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Sunday, December 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dangerous sex felons: Address unknown

Seattle Times staff reporter

Changes in how sex offenders register


1990: Washington enacted the first sex-offender registration law in the nation after convicted sex offender Earl Shriner molested and mutilated a 7-year-old boy in Tacoma.

1997: Martin Pickett, a sex offender from Everett who was living on the streets, was convicted of failing to register.

1999: Pickett appealed the conviction and the Washington Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, stating an offender's duty to register an address doesn't apply when an offender is homeless or transient.

2000: Legislature enacted a law requiring people who are transient or homeless to report weekly, in person, to the county sheriff's office. The sheriff's office may require the offender to list the locations he has stayed during the past seven days.

Finding offenders, getting help


For more help and information concerning sexual abuse:

King County Sexual Assault Resource Center: 888-99-VOICE or 888-998-6423

Harborview Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress: 206-521-1800

Web resources:

Search for offenders throughout the county at the King County Sheriff's Office Web site:

www.metrokc.gov/sheriff/services/sex_offender_search/

Search for sex offenders statewide and get other resources:

http://ml.waspc.org/

Search nationally:

www.nsopr.gov/

Changes in how sex offenders register


1990: Washington enacted the first sex-offender registration law in the nation after convicted sex offender Earl Shriner molested and mutilated a 7-year-old boy in Tacoma.

1997: Martin Pickett, a sex offender from Everett who was living on the streets, was convicted of failing to register.

1999: Pickett appealed the conviction and the Washington Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, stating an offender's duty to register an address doesn't apply when an offender is homeless or transient.

2000: Legislature enacted a law requiring people who are transient or homeless to report weekly, in person, to the county sheriff's office. The sheriff's office may require the offender to list the locations he has stayed during the past seven days.

He told the Everett couple he was a graphic designer who needed a place to stay and would pay rent once he found a job. Needing the money, they allowed Patrick Stearns to move in with them and their 6-year-old daughter.

But the family didn't know the articulate, 51-year-old man had been convicted twice of molesting children and once for showing child pornography to a young girl.

In December 2003, after several weeks of sleeping on the living-room couch, Stearns began showing child porn to the 6-year-old girl. She told her mother, who kicked Stearns out and called authorities.

If Stearns had followed the law by reporting to authorities he was living at the home, then the family, neighbors, schools and day-care centers in the area would have been notified of his sex crimes.

Instead he took advantage of a weakness in Washington's sex offender registration law — simply stating he was homeless in Seattle.

Stearns is part of a growing problem across the state as hundreds of sex offenders register as homeless — making their whereabouts unknown. In King County, the number of offenders who say they are homeless has nearly tripled in the past five years to 364, a Seattle Times investigation has found.

Law-enforcement officials have no way of tracking them, and residents are often unaware of potential threats.

Authorities say that out of every 10 sex offenders who report they are homeless, two or three are actually living in a neighborhood at a particular address.

Even more alarming, many of these offenders are deemed the most dangerous, what the state defines as Level 3. In King County, one-third of the high-risk sex felons say they are homeless. That means there are 111 high-risk sex felons who could be living on the streets or next door.

Seattle police Detective Bob Shilling, a national expert on sex-offender management, said letting them register as homeless undermines Washington's registration law and gives the public a false sense of security.

"The whole idea of registration is that we know where sex offenders are," Shilling said. "When they are homeless we lose track of them, and when we lose track of them we can't tell you where they are."

Homeless offenders are required to sign in weekly at the sheriff's office. But most don't, which is a felony.

Seventy-five percent of King County's homeless sex offenders didn't sign in weekly in October, a Seattle Times analysis has found. More than half of Seattle's 140 homeless sex offenders, as of last month, had arrest warrants for failing to sign in.

Police say they are overwhelmed with other duties and have no easy way to find and arrest the offenders.

Some have been missing for as long as five years.

Roots in Tacoma case

Washington was the first state to enact a sex-offender registry in 1990 after a 7-year-old boy was raped, stabbed and mutilated in a Tacoma park by a man with a long criminal history of sexual violence. The law was intended to help agencies monitor sex offenders and to alert communities where they were living.

With the more dangerous offenders, authorities send bulletins to schools, day-care centers and neighbors that a sex offender is living nearby. They also visit the offender's home every three months to verify he's living there.

Washington's 672 homeless sex offenders are a small fraction of the state's 18,700 registered offenders. Homeless offenders are spread across the state, from 64 in Pierce County to 27 in Snohomish County to 11 in coastal Grays Harbor County.

Each year, hundreds of offenders are released from state prisons and struggle to find jobs and places to live. Most shelters, tent cities and apartment complexes prohibit sex offenders from living there.

Homeless sex offenders are at a higher risk of reoffending because they don't have a residence and often lack access to treatment and support services, experts say. About 44 percent of these offenders in King County report they have been living on the streets for more than one year, according to an analysis by The Times.

"They are undesirable in neighborhoods, but having them homeless and living in our parks and Pioneer Square in Seattle then renders them even more unstable, unmonitored and unmedicated," said Suzanne Brown-McBride, executive director of the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, a large coalition of rape-crisis centers.

Across the state, law-enforcement agencies are particularly challenged and frustrated by this segment of the sex-offender population.

"It's a joke," Shilling said. "If they [people] feel they are safer because the homeless sex offender is checking in once a week, they are sadly mistaken."

