The two-year battle Sheila Vaculik has been fighting may finally be over.
The mother of Fulton County murder victim Sierah Joughin returned home from Columbus last week physically and emotionally exhausted but elated. Ohio Senate Bill 231, also known as Sierah’s Law, was passed with amended changes by the Senate on a final 24-3 vote last Thursday. It is now poised to receive Gov. John Kasich’s signature.
Sponsored by District 2 Senator Randy Gardner just months after Joughin’s death in 2016, the law allows for the creation of a database that geographically locates violent offenders living in Ohio. The law pertains only to those convicted of aggravated murder, murder, voluntary manslaughter, kidnapping, and abduction. The offenders must register annually with their local sheriff’s office for 10 years after their release from prison.
While the bill gives access to violent offender information only to law enforcement, it allows concerned citizens to request basic information from their local sheriff’s office. Attorneys for offenders with extenuating circumstances – such as a fear of reprisal once they’re freed – can petition to keep information blocked from the public.
To help prevent Sierah’s Law from ruining a second chance for offenders, their failure to register or keep a current address with a sheriff’s office will be a fifth-degree felony not punishable by prison.
“I never wanted this to be a hindrance to those starting over. I don’t want this to be a felony causing them to go back to jail,” Vaculik said.
She said the law won’t prevent freed violent offenders from pursuing their life goals. “They already have a criminal background, so Sierah’s Law has no bearing on them moving forward,” she said. “Anybody who applies for anything, they’re (already) going to run a background check and see if they’re a felon.”
What the law can do is expedite the process of locating and gathering information about violent offenders when a person goes missing, Vaculik said.
In the case of 20-year-old Joughin, a Metamora resident who disappeared July 19, 2016, while riding her bicycle, convicted killer James Worley was not questioned until two days later. Vaculik said if a violent offender database had been available he could have been interviewed sooner.
“Had that happened, could the outcome maybe have been different,” she said. “When you have that geographical point of view and rule them right off, you can widen your search.”
As to whether Sierah’s Law has glitches that could inadvertently affect targeted offenders, “Until we really start using it, I can’t answer that,” Vaculik said. “I’d like to say it is flawless, but being used is the only way we can critique it. On the whole, I feel that it’s an advantage, just one more tool that law enforcement can use.”
Gardner said Senate Bill 231 protects society without infringing on the rights of violent offenders.
“We have carefully written this law that actually strengthens the state’s rehabilitation, and their reentry into society,” he said. “Originally, opponents to the bill thought it went too far. Now they’re saying it’s more balanced.”
The process took two years because such legislation is not the trend in the United States, Gardner said. The last time a similar law was approved was in 2004. Presently, only five states have comparable databases.
“I’m thankful that legislators in the House and Senate joined Sierah’s family and community in recognizing the importance of Sierah’s Law,” the senator said. “I’m very hopeful and confident that Sierah’s Law will be signed into law this year.”
Fulton County Sheriff Roy Miller said he’s pleased the law is close to being enacted. “It’s another tool we can add to our tool belt to investigate crimes. At least we can have a database we can go to to check,” he said.
In light of Joughin’s tragic death, Miller advised county residents to be mindful of their surroundings. “Get to know your neighbors living in your area,” he said.
For Vaculik, the House’s unanimous vote was very emotional, and marks the end of a long, exhausting quest for justice. “There is definitely a sense of accomplishment and relief,” she said.
She has been told Kasich will likely sign the bill into law. If he doesn’t, she is prepared to restart the process, saying, “Just because we’ve worked so hard and come so far, I’d definitely do it again.”
With her time and energy freed up, Vaculik wants to get more involved with Keeping Our Girls Safe. Led by Joughin’s boyfriend, Josh Kolasinski, the organization offers self-defense classes for women 16 and over.
She’ll also lend a hand to Spirit of Sierah, an annual 5K benefit run. Through Justice for Sierah, a non-profit organization, all proceeds from the race will fund self-defense classes and photo/fingerprint identification cards for younger females.
Vaculik said all the positive efforts being made on her behalf would leave Sierah proud. “Anytime you can possibly influence a person in a positive way is something she would have done,” she said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.