I-Team: Law hasn't stopped sex offenders living in school zones

CINCINNATI - A sexual predator is living so close to the Academy of World Languages in O'Bryonville, his backyard connects directly with the school yard.
 
It turns out this man raped two girls in the year 2000, three years before Ohio passed a law to prevent sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, and the state supreme court ruled the law can't be applied retroactively. So a man, who under current law would be a Tier III sexual predator (considered the most dangerous and most likely to attack again), is free to live wherever he chooses.
 
One out of three registered sex offenders in Hamilton County lives within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare facility, according to a recent study completed by a team of university researchers.

9 News obtained an advance copy of the study from Drexel University professor Anthony Grubesic. It reveals Tier III sexual predators are more likely to move into a school zone than lower-level sex offenders, even though half of all available rental units exist outside these restricted zones. (Read that study at http://www.huduser.org/portal/periodicals/cityscpe/vol13num3/Cityscape_Nov2011_sex_offenders.pdf )
 
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was shocked when we told him one third of sex offenders live near Cincinnati-area schools.

"There are some sex offenders who just want to be close to kids, and that's what they're going to do," DeWine lamented.

Since he became Ohio's attorney general, DeWine has created a special unit to go after sexual predators using investigators posing as children online.

"Keeping sex offenders away from children [is the goal]," said the attorney general. "And one way we can do that is by saying they can not be within 1,000 feet of a school."

While sex offenders who committed their crimes before July 31, 2003, are exempt, many others are blatantly breaking the law. So why aren't police swooping in to arrest them?
 
They can't.
 
The Ohio measure that created the thousand-foot buffer zone around schools is a civil law. In other words, violating that law is not a crime (you can read the language of the law at http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/2950.034 ). So police and sheriff's deputies are powerless to enforce the residency restrictions intended to keep school kids safe.

"Current law does not allow them to arrest that individual," DeWine said.
 
Upon receiving a complaint from a neighbor, city and county prosecutors in Ohio first send a letter to the sex offender asking him to move voluntarily. If the offender doesn't move, prosecutors file suit in civil court. A judge will then issue an order forcing the sex offender to move.
 
The recent academic study obtained by 9 News revealed Hamilton County sex offenders who move from a school zone tend to move into another school zone. Over a two-and-a-half-year period, researchers tracked the movements of sex offenders around Cincinnati. In 158 cases, the sex offenders simply moved from one school zone to another.
 
Meanwhile, the two other states in our area have similar laws, but they are treated as crimes.
 
In Indiana it's a Class D felony. A convicted sex offender living within 1,000 feet of an Indiana school faces up to three years in state prison.
 
In Kentucky it's a Class A misdemeanor. Sex offenders in the commonwealth face up to a year in the county jail if they're caught living within 1,000 feet of a school, park or playground. One wrinkle in the Kentucky law is that sex offenders themselves -- not the authorities -- are responsible for determining where that line exists.
 
Our random check of Northern Kentucky schools showed sex offenders are living just outside the thousand-foot restriction zone, but we found none inside the limit. The Kentucky law appears to be a successful deterrent.
 
Ohio is a different story. With no threat of jail time, we found sex offenders living within 1,000 feet of most Cincinnati public schools we checked.

9 News discovered 17 sex offenders, some of them Tier III sexual predators, living within the restricted zone surrounding the new location of the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Over The Rhine. Esme Kenney, the 13-year-old student murdered in 2009, was a 7th grader at the school's former location.

The serial killer who abducted and murdered Kenney was registered as a sex offender living at a halfway house known then as the Pogue Center. The center was within 1,000 feet of Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, a Cincinnati public elementary school. Anthony Kirkland walked out of the center a week before he found Kenney jogging alone near her home.

Kirkland was convicted of four murders, including 28-year-old Leola Douglas, 14-year-old Casonya "Sharee" Crawford, and 45-year-old Mary Jo Newton. Those first three were killed before he was classified as a sex offender.

Kenney was the only one of his victims murdered after he was expelled from the halfway house on West McMicken Avenue.

There are 19 sex offenders registered as living in the same facility right now.

Even though the halfway house is within

1,000 feet of an elementary school, all 19 sex offenders living there are exempt from the residency law. Legislators specifically excluded treatment centers and correctional facilities from the regulation.

So while an individual sex offender can't live within a school zone, it's perfectly legal for multiple sex offenders to live in a halfway house close to a school full of children.

"The whole idea is to get sex offenders away from schools," said DeWine. "So if you start carving out exceptions to that, whether it's for treatment or whatever reason, it becomes Swiss cheese and it's got a bunch of holes in it."

Hamilton County has outstanding arrest warrants for 17 sex offenders who have failed to register. In six of those cases, the last known address of each sex offender was within a school zone. One theory is that sex offenders forced to move more than once will just stop registering.

State Senator Eric Kearney is a democrat representing Cincinnati in the Ohio legislature. He co-sponsored the 2007 law which added preschools and daycare centers to the list of sex offender restrictions "to create a buffer zone for the children so that they're not interacting with pedophiles," Kearney said.

Senator Kearney also serves as the Senate minority leader. He promised quick action once we told him of the loopholes, and the other sex offenders violating the law because of a weak enforcement mechanism.

"I'm very surprised by that," Kearney said. "That causes me great concern and I think it's something we need to study further and address immediately."

Meghan's Law went national more than 15 years ago, creating a system to monitor sex offenders and allowing the public to keep tabs on potential threats in their own neighborhoods. It requires sheriffs to keep a public database of registered sex offenders, and make notifications when certain offenders move into a neighborhood or close to a school.