Offender uncovered

Before Stearns moved in with the Everett family, Seattle police had obtained an arrest warrant for him in July 2003 because he failed to properly register. However, they had no idea where to find the Level 2 homeless man.

In November 2003, Stearns met the mother when they both were looking for jobs at Everett's Worksource, a center providing employment listings, career development and training.

She had no idea Stearns had been convicted of first-degree statutory rape in 1987, first-degree child molestation in 1992, and possession of depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct in 2003.

After he moved in, Stearns became obsessed with using their computer, staying on the couch and playing with their young daughter, the mother said. Soon she began to distrust him.

"The facts didn't match," she said. "He said he was looking for a job and he hadn't done a thing." (To protect the privacy of the daughter, the family is not named in this story.)

Then the daughter told her mother Stearns had shown her photos on the computer that made her feel sick. The couple threw him out of their home and reported him to the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office. An investigator found hundreds of images of child pornography.

"He took advantage of our kindness," the mother said.

Stearns was found guilty in 2004 of communication with a minor for immoral purposes, 12 counts of possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, and failing to register as a sex offender. He is serving five years in prison.

He declined to be interviewed about his multiple convictions. But in a letter to The Times he wrote, "I am not now, nor have I ever been, a child molester."

Shilling said sex offenders such as Stearns can spiral out of control, yet police have no way to intervene because they can't locate them.

"Without supervision, they are beholden to no one," Shilling said. "Those are the scariest."

Truly homeless

Police say many homeless sex offenders are truly transient, huddling in streets and alleys and sleeping in parks.

One of those who has been homeless in Seattle for several years is 55-year-old Claudell Edwards, a Level 2 sex offender. After spending 30 years in prison for a robbery and rape, Edwards found it impossible to find a job and a place to call home.

"I'm accountable for my being out here — I was just ruthless," said the clean-shaven, well-dressed man.

Edwards checks into the King County Sheriff's Office weekly to report his status. He sleeps on park benches and at friends' homes. He keeps his possessions, mostly clothes and blankets, bundled in three garbage bags and stores them in the woods.

"Where I'm going to sleep at night and where I'm going to eat — it's on your mind every day," he said. "It's tiresome — it's like a prison on the streets."

He said he avoids other sex offenders living on the streets because some of them don't want to be rehabilitated and want to harm others.

"It's tough not to commit crimes," he said. "You don't have a job and you're stretched far. You want to resort to your old ways."

Avoiding notice

Darren Perkins, 38, of Tacoma appears to be the kind of person that notification laws were designed to monitor. In 1985, he tied up and raped two girls, ages 3 and 4, whom his mother was baby-sitting, court records show. In 1997, he sexually abused a 15-year-old girl and, a year later, he failed to register as a sex offender.

Perkins later disclosed to the state Department of Corrections that as a teenager he sexually assaulted at least 57 male and female victims, ages 4 to 36. Most of them were strangers he attacked at schools, parks, marinas, bus depots, swimming pools and in his neighborhood.

In 2000, a psychologist described Perkins as "a continued danger to society" who lacked empathy, minimized his crimes and blamed others.

Perkins, a Level 3 offender, was released from state supervision in July 2004 and registered as homeless. He told authorities he was living in his truck near 25th Street and Tacoma Avenue in Tacoma.

In fact, in October 2004, he was living at 2509 Tacoma Ave. S., where he worked at A.M.D. Production Services, setting up lights and staging for concerts and events, said an executive for the now-defunct company.

But Perkins continued to tell the Pierce County Sheriff's Office that he was homeless, thereby avoiding a bulletin that would have notified nearby schools, parks and neighbors of his criminal history.

He met a 16-year-old girl at a party and, on Oct. 22, took her to the building where he was living. There, police say, he tied her up, sexually abused her and took photographs. Perkins is charged with second-degree rape, indecent liberties and kidnapping. Perkins, who declined to be interviewed, goes to trial in January, facing life without parole.

Police swamped

In Pierce, Snohomish and other counties, homeless offenders must report to the sheriff's office and fill out a weekly check-in log showing where they've stayed each night in the previous week. But the log shows only where they've stayed, not where they will be.

"They say they're homeless, but it's hard to prove — even if we catch them at the address," Pierce County Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Keith Barnes said. "They can claim they stayed just one night. We need independent corroboration that they've stayed there for awhile."

Detectives sometimes use the log to prove an offender has lied about where he has been staying, and arrest him.

In King County, sex offenders don't have to fill out a log reporting their previous whereabouts when they sign in. An arrest warrant usually is issued once the offender hasn't signed in for a month or more.

Some of these sex offenders do get arrested, but only after police stop them for other crimes and discover the outstanding warrant, or after someone reports their location.

Police and sheriff's deputies say they are swamped with new registrations, home visits and community notification. The Seattle Police Department, for example, has four officers to manage more than 1,400 registered sex offenders.

Detective Mac Gordon of the department's sex-offender detail said that, given the heavy workload, police simply don't have the time to track down all offenders with arrest warrants.

"We don't know where these guys go," Gordon said.

One offender who disappeared from Seattle streets was John Lee Allen, 45, a Level 2 offender convicted of child molestation. He last registered as homeless in 2000. But he failed to update the sheriff's office, and an arrest warrant was issued one year ago.

The Times discovered Allen living in Rockwall, Tex. "I'm not willing to talk to you about this," he said when reached by phone last month.

Rockwall police said Allen hasn't registered as a sex offender in their city.

Staff reporter Justin Mayo analyzed data for this report.

Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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