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FL: Keeping Tabs on Offenders.

November 19, 2000

The Sheriff's Office is pushing harder to support state efforts to register sex offenders.

For their crimes, most often against children and women, thousands of felons in Florida have been deemed sex offenders or sex predators.

That means for the rest of their lives, law enforcement agencies want to know where they live.

It's a system that requires all 20,000 of the state's offenders and predators to notify authorities of their whereabouts. Then, their photos and addresses are posted on a Florida Department of Law Enforcement Web site accessible to the community.

Not surprisingly, the offenders and predators don't always follow the rules.

And that concerns officials at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. So, in October, the Sheriff's Office created the Sexual Predator/Offender Tracking Unit -- a two-man team charged with monitoring about 400 offenders and 18 predators living in the Sheriff's Office jurisdiction -- in unincorporated county areas and in cities where the Sheriff's Office provides policing services. (Countywide, there are 846 offenders and 31 predators.)

The new unit is part of a growing movement around the state among local law enforcement to support the FDLE's efforts at keeping track of sex offenders. The Tampa Police Department has a similar program widely acknowledged as a success. The Clearwater Police Department, while it does not have a specific program or unit, also routinely verifies the addresses of offenders.

"It's a priority with the public," said Lt. Carol Rasor, commander of the Sheriff's Community Services Division, where the new unit is based. "When it comes to safety of children who tend to be victims -- and in most cases with adults, it's women -- it's a priority."

Nine Pinellas deputies interviewed for the new positions, which are being paid with $150,000 in federal grant money. A board selected John Jewett, 49, who has been with the Sheriff's Office for 19 years, and Storrs "Bud" Dunklin, 50, who has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and has been with the Sheriff's Office for two years.

The duo has begun contacting each offender and predator to verify their addresses and introduce themselves. They are creating a database with updated information on all the offenders.

Jewett and Dunklin stress that they are not out to harass those who are abiding by the rules and trying to get on with their lives.

"In most cases, we go to their homes and say, "How you doing? Any problems with the neighbors? If you move or anything happens, let us know,' " Dunklin said. "Then we leave. We don't make a big to-do."

In fact, they want to know if neighbors are acting like vigilantes.

In one case last year, two men were arrested on charges of setting fire to the Mango home of Patrick Joseph Richards, a convicted sexual predator. The neighbors circulated petitions and kept vigil outside his home until Richards finally decided to sell it.

"Hopefully, our job not only entails making sure they comply, but we've told them if they start having trouble with their neighbors we can step in and hopefully quell some of it," Jewett said. "Ultimately, we're going to contact every sex offender in the county on a semi-regular basis to make sure they're complying with what the law says. When they aren't, we're opening up an investigation."

At the same time, Jewett and Dunklin are encouraging residents to voice their concerns about offenders in their neighborhood and report anything out of the ordinary. So far, they have fielded 78 such inquiries.

It was information from a resident that led them to their first arrest Oct. 31 of a 49-year-old man convicted in New York of sodomizing his daughter. He moved to Florida without notifying New York authorities that he was leaving and never registered in Pinellas County as a sex offender, both of which he was required to do.

In the six weeks since they began, Jewett and Dunklin have arrested two men and researched the whereabouts of 69 offenders and predators. Of those, they found 15 who were not following the registration rules and some could face charges -- that's more than 20 percent of the cases they have reviewed.

And they are working on verifying the addresses of a list of offenders from the FDLE who have not responded to quarterly address verifications sent by the state.

The FDLE ultimately is responsible for verifying the addresses of any offender not on probation. Agents do occasional sweeps of offenders who don't respond to address verification requests, FDLE spokeswoman Jennifer McCord said.

The Department of Corrections must keep tabs on the offenders who are on probation. Many of the offenders are tracked with electronic monitoring in the first 180 days of their probation, said Joseph Papy, regional director for the Florida Department of Corrections.

But both the FDLE and the DOC say they welcome the sheriff's help.

"It's a smart move," said FDLE Special Agent Al Danna, coordinator of crimes against children in Tampa Bay. "What a lot of smaller agencies are doing is, instead of waiting for FDLE to do it, doing it on their own. They're going to know where their offenders are, where their predators are."

The courts deem individuals who are convicted of committing sex crimes to be offenders or predators. The predator designation is reserved for sexual offenders who commit serious sex-related crimes, including molesting a child, or who have been convicted of a lesser sexual crime a second time.

Both are required to register with the FDLE or the Sheriff's Office in the jurisdiction where they live within 48 hours after they are released from prison or jail. Also within 48 hours, they must get a driver's license or identification card from the Department of Motor Vehicles and tell the agency that they are registered sex offenders.

From then on, they must notify authorities and update their identifications whenever they move to a new address. Violating these laws is a third-degree felony.

Still, keeping tabs on offenders isn't easy.

For starters, many of the offenders move around the state without bothering to alert authorities. Some offenders, like the man in the tracking unit's first arrest, move to Florida from out of state, unknown to local authorities.

And others just devise ways to circumvent the system.

On Friday, the deputies arrested a man who they said registered as a sex offender under one name and got a driver's license under another. Elzie F. Mahoney, also known as Sonny Mahoney, 63, who lives near St. Petersburg, was charged with violating sex offender registration requirements. His offender status stems from convictions for handling and fondling a child under age 16 and attempted sexual battery.

He was being held at the Pinellas County Jail on Friday night in lieu of $50,000 bail.

"Our biggest job is to get voluntary compliance, and the vast majority are complying," Jewett said.

"If you're abiding by the law, we're you're friend," Dunklin said. "If you're not, we mean business."

Source: St. Petersburg Times Online, by Deborah O'Neil.