"So we know where they are," said Clermont County Sheriff A.J. Rodenberg. "Unfortunately that doesn't prevent anything."

Sheriff Rodenberg has a full-time deputy dedicated to registering sex offenders and verifying their addresses. But by law, his office can't refuse a sex offender's address even if deputies know that residence is within 1,000 feet of a school. Remember, it's a civil matter in Ohio. The sheriff can tell a sex offender they may face a lawsuit, and he can tell the prosecutor about the infraction, but he can't arrest a violator or order him to move.

Senator Kearney said the idea of giving sheriffs and police more authority to enforce the residency restriction is worth investigating.

"Whatever we need to enforce that law is what we need to do," Kearney said. "If the sheriff's department or the police department is the first line of defense, if they're the best ones to do that job, let's have them do that job."

Attorney General DeWine agrees.

"If the people of Ohio want to send a strong message to sex offenders," DeWine said, "then we probably ought to make it a crime."

But Sheriff Rodenberg says he's not pushing for the law to be strengthened. The jails are overflowing already, he said, and most sex offenders move once they receive a letter from the prosecutor.

The sheriff also believes the 1,000-foot rule does little to protect children from sexual predators.

"What I would equate it to is with an alcoholic," said the sheriff. "Telling them they can't live within 1,000 feet of a bar, is that going to stop them from drinking? Probably not if they've got an addiction to alcohol. These people have an addiction to young children in a perverted and sexually inappropriate way."

Another surprising fact is that the law prevents convicted sex offenders only from living near a school. Their movements are not limited at all.

"We don't want to have a false sense of security," added Ohio's attorney general. "The law as it's currently written concerns only where the sex offender sleeps at night; where he lives."

"They can go to school activities," Rodenberg said. "They can walk down the street to the school. They can sit on a bench on the playground."

One deputy told me parents complained that a sex offender was allowed into their children's classroom, only to find out he was allowed to be there because his child was also a student. There's no law against a sex offender visiting a school.

Rodenberg said, in his decades as a prosecutor and a sheriff, "I have not come across any particular case or series of cases that involve sexual predators molesting or attacking kids at school. Again that sometimes unfortunately comes from teachers, the teachers that are there. That's certainly not all teachers -- most teachers are very good -- but they're more likely to be assaulted by a teacher in their school than a random sex offender who might live 500 feet away or 1,000 feet away."

Statistics show most pedophiles know their victims. Often times, it's a relative or a boyfriend of the child's mother. Sometimes it's a coach or school employee.

Truly random abductions

are rare, but they're also often the most terrifying, like the Jaycee Dugard case, or the murder of Esme Kenney.

Kenney's parents told me the 1,000-foot rule is a distraction from the real threats to children. Serial killer Anthony Kirkland was already a convicted murderer when he was let out of prison early, and the Kenneys say the system failed again, allowing a sex offender out of the Pogue Center because he was considered a threat to the other residents of the halfway house.

Still, we couldn't find any lawmakers or other elected officials interested in repealing the school zone restriction.

"It's certainly better than nothing," Sheriff Rodenberg said.

Attorney General DeWine says the 1,000-foot law is just one weapon in the arsenal designed to prevent future attacks on children. His office maintains a comprehensive web page ( http://ohioattorneygeneral.gov ) where the public can search for sex offenders living near their homes or their kids' schools.

The data on nearly 20,000 registered sex offenders in Ohio includes names, photographs, addresses and sometimes even descriptions of the cars they drive. Mike DeWine has worked to improve the website since taking office.

But there's some critical information missing from the database.

It is impossible to tell from looking at a sex offender's profile whether he's exempt from the school zone restrictions. In fact, you can't see if the sex offender's residence is within 1,000 feet of a school without a lot more detective work using Google Earth or a mapping website. That's what we did, and the university researchers spent months comparing the sex offender data with land parcels and property lines to reach that figure of 32.22 percent of Hamilton County sex offenders living in school zones.

Remember, if the sex offender committed his crimes before July 31, 2003, he can live wherever he wants. If the crime was committed before 2007, he can't live near a school, but he can live near a daycare or a pre-school.

But the sex offender database does not list the date of the offense, nor does it offer any other clues that can be used to determine whether or not he's allowed to live where he's registered. The code "pre AWA" is included when applicable, indicating the offenses occurred before passage of the Adam Walsh Act in 2007, but there's no indication of pre-2003 or post-2003 offenses.

Without pulling the criminal case files of each sex offender, some of those records from as far away as California, we can't say for certain if any of the 17 sex offenders living near the School for Creative and Performing Arts are allowed to be there or not.

"We need to add that information," Attorney General DeWine said. "That's something that clearly we should be doing."

Online:

OHIO SEX OFFENDER SEARCH
http://www.icrimewatch.net/index.php?AgencyID=55149&disc=

KENTUCKY SEX OFFENDER SEARCH
http://kspsor.state.ky.us/sor/html/SORSearch.htm

INDIANA SEX OFFENDER SEARCH
http://www.icrimewatch.net/indiana.php

URBAN SEX OFFENDER RESIDENCY STUDIES
http://www.huduser.org/portal/periodicals/cityscpe/vol13num3/Cityscape_Nov2011_sex_offenders.pdf

http://ssc.sagepub.com/content/25/2/143.refs

http://www.springerlink.com/content/53463j0p314p2746/

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1435-5957.2009.00270.x/full

http://www.springerlink.com/content/l9732x87k6155278/

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0143622809000447

http://www.springerlink.com/content/p761236152593151/

 

(NOTE: In the scene where Brendan is explaining the laws in his car, he is not driving, he is being towed by a tow truck and not endangering anyone)

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