By any measure, Mark Allen Vanderhoof, 53, was a dangerous predator.
He had a criminal history of abusing children that went back more than three decades when he murdered his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son, Dennis Young, in 2011 in Lookingglass. Vanderhoof was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
The boy’s mother, Briana Snow, sued the state for $1.6 million in Marion County last week, holding Oregon State Police and the Department of Corrections responsible for her son’s death.
Snow claims that if Vanderhoof had been listed on the state’s searchable sex offender website, she would have learned about Vanderhoof’s past from a friend and ended their relationship.
Instead, she and her son moved in with him.
According to one of Snow’s attorneys, the lawsuit raises questions about the thoroughness of Oregon’s predatory sex offender website. Meanwhile, representatives from two organizations that comment on sex offender laws warn against relying too much on official warnings.
“As a society we are not doing our job to protect our kids,” said Randy Ellison, a member of Oregon Abuse Advocates & Survivors in Service. “We all need to take a level of responsibility for that child’s death. The mother does, the state does. It is so much more than about the sex offender registry.”
Some 25,000 sex offenders are registered in Oregon, though only offenders defined as predatory, violent or likely to re-offend are listed on a searchable website maintained by state police.
Sheer numbers make keeping watch on truly dangerous offenders more difficult, said Ken Nolley, the president of Oregon Voices, which argues the state indiscriminately tracks low-risk sex offenders, taking attention away from high-risk offenders.
“All sex offenders are not the same. If we didn’t have to track 20,000 people, we would have more police time and could track (high-risk) people. The police have to struggle to track all these people,” Nolley said. “Do we want to demonize police for failing or ask, ‘What can we do to fix this?’”
Nothing in the lawsuit indicates that Snow checked the sex offender website herself. The lawsuit claims the friend, identified only as J.S., had misgivings about Vanderhoof and checked to see if he was on the sex offender website before the couple began living together in 2010. The friend said she didn’t find Vanderhoof listed, so she kept her concerns to herself.
One of Snow’s attorneys, Eugene lawyer Scott C. Lucas, said Snow trusted Vanderhoof and had no reason to suspect his history of assaulting and sexually abusing young children.
Lucas said Vanderhoof’s case raises concerns that other predatory sex offenders are being overlooked.
“If anyone belonged on the list it was him, and since he wasn’t, it brings up fears that others aren’t listed,” Lucas said.
Spokesmen for OSP and Department of Corrections, the two agencies named in the lawsuit, declined to comment.
According to records compiled for the lawsuit, Vanderhoof was convicted of child abuse in 1980 for physically assaulting his 4-month-old daughter in Nevada.
In 1985 in Douglas County, he was convicted of fourth-degree assault for beating his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter and at gunpoint forcing them both into a room, where they remained locked up for two days before escaping. The woman testified at Vanderhoof’s murder trial that he became enraged because the girl wouldn’t eat her peas.
Less than a year later, he was again convicted for beating a girlfriend’s 5-year-old son.
Vanderhoof in 1988 was convicted of raping a 4-year-old girl in Douglas County and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. He served 12 years and was released.
About a year after his release, Vanderhoof spent 10 days in jail for violating his parole when he offered candy to two boys, ages 3 and 5.
Vanderhoof in 2002 again violated his parole by having contact with a girlfriend’s underage son. His parole was revoked in January 2003, and he was sent back to prison for about three years.
While Vanderhoof was in prison, the Legislature required OSP to set up a publicly accessible Internet website with information about predatory sex offenders.
When Vanderhoof was released, he was categorized by the state as a predatory sex offender, according to the lawsuit.
A few months later, the mother of Vanderhoof’s 4-year-old rape victim contacted the state police’s sex offender registration unit and asked why Vanderhoof wasn’t listed on the new website, the lawsuit alleges.
A unit employee sent an email to Vanderhoof’s parole officer in Douglas County asking if he thought Vanderhoof should be added to it.
According to Snow’s attorneys, a Douglas County parole officer responded that he had already requested the state add Vanderhoof, but it hadn’t happened yet. He said he would work with someone to make it “a high priority for this to happen.”
Still, Vanderhoof’s name was not added to the website.
On Jan. 25, 2011, Vanderhoof was watching Dennis while Snow ran errands. He called the boy’s mother at about 8 p.m. and said Dennis had fallen 2 to 3 feet off the front porch of the home the couple shared.
After a short stay at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg, Dennis was transported to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, where he was placed on life-support. The boy died a few days later from head injuries.
Vanderhoof later confessed to investigators he lost his temper and pushed the toddler to the ground after the boy began playing roughly with his pit bull.
Snow said when she later learned of Vanderhoof’s past, she couldn’t believe he wasn’t listed on the sex offender website, according to a written statement.
• Reporter Jessica Prokop can be reached at 541-957-4209 and firstname.lastname@example.org.