Jani Gutierrez loves taking her kids to the park.
On a recent spring morning, Gutierrez sat on a bench and watched her two small children play with other kids their age on the grass near the ocean in South San Luis Obispo County. She enjoys sitting on benches with other mothers most weekdays, talking about their children and their lives.
Gutierrez said she feels safe in the park.
“There are lots of people around, and it’s nice,” she explained.
She and other mothers were shocked when she was told by a New Times reporter that three sex offenders live within a few blocks of the area.
“That’s impossible,” said an alarmed Gutierrez. “It’s against the law for those people to live or come close to a park. I remember I voted for the law.”
Gutierrez was referring to the passage of Proposition 83 in 2006, a referendum designed to restrict sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of parks or schools, make offenders wear GPS monitoring devices to restrict their movement, and create harsher penalties for sex crimes. The proposition, named in honor of Jessica Lunsford, a young girl who was raped and murdered by a sex offender in 2005, passed with a 70 percent majority.
The mothers at the park thought the proposition and other laws like it would bring a measure of security to their lives—and the lives of their children. They had faith in the law and the systems purported to support it.
Their faith is misguided.
In nearly every way possible, laws enacted to protect and inform the community about sex offenders have amounted to far less than their sponsors said they would. The laws haven’t only failed to keep the public up to date about where sex offenders are, but have also given the public the impression offenders can’t live near schools and parks.
Anyone with a computer can go online, look at the California Attorney General’s sex offender website, and, in theory, see where many local sex offenders are living. The site was created after the passage of Megan’s Law in 2004, named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl raped and killed by a child molester who lived across the street from the family without their knowledge.
“I’ve checked out the website with all the pictures of the violators,” Gutierrez said. “They don’t live near me.”
Unfortunately for Gutierrez and anyone else hoping to get an accurate take on where local sex offenders are, only a portion of the state’s sex offenders are listed on the website. In fact, only a little more than half of sex offenders in San Luis Obispo County are listed by their address on the site, according to law enforcement sources. Many sex offenders are listed as transients—homeless offenders who say they don’t sleep at any specific address. Their whereabouts are never revealed to the public.
Location, location, location
By law, many sex offenders don’t get on the Megan’s Law website: Spousal rapists, certain sexual batterers, and those convicted of underage consensual sex or indecent exposure aren’t listed. Some kinds of incest offenders can also avoid appearing on the site.
Authorities use a test called a Static-99 worksheet to evaluate how dangerous a given sex offender is. Those who score highest on the worksheet—violent multiple offenders who prey on strangers—are deemed most dangerous and marked on the site as such.
But offenders catalogued on the site don’t necessarily live where they seem to live. For example, a computer analysis of state and independent databases found that more than a quarter of SLO County sex offenders in an extensive sample analyzed by New Times don’t live at the reported address. A few have died, but live on in the database. One sex offender hadn’t lived at his listed address since 1999, according to an independent database.
Child molesters live close to parks and schools in nearly every city in San Luis Obispo County. In Oceano, more than five sex offenders live within a few blocks of an elementary school. In San Luis Obispo, nearly every school and park has a convicted child molester living within a few blocks. Paso Robles has a child molester listed as living directly across from a park. Even tiny Santa Margarita has a sex offender living within a few blocks of a park and school.
Sex offenders can live close to parks and schools because Proposition 83 wasn’t retroactive; it only applies to parolees released after the law took effect on Nov. 6, 2006. Sex offenders convicted before this date can live anywhere they want. The law currently only applies to parolees—and, according to law enforcement officials, it carries no penalties for non-compliance. When sex-offenders come off parole, police will be powerless to keep them from living across the street from a park or school.
The law also specifies sex offenders have to list where they live, not where they spend their time. An offender could sleep a mile away from the park but the law would permit him to spend the whole day there, if he wanted.
A far more complete version of the sex offender tracking website does exist. It’s a highly accurate list of where convicted offenders live in the county—but it’s only available for use by law enforcement, parole, and probation officers, whose job is to keep track of sex offenders—or 290s, as they’re called in police speak.
The head of 290 tracking for San Luis Obispo County is Ron Waltman, a retired Los Angeles police officer hired by the county to keep close tabs on sex offenders.
According to Waltman, there are 439 sex offenders in the county, only 304 of which are disclosed to the public on the Attorney General’s website. Of those, the site only discloses the addresses of 242. The Sheriff’s Department monitors the 218 offenders living in the unincorporated areas of the county; the municipal departments handle the individual cities’ sex offenders.
Waltman sees the shortcomings of the systems first hand. Sheriff’s deputies once found a convicted child molester babysitting a neighbor’s child. The neighbor had looked at the sex offender website and thought the neighbor in question was clean.
“These things can happen,” Waltman said. “That’s why we do checks.”
Waltman said one of the myths about sex offenders is that they’re all listed on the sex offender site. Such listings were first available for public viewing on CD-roms in police stations from 1996 to 2004, when a million people came into stations to take advantage of the resource. Sex offenders were put on the Megan’s Law website on Dec. 15, 2004. The site received 70 million hits in its first eight weeks of operation.
Sheriff’s and police departments are in charge of tracking sex offenders, who are required to report to officers within five days of sentencing, moving, and their birthday for the rest of their lives after conviction.
Waltman said San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s and city police officials track 95 percent of the county’s sex offenders—a rate much higher than most counties: Santa Barbara is at 56 percent, Ventura County is at 82 percent, and the statewide average is 78 percent.
Nice try, but maybe not
It doesn’t help that sex offenders are allowed to list themselves as transients, which means they can live anywhere.
“We know roughly where they hang out, but the public doesn’t know where they are,” Waltman said.
