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When child rapist Joseph Gallardo was released from prison, word reached his hometown before he did.

Warned by the sheriff that a bearded 35-year-old with "sadistic and deviant sexual fantasies" soon would be in their midst and might strike again, neighbors held a rally. A few hours later, Gallardo's house was burned down.He fled to his brother's in Deming, N.M., but was hounded from there, too, slipping out of town just before a protest march Sunday.

About half the states - Washington included - have laws requiring sex offenders to register with a local police agency upon their release, state prison chief Chase Riveland said. But only Washington expressly authorizes law enforcement agencies to notify the public, said Judith Schretter, counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.

The uproar in Gallardo's case has stirred debate over whether such measures give rise to vig-i-lantism.

"It's very volatile - sex, children, the bogeyman - and notification is like a match struck near the gasoline," said Gerard Sheehan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which opposes the notification law. "Our officials need to be concerned about fanning what I call `private justice.' "

Ex-convicts have been hounded in other states in recent years, including California, Minnesota and Virginia.

But in other states - some of which notify only the victim when the offender gets out - word gets out mostly by word of mouth or when law enforcement officials notify neighbors without express legal authorization.

In California, for example, residents kept Lawrence Singleton on the run from town to town after he was paroled. He was convicted of raping a teenager and hacking off her forearms with an ax. He is now believed living in Florida.

The measure allowing Washington law enforcement to notify the public when a sex offender gets out was part of a tough 1990 law that was spurred by the sexual mutilation of a 7-year-old boy and the sex-slayings of three youngsters.

Gallardo was freed July 12 after serving nearly three years for having oral sex with the 10-year-old daughter of a friend. Before he got out, Snohomish County sheriff's deputies released a flier with his picture.

Based on drawings and writings by Gallardo that had been found in his house, the sheriff's office described him as someone at high risk of committing another sex offense. It said he had sexual fantasies "which include torture, sexual assault, human sacrifice, bondage and the murder of young child-ren."

In an interview with The Seattle Times, Gallardo said, "Just because a person draws something, it doesn't mean that's what they want to do."

Neighbors in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood quickly organized a rally near Gallardo's house. Hours later, the house went up in flames before he could move in.

"I'm not saying any crime was right," neighbor Kevin McMahon said. But he added, "There's a lot of mothers going down the road with smiles on their faces."

Gallardo was on the run Monday, his brother, Pierre, told KING-TV in Seattle.

Although some legislators and citizens are calling for tougher laws against sexual predators, others are warning against a mob mentality taking away the basic rights of the offender, no matter how despicable the crime.

"We don't want vigilantes, that's for sure," prison chief Riveland said. "This man was convicted of one single sex offense, with someone he knew. The rest is fabricated from what he had written and drawn. Normally, we convict people on their behavior, not on what we think they might do."

Jim Townsend, deputy Snohomish County prosecutor, said the Lynnwood residents overreacted. And he and Riveland said such harassment may actually drive the ex-convict underground or out of state, where he won't be monitored.

Townsend said scores of convicted sex offenders are living in the county, about 70 close to where Gallardo planned to live. As of Tuesday, 7,083 sex offenders were registered with police agencies where they were living.

Notification of the community occurs in about 10 percent of cases, Riveland said. The decision is up to law enforcement authorities. In some cases, notification means a visit to the neighborhood school or handing out posters.

Riveland said notification "for the most part is handled in a responsible fashion" by both law enforcement and the community.

But the ACLU's Sheehan said that in some cases the offender is hounded.