Christopher Kilkus is an experienced fashion photographer who has shot for brands and publications like Bebe, BCBG, Forever21, Seventeen, and Cosmopolitan. He's also photographed minors for some of these jobs, which is a problem: Kilkus is a convicted and publicly registered sex offender.
This is how he tells it: From 2004 to 2006, Kilkus was on contract with a women's fashion retailer in Los Angeles, which entailed setting up a photo studio, complete with necessary computer equipment, on site in warehouses or offices. Sometimes he would leave the computers on location overnight and unaccompanied. When he sent one computer to be serviced in 2006, a techie discovered child pornography in the web browser cache and alerted police, who seized the computer and discovered more kiddie porn images. Kilkus claims that those images were not downloaded or viewed by him; rather, they must have come from someone who was using his computer when he left it on-site after-hours.
Kilkus hired an attorney to run background checks on the other people who could have used the computer, but no red flags came up. Since he owned the computer, he was charged with violating California Penal Code 311.11 (a): possession or control of child pornography. Kilkus had to choose whether to have a public trial — which would cost him thousands of dollars he couldn't afford and potentially ruin his career by smearing his name — or plead no contest. He chose the latter, which earned him a felony but allowed him to go on probation without jail time. "Even though I wanted to prove my innocence, I took the deal because it seemed to offer the best option to preserve my career as no one would even know it happened unless they did a criminal background check on me. I hoped I would have it cleared before anyone got wind of it," he explained via email.
At the time when Kilkus (right) pleaded no contest, his child porn possession offense didn't warrant a listing on the Megan's Law website, which is essentially a roster for tracking registered sex offenders. But then, two years ago, his girlfriend Googled his name and came across his photograph and information on the registry. If a conviction of possessing child porn didn't qualify Kilkus as a registered sex offender, how did he end up on the roster? The Department of Justice couldn't comment on Kilkus' case, but said the listing was likely care of SB 1187, a bill passed by the state in December 2008 which mandated that anyone convicted of felony child pornography charges after July 2005 will see their name, photograph, physical description, address, and criminal history on the California Megan's Law website. Kilkus, who was busted in 2006, was thus added to the list retroactively.
Kilkus, who still maintains his innocence, is currently working with a lawyer to have his charge demoted to a misdemeanor and his name removed from the public registry. "After all the research I've had to do about this I've just become a bit frustrated and bitter that the entire system is broken and unnecessarily destroying the lives of people like me," Kilkus wrote. "People like me are all mixed together with rapists and violent predators."
Who Can You Find — and Publicly "Out" — Online?
Megan's Law was created in response to the murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey, who was raped and killed by her neighbor in 1994. The law requires that information about registered sex offenders is made available to the public, but it's up to each state to determine exactly what type of information to make available and the specific rules that offenders must follow. In California, "Sex offender registrants whose sex crime was against a victim under age 16 are prohibited by law from working, as an employee or volunteer, with minors, if the registrant would be working with minors directly and in an unaccompanied setting on more than incidental or occasional basis or would have supervisory or disciplinary power over the child."
Companies are expressly forbidden by law to look up potential employees on Megan's Law; the information on the site is only supposed to be used "to protect a person at risk," which is a somewhat vague decree, essentially telling employers not to go looking for negative information. "Most people think that's crazy," said Lori Bowman, an employment lawyer based in Los Angeles. "Why are we protecting these sex offenders? It makes no sense. But the law isn't designed to punish; it's designed for community awareness." Most companies get around the rule by running background checks on new hires, but they rarely check out freelance workers like Kilkus — much to one mother's chagrin.
The woman, who contacted us but insisted on remaining anonymous because she claims to work in the industry, said she's "appalled" that Kilkus is allowed to work with minors, like her young son, who she alleges was recently photographed by Kilkus for a Lands' End "Kids" shoot in April. She said she habitually checks up on the photographers who work her with son, which is how she found Kilkus' photo on the California Megan's Law list. "I look into these things because I'm a mother," she said. "Did Lands' End alert the parents? Did Chris Kilkus alert his agent?"
Lands' End did not respond to requests for comment, but Kilkus' agent, Alyssa Pizer, said she had just found out about the issue last week, thanks to an email from the same mother. Kilkus, her client for three years and "one of the nicest guys she's ever met," told her he was falsely convicted, and she believes him. "It's rotten of the mom to do this," she said. "It's terrible that someone would go to that length. I don't understand why." The woman who allegedly booked Kilkus for the Lands' End gig, Reesa Mallen, said she couldn't comment on behalf of Lands' End but that she was unaware that she had ever booked a convicted sex offender for a children's photo shoot.
While we were unable to find any specific Lands' End images featuring minors photographed by Kilkus, he has worked extensively with children, as evidenced by the video at left, which is privately listed on YouTube as "HTG 81 Kids fashion film with Christopher Kilkus Photography," and credits on various websites (and as of this writing, these credits are starting to disappear from the internet; you can see a sampling here). Kilkus is clearly trying to hide that fact by failing to disclose on his professional website that he works with kids — in fact, he updated it this week to delete links to his various social media sites, representation and syndication information, and he removed the names of over two dozen brands and publications for which he's worked. Who can blame him? Who wants to hire a known sex offender?
Living With the Megan's Law Scarlet Letter
"As you can imagine, my life has been in a horrible upheaval for the last 6 or 7 years," Kilkus wrote to us. "I really thought things were getting better and I could plan for the future." Think again.
Critics of Megan's Law — like the ACLU, which has fought Megan's Laws in every state without much avail — say registries don't prevent sexual victimization; instead, the unrestricted public access "results in ostracism and diminishes the likelihood of reintegration into society." A 2008 federally funded study determined that Megan's Law "showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses." The registry's proponents argue that the offenders are safe from defamation since, again, people are prohibited by law "to use any information that is disclosed ... for a purpose relating to health insurance, insurance, loans, credit, employment, education, scholarships, fellowships, housing, accommodations, or benefits, privileges, or services provided by any business."
But what happens when, like the Lands' End mother, someone does exactly that — disclosing information, inadvertently or otherwise — in the name of "protecting a person at risk"? People like Kilkus, guilty or not, live with the stigma of being a Google-able sex offender. Legal protection is useless when all it takes is one person with an axe to grind to smear your name forever. There's not a lot of pity (and rightly so) for convicted offenders, but allowing a felon his freedom implies some sort of belief in rehabilitation. For all the good that Megan's Law does, does it also contradict — or at least impede — the process?
"I should have gone to trial, even if all I could afford was a public defender or something...I realize that now," Kilkus wrote, acknowledging that to fight the charges would have at least helped the perception of his innocence, whether he was ultimately convicted or not. "But at the time I thought I made the best and only decision. I thought I would be able to live what passed for a somewhat normal life. And up until now, I did."
Kilkus image via his website.