The number of sex offenders declaring themselves transients has jumped since the passing of Jessica’s Law, said Gerry Blasingame, vice chair of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending and member of the California Sex Offender Management Board. The board was set up by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to oversee the state’s sex offender policy.
Sex offenders realized they could avoid residency restrictions under Jessica’s Law if they declared themselves transients. Instead of making sex offenders more accountable and easier for the public to track, the legislation provided a loophole that made them harder to find.
Blasingame said he believes many current sex offender laws are ineffective in protecting the public.
“Jessica’s Law oversold what could be done to protect the public,” Blasingame said.
Most sex crimes toward children are committed by people the victim knows, not strangers, Blasingame explained. He said many laws on the books today don’t protect people as much as make them feel like something is being done.
“Anything that scares the public or gives a false sense of security is a vote getter,” Blasingame said. “What we need is improved public safety.”
State Senator George Runner, the author of Jessica’s Law, said he’s mostly satisfied with how the law has turned out, especially the parts that increase sentences for sex offenders. He said he believes, in time, the residency restrictions will affect more and more offenders, and the law will become more effective.
“I would think if there is a city or county who doesn’t enforce Jessica’s Law provisions, [it] would be walking a dangerous line,” Runner said. “We purposely left the door open to [city and county] governments to develop their own residency restrictions.”
Both Paso Robles and Grover Beach have residency restrictions for sex offenders. Grover Beach requires sex offenders to live at least 1,000 feet away from places frequented by children. The dozen or so sex offenders who live in Grover Beach—only seven are listed on the publicly accessible website—resided there before the law was enacted, but Grover Beach Police Chief James Copsey said the law has been useful nonetheless.
“We’ve told sex offenders that want to move here that they can only live in certain areas,” Copsey said. “So the law has been helpful.”
And there are others who keep track of sex offenders.
“Do you have this Google Earth?” asked Brad Larose, a probation officer for San Luis Obispo County. “I love it.”
Larose sits in a cramped office in the probation complex behind the old county hospital in San Luis Obispo. One wall in his office is lined with charts, tables, and books filled with state laws and procedures. Behind him is an old fan connected to a plastic ball and chain.
He looks like a cop. He’s middle aged, though he appears younger. He has a kindly bearing, but a visitor sitting across the desk from him—in the chair typically reserved for probationers—can quickly sense he’s capable of efficiently dealing with any nasty situation confronting him. You wouldn’t want to get on his bad side.
Larose has worked with sex offenders for 12 1/2 years, and he loves his job—as far as one can in this line of work. He plays a cat-and-mouse game with more than 70 sex offenders, some of the most manipulative felons in the county.
Dealing with the hand you’re dealt
While police officers will charge an accused sex offender with a serious sex crime, the District Attorney’s office can accept a much lower plea to avoid a costly trial or because an offence isn’t provable in court. Judges have also been known to send sex offenders back on the street, even after they’ve committed another offence. With the prison system so overcrowded, judges are more reluctant to put offenders behind bars.
Larose has no control of who trickles down the justice system to him: “It’s not what they did, it’s what they get convicted of.”
Most of the high-level offenders are sent to jail, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to who winds up in Larose’s office. A drunken frat boy who engages in inappropriate grabbing might be sent to jail, while a grandfather who molests all his grandchildren may get probation.
Compared to most other types of criminals, sex offenders tend to be better educated and from higher income brackets, Larose said. They tend to be master manipulators, and Larose spends much of his time verifying that they’re behaving the way they should be behaving. He cultivates sources—sometimes in the perpetrator’s family—to keep tabs on individuals.
Most of Larose’s caseload is made up of “lower-level” sex offenders: possessors of child porn and those convicted of unlawful sex with a minor, sexual battery, annoying a child, or sex with an unconscious person. Most of these men—and they are overwhelmingly men, though he has a few women in his files—haven’t gone to prison for their crimes.
Larose looked sad when he talked about the types of criminals he has to deal with.
“These are heinous crimes,” he said. “I never forget that.”
He has heard thousands of excuses and lies from the offenders who sit across from him in his office. Some claim the victim showed interest by lifting a dress, even though the victim in question was a 4-year-old girl. Larose does everything in his power to keep sex offenders away from their potential prey.
“I use every tool I can to keep the public safe,” he said. “Making them go to therapy does actually cut down on recidivism rates. I check up on them, and we use polygraph tests.”
A negative polygraph test can’t send a sex offender to prison, but it can tell Larose that something is wrong.
“I deal in the gray areas in life,” he said.
Larose is one of few authorities in the county—other than parole officers—who makes the 2,000-foot-rule aspects of Jessica’s Law work for him. Offenders on probation have to obey all laws. Even though Jessica’s Law carries no penalty for violating it, Larose can use it because of the probation terms of his 290s: They have to comply with the law or they’re violating their probation terms. He uses Google Earth to see how close sex offenders are living to schools and parks. When a new probationer comes into the area, he can make him live away from where kids spend their time.
And he keeps careful track of sex offender legislation.
“The laws keep changing every year,” he explained. “The intent of the lawmaker and what the law says can be very different. Sometimes it all comes down to a single word or the meaning of the letter ‘A.’”
Larose realizes that even the most diligent parents can’t keep an eye on their children all the time. He once had a probationer who got a job giving golf lessons. Larose didn’t think much of it, thinking the offender would be showing elderly golfers how to improve their swing.
A few weeks later, his teenage daughter described going on a field trip. He wasn’t really paying attention until he heard his daughter say she had lessons at the golf course.
“It was him,” Larose said. “I thought I, of all people, would be someone who could keep his children away from those people. She probably wasn’t in any danger, but still I felt violated. It just shows you have to be careful.”
Contact Robert A. McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.