Studies show that exposure to pornography and R-rated movies is associated with an earlier initiation of sexual activity among teens, higher rates of pregnancy, and again STDs.If we, as American Society, want to curb the rising rate of sex offenders we must first counter the availability of sexually explicit material readily available to our children, youth, and even to adults.
Posted by: Joseph 11/7/2007 3:58:22 AM

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