Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Megan Kanka was raped and murdered in July 1994, when she was 7 years old. Her killer lived across the street from her family. Unbeknownst to the Kankas, this neighbor had past convictions for sex offenses against two other little girls.
Following Megan’s death, her parents and others advocated for laws to ensure people would be notified when a sex offender moved into their community. This became known as Megan’s Law.
What Happened to Megan Kanka?
On July 29, 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka disappeared from her neighborhood in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. A search began after her parents found her abandoned bike on their front lawn. They were aided by several neighbors, including Jesse K. Timmendequas, 33, who lived across the street from the Kankas.
As people continued to look for Megan, someone alerted police about Joseph F. Cifelli, who lived with Timmendequas in a house owned by Cifelli’s mother. In 1976, Cifelli had been charged with carnal abuse and sodomy of a 5-year-old girl; he was convicted of three lesser offenses.
Police learned that Cifelli and Brian R. Jenin, another roommate who was a convicted sex offender, had alibis. Timmendequas, who had been convicted of two separate sexual attacks on young girls in New Jersey, did not.
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Investigators found cut-up strips of cloth in garbage bins that Timmendequas had handled, which Megan’s mother recognized as material from the shorts her daughter had been wearing. When interviewed by police, Timmendequas initially denied the crime, but eventually admitted that he’d killed Megan. He directed authorities to where he’d left her corpse in Mercer County Park. Megan’s body was found on July 30, 1994.
Over the course of multiple interviews, Timmendequas told detectives he’d invited Megan to his house to see a new puppy. Once inside, he’d slapped her before sexually assaulting her. He admitted he’d strangled Megan to keep her from telling her mother that he had “touched” her.
Timmendequas shared that he’d been watching Megan play while living across the street. As he did so, he said, “I would get sweaty palms and my heart would race.”
The Criminal in the Neighborhood
In October 1979, before murdering Kanka, Timmendequas assaulted a 5-year-old girl he’d asked to look for ducks with him. Following this attack, he agreed to plead guilty to attempted aggravated sexual assault. He was offered the chance of a suspended sentence—and no jail time—if he went to counseling. When he did not attend therapy, he ended up spending nine months in the Middlesex County Adult Correctional Center.
In June 1981, after being released, Timmendequas enticed a 7-year-old girl to walk in nearby woods with him by talking about firecrackers. He attacked and choked her, then left his victim when she turned blue. The girl was unconscious, but alive, when her mother found her.
Timmendequas pleaded guilty to attempted sexual contact and attempting to cause serious bodily injury. The maximum sentence for these charges was 10 years. The judge, who called Timmendequas a “compulsive, repetitive sexual offender” who “constitutes a danger to the public at large and to young children in particular,” imposed the full sentence.
Timmendequas was sent to the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, N.J., where sexual offenders were treated. While at Avenel, Timmendequas reportedly did not engage in therapy sessions. He did meet his two future roommates: Jenin and Cifelli. As was standard at the time, Timmendequas was released less than seven years into his sentence.
After Kanka’s death, learning of this predatory criminal history devastated her family and others. Kathryn Marsh, a prosecutor and specialist in child abuse and sexual assault cases, tells A&E True Crime, “The community was outraged that they had not been made aware of this information.”
The Creation of Megan’s Law
Though Megan’s parents, Richard and Maureen Kanka, had lived in Hamilton Township for 16 years, they had no idea that convicted sex offenders lived so close. They said if they’d known, they wouldn’t have let their daughter play outside without supervision.
Soon after Megan’s death, the Kankas and others began to press for a law to mandate community notification if a sex offender moved into a neighborhood. New Jersey’s version of Megan’s Law was signed by the governor at the end of October 1994, just months after Megan’s death.
The Kankas continued to advocate for other states to pass their own versions of Megan’s Law.
“We have said all along that no law is going to prevent every sexual assault on children,” Richard Kanka stated in 1995. “But if it saves one child, it will be worth it.” Maureen Kanka said in 1996: “I have no problems opening my heart and crying and being personal with strangers, as long as I can open somebody’s eyes.”
On May 17, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a federal version of Megan’s Law. Though states could set their own parameters for notification, the law required all states to have some registry available to the public so people could know when a sex offender moved nearby.
Laura Ahearn, an attorney and the executive director of the Crime Victims Center, tells A&E True Crime, “Megan’s Law gave an opportunity for people in the community to be [made] aware of those individuals, so that they could take necessary precautions to protect themselves and their children from those offenders.”
The Impact of Megan’s Law
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), in cases of child sexual abuse, 59 percent of perpetrators are acquaintances of the victim, while 34 percent are family members. Understanding who is present in a child’s life, including neighbors, is an important part of keeping children safe. “[Given] the majority of child sexual abuse cases are committed by someone the child knows—a family member, coach, neighbor, teacher, etc.—when we can limit the access of sexual predators to children, we can protect more children,” says Marsh.
Ahearn also believes Megan’s Law helped open people’s eyes to a widespread societal problem. “Megan’s Law and sexual registration started this process of people becoming aware of child sexual abuse by seeing sex offenders in the community.”
Megan’s killer is currently serving a life sentence. Athough he was originally sentenced to death, that changed when New Jersey eliminated the death penalty.
Expansions of Megan’s Law
Megan’s Law was preceded by the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act (1994), which called for registries of convicted sex offenders, but did not require community notification. Megan’s Law was followed by other laws to protect children, like the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. Title I of that act was the Sex Offender Registry Notification Act.
“The Sex Offender Registry Notification Act (SORNA) and the Adam Walsh Act supplemented and expanded Megan’s Law,” Marsh explains. “Further, these acts helped establish more uniformity across the states when it comes to registration requirements, such as the length of time someone should be on the registry and how often an individual needs to register.”
On February 8, 2016, the International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders was signed into law by President Barack Obama. Referred to as International Megan’s Law, it orders registered sex offenders to report international travel prior to departure. A notice of conviction of sex offenses against a child is now included in offenders’ passports.
Megan’s Law and other laws calling for sex offender registries and community notification have been challenged in court. Opponents have said the laws violate the civil liberties of sex offenders, pose challenges to rehabilitation and consist of a second punishment for the same crime. However, Megan’s Law and its successors remain in effect.