'Motorcycle rapist' release causes stir in Saint John

News of a convicted serial rapist who terrorized Halifax in the late 1980s being released to a halfway house in Saint John on Wednesday has generated a wide range of reactions in the community.

John Arthur O'Brien, who raped 8 women in the Halifax area, will live at a halfway house

News of a convicted serial rapist who terrorized Halifax in the late 1980s being released to a halfway house in Saint John on Wednesday has some people worried 2:05

News of a convicted serial rapist who terrorized Halifax in the late 1980s being released to a halfway house in Saint John on Wednesday has some people worried.

But a psychologist with the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John says granting violent offenders parole after serving two-thirds of their sentence is safer than just releasing them at the end of their sentence.

"You’re increasing the opportunity for a better outcome by being able to monitor and structure the person’s release with adequate supervision and continuing treatment, as necessary, rather than just have them come out cold turkey and have no supports, no supervision," said Mary Ann Campbell.

A court rendering of the motorcycle rapist based on a victim's description. (Archives)

John Arthur O'Brien was convicted in 1989 for violent sexual assaults on eight women. He wore a motorcycle helmet during the series of knife-point attacks and was dubbed the motorcycle rapist.

Authorities have concerns O'Brien, who is in his early 50s, could reoffend.

His most recent psychological assessment concluded his risk of sexual recidivism is in the "high end of the moderate range" and his risk for general violence is in the "moderate range," according to the National Parole Board's decision.

But O'Brien has reached his statutory release date after serving two-thirds of his 37-year, nine-month sentence and can't be held any longer.

Campbell said a risk assessment in the "high end of the moderate range" usually means there is a 30 to 60 per cent likelihood of a person reoffending in the future in some way.

But it depends on several factors, such as whether the person is currently having any sexually deviant fantasies, inappropriate relationships or substance abuse. In addition, having a "more substantial history" of offences increases the risk.

Sex offenders generally have a lower risk of reoffending than other types of offenders, she said. However, the rate of reporting by sexual offence victims tends to be lower "so perhaps those estimates are underestimating the actual risk of reoffending," Campbell said.

Still, she dismissed the notion that it's nothing more than a guessing game.

"The instruments used to assess someone’s risk of reoffending are fairly reliable and do have a lot of predictability," said Campbell. "It’s just always difficult to apply it to an individual case."

Parole gives the Correctional Service of Canada more control over how an offender reintegrates, she stressed.

"You can make sure they're getting the right programming, you’re monitoring their relationships, where they’re living, what they’re up to, you’re structuring their time — and that gives you a much better opportunity to monitor their risk and to deal with any issues."

Community reaction mixed

Reaction on the streets of Saint John was mixed among the people approached by CBC News on Thursday.

"Well it doesn't please me, as I don't believe it would please any female living in the city," said Kathy Craig. " I don't understand why someone from Nova Scotia would have to come to New Brunswick," she said.

"Honestly, it's not something that really bothers me too much," said Vivienne Smith. "I don't really have much of an opinion on it. I didn't really share the opinions that my friends felt. I think they were a little, they were really upset about it."

Bobbi June Martin agrees." I'm not a fan of so-called witch hunts," she said. "Unless there's an offence, don't be offended. Like, yes, he's created an offence in the past, but he has been in jail.

"Yes, he might be considered high-risk, but if he's being watched close by the police, let them do their jobs."

Police have no say

The Saint John Police Force was opposed to O'Brien being placed in the city, said Deputy Police Chief Bruce Connell.

But it's up to the National Parole Board, he said. "The police force has no control as to where somebody would go when they're released from an institution to a halfway house."

Connell said he understands some people are concerned.

"I get that," he said. "You know, it’s scary. I mean, don’t forget police officers do have wives and daughters, so we all have family. We get that, right?

"But the process is that there’s a place for these folks to go … and Saint John just happens to be one of those locations."

Connell said police are also concerned whenever somebody who has higher risk factors than the average citizen ends up in Saint John.

"Having said that, the folks at Correctional Services, they’re trained professionals to manage folks," he said. "They put folks under conditions and they manage them based upon what they see is the risk of a particular inmate being released into their care."

The parole board has attached conditions to O'Brien's release, noting he has the "potential to be very dangerous," and has a "lack of respect toward females."

He will be under close supervision and monitoring and won't be allowed leave privileges.

He must also stay away from all forms of pornography, abstain from alcohol and drugs, report all relationships with women and stay away from his victims, their families and known criminals.