Cover Story: Sex offenders incognito
The Georgia sex offender registry was created to help keep people safe. But how can it do that if it's riddled with errors?
The wintry calm of an early December day is shattered as law enforcement officers from several local, state and federal agencies storm a house on Greenleaf Circle in southwest Atlanta to find a convicted child molester with an adolescent girl, along with what investigators would later determine to be pornographic "material and devices."
Police knew Jonathon Demone Broom had a lengthy criminal history that included aggravated assault, family violence and child molestation, and that Broom had just been released from prison in September. They also suspected that the 36-year-old convicted sex offender was in violation of the Georgia Sex Offender Registration law.
Broom was one of 78 people across Fulton and Clayton counties arrested last month in what police termed "sweeps" for failure to provide accurate information to the state sex offender registry. The "sweeps" were part of a joint task force operation conducted by more than 100 law enforcement agents in an attempt to apprehend sex offenders who walk the streets of Georgia incognito — despite the best efforts of a statewide registry created in 1996 to keep up with them.
Tracking sex offenders is an ongoing battle, one that rages both on the streets and in the courts. The purpose of the state's sex offender registry — which contains the names, ages, photos and addresses of tens of thousands of convicted felons — is to equip neighbors with the knowledge necessary to protect their children against potential sexual predators. (Whether such knowledge actually deters crime is the subject of speculation.)
Yet it's entirely likely — even after checking the Georgia Sex Offender Registry — that a concerned resident won't have an accurate idea of the threat on his or her street. And so, while there have been several legal battles about the constitutionality of such a list, a more immediate problem exists: If the list is riddled with errors, what good is it, anyway?
In my 18-year career as a private investigator, I sometimes uncover during the course of an investigation an alleged crime that's gone undetected by police. That's happened in divorce cases I've taken on, as well as teen runaway investigations where a family has hired me to locate their child. On several occasions, the cast of characters I encounter in these probes grow to include drug dealers, pimps, child molesters, sexual predators and convicted sex offenders in hiding.
I've pulled more than a few teenage runaways from the hovel of a known sex offender. In one case, two 16-year-old girls who ran away from their boarding school to "teach their parents a lesson" ended up in the basement of a predator in the North Georgia mountains. They had been there for two days when I discovered the location, got them out and dragged the perpetrator to the sheriff's office.
On another occasion, a post-divorce investigation over court-ordered child visitation led me to a man who operated a "child actor talent agency" out of a "virtual" office in Los Angeles. I discovered he was actually living in a middle-class family apartment complex — with children everywhere — just as the feds were closing in. They confiscated computers loaded with child porn, and my client's attempts to have the man's child-visitation rights revoked was easily granted by the court.
Cases like these made me question the effectiveness of the sex offender registry system.
In more than 100 separate cases I've personally investigated over the past 18 months, approximately one-third of the offenders — all convicted of sex-related crimes and subsequently ordered to register as sex offenders — weren't living where the Georgia Sex Offender Registry indicated they should be. What's more, names often were misspelled and information required by law was missing.
In many cases, I found that a simple check of databases routinely accessible only to law enforcement and licensed private investigators revealed new, current addresses for convicted sex offenders who were still listed under old addresses in the Georgia Sex Offender Registry. Sometimes, the registry addresses were six months to a year old and in completely different areas of Georgia. That meant an offender could have been at a new address long enough to set up utility services — even mail service — yet, still be listed in the state registry at an old address.
In some cases, I couldn't find the offender at all, whether through databases or a physical search.
During the same period, a state audit reached a similar but even more alarming conclusion: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was not adequately maintaining the registry. In many cases, offender information was out of date even as it was being entered — or was entered incorrectly by state employees.
"The problem is you're dealing with people who've been convicted, primarily, of felonies," says GBI public affairs officer John Bankhead, who points out that it's the local sheriff's departments' responsibility to upload correct information to the state registry. "You're depending on them for accurate information, and sometimes they don't cooperate."
For its part, the GBI only has two dedicated staff members to operate the statewide registry containing information on nearly 20,000 sex offenders, with an estimated 34,000 offenders expected in its database within the next decade.
But the fact remains that the inaccuracies I found weren't an anomaly. In fact, my findings might be conservative.
