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Sex offenders incognito

The Georgia sex offender registry was created to help keep people safe. But how can it do that if it's riddled with errors?

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The wintry calm of an early December day is shattered as law enforcement officers from several local, state and federal agencies storm a house on Greenleaf Circle in southwest Atlanta to find a convicted child molester with an adolescent girl, along with what investigators would later determine to be pornographic "material and devices."

Police knew Jonathon Demone Broom had a lengthy criminal history that included aggravated assault, family violence and child molestation, and that Broom had just been released from prison in September. They also suspected that the 36-year-old convicted sex offender was in violation of the Georgia Sex Offender Registration law.

Broom was one of 78 people across Fulton and Clayton counties arrested last month in what police termed "sweeps" for failure to provide accurate information to the state sex offender registry. The "sweeps" were part of a joint task force operation conducted by more than 100 law enforcement agents in an attempt to apprehend sex offenders who walk the streets of Georgia incognito — despite the best efforts of a statewide registry created in 1996 to keep up with them.

Tracking sex offenders is an ongoing battle, one that rages both on the streets and in the courts. The purpose of the state's sex offender registry — which contains the names, ages, photos and addresses of tens of thousands of convicted felons — is to equip neighbors with the knowledge necessary to protect their children against potential sexual predators. (Whether such knowledge actually deters crime is the subject of speculation.)

Yet it's entirely likely — even after checking the Georgia Sex Offender Registry — that a concerned resident won't have an accurate idea of the threat on his or her street. And so, while there have been several legal battles about the constitutionality of such a list, a more immediate problem exists: If the list is riddled with errors, what good is it, anyway?

In my 18-year career as a private investigator, I sometimes uncover during the course of an investigation an alleged crime that's gone undetected by police. That's happened in divorce cases I've taken on, as well as teen runaway investigations where a family has hired me to locate their child. On several occasions, the cast of characters I encounter in these probes grow to include drug dealers, pimps, child molesters, sexual predators and convicted sex offenders in hiding.

I've pulled more than a few teenage runaways from the hovel of a known sex offender. In one case, two 16-year-old girls who ran away from their boarding school to "teach their parents a lesson" ended up in the basement of a predator in the North Georgia mountains. They had been there for two days when I discovered the location, got them out and dragged the perpetrator to the sheriff's office.

On another occasion, a post-divorce investigation over court-ordered child visitation led me to a man who operated a "child actor talent agency" out of a "virtual" office in Los Angeles. I discovered he was actually living in a middle-class family apartment complex — with children everywhere — just as the feds were closing in. They confiscated computers loaded with child porn, and my client's attempts to have the man's child-visitation rights revoked was easily granted by the court.

Cases like these made me question the effectiveness of the sex offender registry system.

In more than 100 separate cases I've personally investigated over the past 18 months, approximately one-third of the offenders — all convicted of sex-related crimes and subsequently ordered to register as sex offenders — weren't living where the Georgia Sex Offender Registry indicated they should be. What's more, names often were misspelled and information required by law was missing.

In many cases, I found that a simple check of databases routinely accessible only to law enforcement and licensed private investigators revealed new, current addresses for convicted sex offenders who were still listed under old addresses in the Georgia Sex Offender Registry. Sometimes, the registry addresses were six months to a year old and in completely different areas of Georgia. That meant an offender could have been at a new address long enough to set up utility services — even mail service — yet, still be listed in the state registry at an old address.

In some cases, I couldn't find the offender at all, whether through databases or a physical search.

During the same period, a state audit reached a similar but even more alarming conclusion: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was not adequately maintaining the registry. In many cases, offender information was out of date even as it was being entered — or was entered incorrectly by state employees.

"The problem is you're dealing with people who've been convicted, primarily, of felonies," says GBI public affairs officer John Bankhead, who points out that it's the local sheriff's departments' responsibility to upload correct information to the state registry. "You're depending on them for accurate information, and sometimes they don't cooperate."

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