Serial peeper: Man who inspired 3x law arrested again
The name of James Gilbert Stearn may not be widely known, but his Charlottesville activities are the reason for a Virginia law that raised the penalty for a third Peeping Tom offense from misdemeanor to felony.
Stearn's lengthy history of peeping arrests and indecent exposure charges date back at least to 1998, when he was arrested for lurking in the woods behind a UVA dorm and videotaping coeds as they undressed, according to a 2002 Washington Times article on the legislation to stiffen the penalties for serial peepers.
Sources familiar with the case say he fell out of a tree while videotaping.
As a misdemeanor, a peeping conviction carries a maximum sentence of 12 months. A bill carried by Delegate Rob Bell in 2006 made the third strike a felony with a five-year maximum.
Stearn, 49, has already served two-and-a-half years in prison under the new law, and on July 26, he was arrested again at his Leonard Street residence in the Belmont neighborhood. The arrest stems from a July 7 incident in which he was allegedly peering into an occupied building.
"Officers responded to John Street to a report of a prowler," says Charlottesville Police Lieutenant Ronnie Roberts.
The area around the university appears to be a favorite of Stearn, who was arrested on University Way in 1999 for indecent exposure, according to the Cavalier Daily. While police were unable to provide the total number of times Stearn has been arrested for peeping, available court records indicate it's at least 12, with other arrests for indecent exposure and trespassing.
In 2002, prosecutor Ron Huber and Charlottesville detective Wendy Lewis asked Delegate Bell to carry the bill that makes the third peep a felony. While Huber, now with the U.S. Attorney's Office, declined to comment and Lewis did not respond to phone calls from the Hook, Bell spoke recently to a reporter.
"With someone like him, it's clear he's a repeat offender," says Bell, reiterating the need for jail. "There's no other way to make him stop."
"There are very few armed robbers over 30," says Bell. "Sexual offenders don't age out."
Bell's bill requires a felony peeper to register with the state's sex offender registry, but Stearn does not appear on that database. And while peeping seems rare and possibly harmless, many experts believe it can leads to more serious offenses, like rape.
"It's scary to the people looked at and to the neighbors," says Bell. Jailing the peepers, says Bell, "is the only thing left for them."
Jeffrey Fracher, a psychologist who specializes in sexual offenders, thinks the odds are low Stearn would escalate to hands-on activities.
"That said, it's still an enormous violation to be peeped on," says Fracher. "People are traumatized having someone look in their windows. It's not a victimless crime."
It is possible to treat voyeurs and exhibitionists who are motivated to change their behavior, according to Fracher. "Someone who is not motivated for treatment, who has refused or is uncooperative, all we can do is lock them up," he says.
Stearn was so well known by police that any time a peeping incident was reported, investigators would check to see whether he was incarcerated, says Fracher.
Stearn is being held without bail, and he's scheduled to appear in court August 25.
Updated August 1 with comments from Jeffrey Fracher.