The arrests following the sweeps across Clayton and Fulton counties last month by the sex offender task force were the result of a compliance check of 105 offenders. Of those 105 violators, a whopping 78 weren't living were the registry said they were. That's more than double the ratio I found in my investigation, which adds up to staggering numbers.
Inaccuracy at the rate of only one-third could mean that more than 6,000 offenders may be unaccounted for statewide. But if those December raids where any indication, 74 percent — or 14,000 — of the statewide population of sex offenders could be operating incognito.
"I feel like it's very much a false sense of security," Sally Sheppard, executive director of the Southeastern Sexual Assault Center and Child Advocacy Center, says of the registry.
Advocacy groups such as Sheppard's stand behind the need for a sex offender registry but admit they can't trust its accuracy. She points to another obvious but sometimes overlooked shortfall of the list: "The majority of sex offenders are not on the registry," Sheppard says. "They've not even been arrested."
The GBI reported that nearly 1,600 sex crimes were committed statewide in 2010, most of them either by first offenders, who would not appear on the registry, or by family members or acquaintances, who are threats that the registry can't protect against.
Sheppard says she's seen these statistics play out. "I would say that 80 percent of those who abuse children are family members or very close people to the family, because those are the people that would likely be around the children."
In cases of sex crimes involving adult victims, the percentage of attacks where the perpetrators are known to the victims is even higher. And in those cases, the sex offender registry would not have been able to deliver a warning, either.
Laws requiring sex offenders to register with law enforcement have existed as far back as 1947 in California. But the idea of a sex offender registry really began to emerge as something of an emotional "call to arms" with the 1989 abduction of an 11-year-old boy in Minnesota, resulting in the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994.
The Wetterling Act requires every state to compile a list of those convicted of sex crimes and crimes against children and to provide the list to the public. The law was expanded to include a directive to the FBI to compile and maintain a national database of repeat sex offenders with the enactment of Megan's Law in 1996, named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a known child molester who lived on her street.
In Georgia, legislation was passed in 2006 to strengthen the then-10-year-old sex offender laws by making it illegal for offenders to live, work or volunteer in areas where children may gather, such as playgrounds, churches or schools. After a period of intense, heated debate and political infighting between the state Supreme Court and the Georgia legislature, the law was amended in May 2010 by the Georgia Assembly to ease some of the requirements placed on offenders. With last year's amendment, Georgia finally adopted a meaningful system for categorizing offenders based on the relative danger they pose to the public. The law now provides for offenders to be divided into risk assessment levels that separate, say, actual rapists from a teenager who may have accepted a statutory rape plea for having sex with his underage girlfriend.
In addition, homeless sex offenders do not have to be responsible for providing a permanent address to law enforcement. In fact, many sex offenders have actually taken to forming compounds in the wooded areas in and around Atlanta — often because they've been forced to leave their homes (including homes they own) and can't find another place to live that satisfies the strict distance requirements.
Sheppard says she can see where severely limiting the lives of sex offenders might infringe on civil liberties and, as a result, impede their attempts at recovery.
"Sometimes, I think the registry might actually keep an offender from rehabilitating," Sheppard says. "But we have to know where they are."
The problem of the list's accountability might have less to do with how it's maintained than how it's designed to work in the first place.
The entire process relies heavily on the honor system: expecting individuals who have been convicted of sex crimes to voluntarily register. Many simply don't. That's why, over that past several years, Georgia lawmakers passed legislation that includes more stringent requirements and lengthy prison terms for violators of the law.
In addition to their physical addresses, state law requires that sex offenders hand over their e-mail addresses, Internet passwords and screen names to local law enforcement each year or face prison time. In some cases, violation of this one law alone could mean a life sentence.
The statewide list of registered sexual offenders is taken from information provided by local county sheriffs' departments, which make a concerted effort to keep their information up-to-date and easily accessible to the general population.
Both the Cobb and DeKalb County Sheriff's Departments have a state-of-the-art database and software tracking system that not only maintains registry information, but will add a concerned citizen to its e-mail list and inform them anytime a sex offender moves to within one mile of their residence or place of business. Concerned parents can even sign up their school, gym, day care, park, or soccer or football field to receive notice if an offender moves into the area.
