Studies commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department suggest that children are more likely to be sexually assaulted by family members, baby sitters or authority figures such as teachers or coaches than by strangers. One analysis found that in 60 percent of cases in which boys were the victims and in 80 percent involving girls, the child knew the assailant.
Missing offenders worry advocates for the victims of sex crimes. Monitoring, they say, deters offenders from putting themselves in places and situations where they might go after new victims.
“It is a problem when you don’t know where they’re living,” said Stacie Rumenap, president of Stop Child Predators, a Washington-based group that has advocated for a nationwide offender registry. “If we can’t monitor a sex offender, how do we know what they’re doing? Law enforcement has to know where the sex offender is to be able to do their jobs.”
A controversial registry
Georgia’s sex offender registry, known for its restrictive rules governing where offenders can live, work or even loiter, has been controversial since its creation in 1994. This fall, authorities forced a group of homeless sex offenders to leave a makeshift camp behind an office park in Marietta — one of the few places, the men said, they could live without breaking the law.
A challenge to the Georgia law is under way in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. Lawyers for a woman convicted for sex acts she performed as a minor contend that the state imposes unconstitutionally vague and arbitrary restrictions on sex offenders. The law forbids sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, parks and day care centers, as well as from working or volunteering in any “area where minors congregate.”
That, the woman contends, could be anywhere.
The registry contained 17,743 names at the end of November, including almost 3,400 who were incarcerated, according to the GBI. Just 17 percent of the registered offenders live in the counties surrounding Atlanta. But of the 441 absconded offenders statewide, 57 percent come from the Atlanta area.
The difficulty in keeping track of offenders shows that the registry has done little to protect potential victims, said Sara Totonchi, associate director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based legal advocacy organization that filed the federal lawsuit.
“The residency restrictions are an enormous law enforcement drain that don’t yield the sort of results you would expect,” Totonchi said. “We’re expending all of these law enforcement resources on something that’s not proven to make a difference.”
Under the law, anyone convicted of a criminal offense against a minor or of what is described as a “dangerous” sex crime is required to register each year with the sheriff of the county in which he or she lives. Failing to register, providing inaccurate information, or not staying in touch with authorities can result in a prison sentence of 10 to 30 years.
About 300 Georgia inmates are serving time for failing to register as sex offenders, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Enforcing the law primarily falls to sheriffs and to probation or parole officers. It is not always a priority for law enforcement authorities, said the GBI’s Bankhead.
“It’s kind of difficult to keep up with,” he said.
The self-registration requirement “speaks to the irony of the law,” Totonchi said. “It’s purportedly a law enforcement tool. But the impetus on complying with it is in the hands of the people on the registry.”
Attempting to comply landed one offender in prison.
Derrick Todd Dunn, 33, of Calhoun, was on the sex offender registry for a 1996 conviction for a statutory rape he committed as a teenager. In January, he went to the Gordon County sheriff to report he had moved to a new address. He had been evicted, he told deputies, and then spent six nights in a motel waiting for his new place to be ready.
The deputies arrested him on the spot for failing to register his temporary address at the motel. A judge then revoked Dunn’s probation on the statutory rape conviction and sent him to prison. He is scheduled for release in November 2012.
“He was between residences,” Dunn’s lawyer, Chris Paul, said. “That’s what’s really disturbing. He dutifully went to the sheriff’s’ office, and on the basis of his admission they arrested him. This is really discouraging for offenders trying to comply.”
Last month the Georgia Supreme Court rejected Dunn’s appeal.
Out of sight
Just as the registry’s creation did not erase the specter of sexual predators poised to attack new victims, the threat of incarceration has not stopped hundreds of offenders from simply dropping out of sight.
In some cases, they comply with the law for years before disappearing.
Michael Madison, for instance, was convicted of child molestation and cocaine possession in Cobb County in 2000. In 2004, after serving most of a five-year prison sentence, Madison registered with the Cobb County sheriff as a sex offender. Madison, now 54, provided an accurate address to authorities for almost three years — but hasn’t been heard from since the summer of 2007.
Charles Mickler, 62, went on the sex offender registry in January 2008, three months after he was convicted in Fulton County for sexual battery. Sixteen months later, authorities discovered Mickler’s address in Sandy Springs was no longer valid.
Others flee almost immediately. Frederick Zimmerman, 62, of Decatur, remained at a verified address less than one month after he was released from prison in July 2006 after serving two years for aggravated sodomy.
Beyond the absconders, dozens of sex offenders from the Atlanta area are listed as homeless or are registered at addresses that would be difficult to locate.
For example, a 47-year-old convicted of aggravated assault with intention to rape now reports his address as the space beneath the bridge where I-20 crosses Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in Atlanta.
Hundreds more offenders are registered at addresses that cater to transient populations, such as shelters for homeless people and drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities. In downtown Atlanta at the end of November, 67 sex offenders said they lived at the same shelter on Trinity Avenue. In DeKalb County, 21 offenders were registered at the same motel on Moreland Avenue.
The accuracy of the registry’s addresses most often comes into play when authorities canvass offenders following kidnappings or other serious, high-profile crimes.
For instance, police checked on about 450 offenders in North Georgia and in nearby North Carolina and Tennessee after a Blairsville woman, Kristi Cornwell, 38, disappeared while walking near her home on Aug. 11. South Georgia offenders were among the 150 interviewed in October after the body of a 7-year-old Florida girl was discovered in a Folkston landfill.
Neither canvass yielded clues or identified suspects.
“It’s something you do” in such cases, said Bankhead, the GBI spokesman. “You try to eliminate the obvious.”
These are among the more than 400 people listed as "absconded" on Georgia's sex offender registry, meaning law enforcement officials have no idea where to locate them.
Michael Jerome Madison
● Age: 54
● County: Cobb
● Conviction: Child molestation, 2000
● Residence last verified: March 12, 2007
Frederick Charles Zimmerman
● Age: 62
● County: DeKalb
● Conviction: Aggravated sodomy, 2004
● Residence last verified: Aug. 8, 2006
Charles Eugene Mickler
● Age: 62
● County: Fulton
● Conviction: Sexual battery, 2007
● Residence last verified: May 19, 2009
Source: Georgia Bureau of Investigation
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