Anywhere but Here
04/18/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
WHEN RESIDENTS OF ALTURAS, CALIF. (pop. 3,000), a little town on the fringes of Northern California's high desert, learned last month that Melvin "Mac" Carter had become one of their neighbors, the reception they planned wasn't a warm one. Scalding is more like it. For starters, they hanged Carter in effigy near the local courthouse. They also printed up placards showing his face in the crosshairs of a rifle sight, some with the ominous slogan He Won't Be Living Here Long. And just so no one missed the point, they began arming themselves to the teeth. "Most people here already own rifles and shotguns," says Heather Chace, co-owner of the Sports Hut, which sells firearms. "Now they're buying handguns."
The reason is that Carter, 49, is one of California's most notorious serial rapists—convicted in 1982 of 12 counts of rape as well as 11 other charges. Yet on March 17 he was paroled with time off for good behavior after serving just half of his 25-year sentence. Carter was initially slated to be released in the heavily populated city of Hay ward, outside San Francisco. But a storm of protest there forced Gov. Pete Wilson to overrule that decision by the state corrections department and promise to exile Carter to the "most remote location possible." As Wilson put it, "I want this guy sitting out in the wilderness."
Unfortunately one person's wilderness is another's backyard. Thus, when word got out that prison officials had spirited Carter into the Devil's Garden Conservation Camp near Alturas, a minimum-security facility where he would be allowed to live as a resident and move about freely, the citizens of Modoc County were outraged. "This," says Jerry Snavely, who has a daughter in high school, "is what we moved to get away from."
It's not hard to see why people in Alturas are so fearful of Carter. From the early 1960s until 1980, when he was apprehended, Carter was responsible for assaulting, fondling and raping some 100 young women in Northern California and Colorado. What made the crimes so terrifying—and difficult to solve—was their chilling efficiency. In many cases Carter would target a home where a woman appeared to be living alone, cut the power and telephone lines, then use burglar tools to break in and attack his victims as he held a curved linoleum knife to their throats. Known eventually as the College Terrace Rapist, after an area of Palo Alto, Calif., where he committed many of his attacks, he was caught only after police stopped him late one night for questioning, photographed him and later realized he resembled the suspect. Once in custody, Carter quickly admitted to his crimes. "He was something else," recalls police sergeant Frank Reynolds. "It was almost like he got of telling us about his rapes."
It turned out that Carter had a rather unusual résumé for a violent criminal. As a high school student in Longmont, Colo., he had won a National Merit Scholarship before going on to earn straight A's at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. It was in college that he began stalking women on the streets of Denver and Boulder. After subduing 12 victims with chloroform—and fondling but never actually raping them—he was finally caught and sentenced to a year in the county jail. Following his release, he moved to California in 1968 and took a job with Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Company 40 miles east of San Francisco. There he earned a reputation as a brilliant metallurgist.
But Carter soon resumed his attacks on women, now with far more brutality. "My acts were symbolic violence," he told police. "The real object of my anger and my hatred was my mother." (According to Carter, his mother, Frances, now 85, had been overly controlling throughout his childhood.) Carter's lawyer, Tom Nolan, insists that his client is a changed man. "He's not a threat," said Nolan in one interview. "He is very guilt-ridden and remorseful...and sensitive to community concern." But officials acknowledge that Carter may not be rehabilitated. "If they're sociopaths, there's not much you can do," says prison spokeswoman Christine May.
That is precisely what worries Alturas. Carter has been put under 24-hour guard at Devil's Garden and forced to wear an electronic ankle monitor. Though free to wander into town, he has agreed to stay at least 100 yards away from high schools and colleges.
In the meantime, the county has filed suit to have Carter relocated. But to Berkeley police inspector Larry Lindenau, who helped catch Carter in 1980, the apprehension that has gripped Modoc County is as misplaced as it is understandable. He points out that California paroles 250 sex offenders every month, and that many pose a far greater risk to society than Carter. "There are hundreds of people on the streets who don't have the notoriety of Mr. Carter but who are more of a danger because they're far less cooperative with parole," says Lindenau. "They're all around us."
LAIRD HARRISON in Alturas