Thousands of convicted sex offenders are evading state and federal authorities, congregating in regions thought to have lax enforcement, slipping back and forth to Mexico or disregarding laws on reporting their whereabouts.
As states and federal authorities stitch together a national system for overseeing America's 700,000 convicted sex offenders, they face a sobering challenge: Locating the estimated 100,000 sex offenders who aren't saying where they are.
State and local authorities, working with the U.S. Marshals Service, are conducting sex offender sweeps, checking old addresses and hunting down the absconds. Often times, officials say, the offenders are where they have been along -- they've just fallen behind on paperwork. But sometimes not.
"They could be up to no good, stalking another child. You never know," said Tom Henman, supervisory deputy U.S. marshal of the Child Predator Apprehension Team in the Arizona District. "Every arrest of a sex offender that we arrest is a good case for us."
Henman and other U.S. Marshals have been busy. Since landmark federal sexual predator legislation passed in 2006, the agency has been tasked with helping local and state law enforcement locate these convicted offenders, who are required by state and local laws to report their whereabouts.
The federal agency has supplemented state and local authorities nationwide by arresting 11,853 sex offenders through May 2010 for registration infractions, such as failing to register, or for moving without notifying authorities, according to data from the USMS Justice Detainee Information System. Frequently, these AWOL offenders had been convicted of crimes including rapes, child molestation or sodomy of a minor, the data show.
Scripps Howard News Service obtained the records under a Freedom of Information Act request, the first time they have been released to the media. The data shows:
-- The USMS is finding and arresting a larger number of off-the-grid sex offenders each year. In 2007, USMS agents arrested 2,221 on sex offender registration charges; this year they are on track to nab about 4,500.
-- States where the USMS has made the most AWOL sex offender arrests include Texas (1003), Ohio (851), California (776) and Florida (654).
-- Almost 1 out of 8 absconded sex offenders caught by the USMS had multiple warrants out for their arrest, some having dozens. David Martin and Dennis Hubbard, both arrested in West Virginia, were wanted on 35 warrants each.
The USMS work comes as the United States is approaching a population of one million sex offenders. America has added 100,000 registered sex offenders in the last three years according to records from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Kristen Anderson, director of the case analysis division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says that traditionally, one of law enforcement's challenges has been oversight of sex offenders who move to different states.
"We have more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States," said Anderson. When someone crosses over (to another jurisdiction), what are the communications between those agencies? That's one of the things I've really seen improve, especially over the last five years," she said. "We all have to talk to each other."
The Marshals Service is taking several steps to beef up its efforts to hunt down AWOL sex offenders. By year's end, 100 full-time USMS agents will investigate sex offenders - a tripling over the course of the year, according to Derrick Driscoll, Chief Inspector of the Investigative Operations Division, Sex Offender Investigations Branch.
U.S. Marshals are also making better use of existing law enforcement data, including the FBI's National Crime Information Center records. According to John Feeney of the National Sex Offender Targeting Center, the Marshals Service began receiving daily updates from the FBI's sex offender records in May. Prior to that, the USMS had access to the data, but not in real time.
However, even when sex offenders are registered on paper, that doesn't mean they are telling the truth. Eric Anderson, the Arizona-based deputy U.S. marshal, says many sex offenders are lying about their whereabouts.
"We have so many people that register as homeless," he says. "But you're seeing people registering homeless when they have gold chains, nice clothes, and are well groomed. You know they're not homeless."
Sex offenders from around the country flock to New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California, in hopes they can slip unnoticed into Mexico, Anderson said. Other destinations for offenders trying to evade law enforcement include Michigan and Washington state, close to Canada.
"Those are magnets for sex offenders," Anderson said of the five states.
Sex offenders take advantage of the fact that different states have laws with varying degrees of sex offender oversight, said Scott Matson, Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. "Offenders are shopping around for jurisdictions where they may have less requirements," he said.
Matson's office is working with states and territories to help implement uniform oversight of sex offenders. The Adam Walsh Act passed in 2006 requires out of state offenders to register within three business days. But as of September 2010, only four states -- Florida, Ohio, Delaware and South Dakota -- and two sets of Indian tribes had implemented the federal rules for registering sex offenders.
Arizona gives up to 10 days, said Anderson, of the Marshals Service. Out-of-state sex offenders take advantage of this, by perpetually travelling between states, staying for a few days and leaving before they are required to register, Anderson said.
"These guys are dangerous," Anderson said. "They have a sexual appetite that can only be satisfied by going after who they deem to be sexually arousing -- such as kids, minors, toddlers, infants - and doing it by rape. When they want sex, they want it then."
Case in point is Lester Blackbear, 53, who was convicted of four rapes and is a suspect in a 1983 rape/murder in Oklahoma, according to Eric Anderson, a Deputy U.S. Marshal based in Arizona, which has 588 out-of-compliance sex offenders.
Blackbear slipped out of Oklahoma several years ago, Anderson said. He came to Phoenix, perhaps by 2007. While there, Blackbear flew under the radar. He slept in parks. He frequented flophouses and was even taken in by an unsuspecting family. He kept away from riding buses, which might have netted clues for authorities, Anderson said.
But the Marshals Service received a tip that Blackbear might be in Phoenix, and on May 18, Anderson arrested Blackbear. He's been returned to Oklahoma, where he has been questioned in the 1983 rape and murder.