Cobb County Sheriff's Lt. Tom Hayes says the tracking system also alerts law enforcement when a registered sex offender is booked into jail and provides his department with reminders for keeping tabs on local offenders.
The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office uses a different tracking system. Simply entering an address will pull up a localized map that pinpoints each registered offender in the area, along with a link to their photo, address and case information.
Fulton County, on the other hand, has a system that's lacking, to say the least.
Searching for information on the Fulton County Sex Offender Registry site can be an exercise in futility. The site requires the name or address of the suspected offender rather than allowing the user to enter the location of a school, home or business and receive information about offenders in the area. In fact, the Fulton County Sex Offender Registry site sends the user directly to the GBI site to search the statewide system for Fulton offenders.
Yet despite the technological advances of some jurisdiction's tracking systems, there's often little that can be done to forewarn victims of sex offenders.
Take the case of 48-year-old Timothy Lyle Chappell. Even though a county tracking system monitored Chappell, it still couldn't prevent the convicted child molester from striking a second time.
Chappell was released from prison last May but was back in the Cobb County jail in June on a probation violation. After his August release, Chappell decided to move in November to DeKalb County, where he promptly registered with DeKalb County Sheriff's Office.
The following month, FBI agents arrested Chappell at the DeKalb County Probation Office on federal charges of sex trafficking involving a 15-year-old girl.
"The list shouldn't exist," says a convicted sex offender who calls himself "The Angry Offender," or TAO, "because it doesn't make sense."
Sex offenders who fail to register or who submit incorrect addresses are living as fugitives, aware of the very real possibility that they could be caught at any time and face severe prison sentences for evading the list. So, why do they choose to risk prison by remaining just beneath law enforcement's radar? Because they feel it's the only way to survive.
Looking over TAO's website, AngryOffender.com, one quickly encounters a convicted sex offender's predictable reaction to the sex offender registry — but also the understandable frustration with which the list is met. It's not a well-balanced site, but one wouldn't expect it to be.
TAO agreed to answer my questions regarding his or her opinions concerning the sex offender registry, but only on the grounds that his or her identity would not be revealed.
TAO is an offender who feels the concept of a sex offender registry is flawed in that it subjects a person convicted of a sex crime to requirements other convicts are spared. Basically, TAO takes issue with the fact that those convicted of sex crimes must continue to pay their debt to society even after completing prison sentences and probation.
TAO's major problem with the registry, unsurprisingly, is the severity of the punishment when an offender fails to register.
"Under the current system, you may get three months for a count of possession of child pornography, yet you can get 10-plus years for failure to register after that conviction," TAO says. "It's a clear case of the punishment not even fitting the crime."
In Georgia, the offender has 72 hours following conviction or a change of residence to notify the local sheriff of his or her address or face the decade-long prison term. That's the punishment for the first time an offender fails to register. The second offense can be punishable by life in prison. For that reason, many offenders have become transient, avoiding the "permanent address" status and, therefore, the requirement to provide an address to authorities.
TAO adds that the stigma of being on the list, including the inability to get a job or even find a place to move, causes many offenders to withhold accurate information and run the risk of getting caught.
"The law does not engage some unholy force field that pushes each offender directly into the sheriff's office and forces them to give their true information," TAO says. "Enforcement is a very heavily ignored."
It is obvious that several solutions are needed if the registry is to be a viable tool for concerned parents and a deterrent to sex offenders.
One solution is for state and county experts to study the various county systems and come up with a comprehensive system that the GBI can implement statewide.
Extending the technology employed by Cobb and DeKalb counties statewide carries a cost of about $400,000 per year. Unfortunately, the GBI has protested such a move, even though the state's premier law enforcement agency can't handle the load it already has.
The GBI has applied for federal funds to revamp the system, but federal budget cuts (atop state cutbacks) have left the agency staring at a blinking cursor. In the meantime, about 150 new sex offenders are added to the registry each month — with no good way to track them.
Randy Wyles is published author, executive editor of SpecialOpsAndNews.com and a senior investigator for Hunter Investigations LLC, located in Alpharetta. He has worked with local law enforcement as well as under contract to the U.S. Department of Justice.