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Local law enforcement officials around the country say the pandemic makes it harder to track registered sex offenders. Some jurisdictions have stopped in-person monitoring altogether. But NPR investigative correspondent Cheryl W. Thompson found that authorities lost track of tens of thousands of sex offenders around the U.S. long before the coronavirus hit. And, as she reports, some of the sex offenders the police can't find are actually living in plain sight.
CURTIS LANG SR: Got to warm up now.
CHERYL W THOMPSON, BYLINE: On any given evening in the nation's capital, you can find Curtis Lang Sr. on a public basketball court not far from the National Zoo. He's a regular there since being released from prison for rape. The conviction requires that Lang be placed on the city's sex offender registry for the rest of his life and that he also update his whereabouts every three months. But for the last five years, Lang has ignored the law. The registry says he lives in Southeast Washington, but he's long gone. And police have never tracked him down.
LANG: They ain't came and got me. So you know, I think I'm all right.
THOMPSON: But aren't you supposed to register for the rest of your life?
LANG: Yeah, I'm supposed to do it, but I'm not. Man, you know, it is what it is. OK? Now you just put me on the spot. You made me reveal something I ain't want to reveal.
THOMPSON: We located Lang in Northwest Washington, living about 9 miles from the address listed on the sex offender registry. In this neighborhood, sprinkled with millennials and young couples with children, no one would know about Lang's crime because he hasn't registered his current address. And that's troubling to residents like Tessa Smallwood (ph). We talked to Smallwood on the steps of a public library just yards from Lang's home. She had no idea that he lived in the neighborhood.
TESSA SMALLWOOD: I think that the public should have been notified about it.
THOMPSON: An NPR investigation found that Lang is one of more than 25,000 convicted sex offenders throughout the U.S. who have absconded, their whereabouts unknown to law enforcement and their victims - often children.
NPR reviewed sex offender registry databases and other public records from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We found a system that often fails the very people it was designed to protect. In registries across the country, the thousands of absconders we discovered include hundreds who haven't registered in at least a decade. We found offenders who have committed additional sex crimes while on the run from the law and registries filled with people who have been dead for as long as two decades. And we found those like Lang, who law enforcement say they can't find but are hiding in plain sight.
KELLY SOCIA: Law enforcement are losing people.
THOMPSON: That's Kelly Socia, an associate professor of criminology and justice studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. He says the registry has become bloated and inefficient.
SOCIA: Law enforcement are having a hard time tracking the sheer number of people that are mandated to be on the registry even though being on the registry isn't necessarily making anybody safer.
THOMPSON: Socia says that the registries originally were meant to give law enforcement a go-to list of suspects in case there was a new sex crime in the area. They've since become a place for the public to check who's living and working near them to better protect themselves and their children.
COVID, though, has complicated efforts to register sex offenders. Some cities have closed in-person registration offices, requiring offenders to register and update their addresses by phone or online. It's also preventing authorities from doing in-person checks to verify offender whereabouts. But even before the virus, we found repeated examples in every state where the registries lose track of offenders, like in Illinois, where we found a convicted child molester living in a Veterans Affairs facility. Police haven't been able to find him for more than two years.
If authorities wanted to find the men, they could check their own government records. That's how we tracked down Lang, the man we talked to on the basketball court - through court records in Maryland. Police stopped him in May 2019 about an hour from Washington, D.C. He was driving on an expired license. The address he provided police was different than the one on the local sex offender registry.
When we caught up with Lang, he was outside Joseph's House, a residential facility that offers care for homeless people with terminal cancer or, like Lang, those with AIDS. The eighth-grade dropout talks openly about the day he raped a woman, a crime that cost him a decade of freedom. He knew his victim, as so many sex offenders do. They dated, even lived together for a while. But on August 28, Lang's birthday, he sexually assaulted her.
Did you rape her?
LANG: I may have. I was out of my mind. But we did have sex, and she tried to get away from me. And I put my hands on her - for real - yeah, you know.
THOMPSON: He says he was high on PCP at the time. And he knows he's violating the law by failing to register as a sex offender but blames the government for not doing its job.
LANG: That's the system. I can't help it if I done slipped through the system, the cracks. You know? That's on them.
THOMPSON: Making sure that sex offenders register and stay in compliance files on state and local governments. When an offender fails to verify their whereabouts in Washington, D.C., the agency that registers and tracks them is supposed to report it to the Metropolitan Police Department. That doesn't always happen. NPR found 86 sex offenders in the nation's capital whose addresses haven't been verified in at least a year.
LESLIE PARSONS: It's always a challenge to track anybody down, especially somebody that knows they could be in noncompliance or they could be wanted or have a warrant out for their arrest and they don't want to be captured.
THOMPSON: That's D.C. Police Commander Leslie Parsons. He oversees the Criminal Investigations Division, which includes the sex offender registry.
PARSONS: When we're notified of a violation, we do everything we can to bring the offender into compliance. And if they can't come into compliance, then we will seek an arrest warrant for them.
THOMPSON: We asked how often the department has sought arrest warrants for sex offenders over the last five years. They wouldn't tell us.
The nation's capital isn't the only place where officials have lost track of sex offenders. Texas has 2,900 absconders or whereabouts unknown; Arizona, 542. South Carolina officials have no idea where 489 of their sex offenders are. State officials around the country acknowledge that finding absconders can be difficult. They don't always place a high priority on going after them.
In Illinois, for instance, when authorities find any of the nearly 600 absconders, it's often by accident. That's according to Tracie Newton, who oversees the registry.
TRACIE NEWTON: If they are pulled over or police officers respond to an address for a domestic call or, you know, whatever, many times that's how they're found.
THOMPSON: It's been 32 years since Jerry Davis (ph) pled guilty to repeatedly sexually abusing one of his two stepdaughters in Danville, Ill. She was 10. Davis was 56. Davis' guilty plea led to eight years behind bars and required him to register annually as a sex offender. But over the years, Davis stopped registering.
Police combed driver's licenses and bank account and other records looking for him for the last two years. It didn't take much digging for NPR to find Davis. We found him months ago, living right in Danville at Honor House, a long-term care center on the grounds of the VA hospital. Davis refuses to talk about the sexual abuse and says he doesn't think about his young victim.
JERRY DAVIS: No, I forgot about it. I've had a good life since then.
THOMPSON: Authorities issued an arrest warrant for Davis after inquiries from NPR. They located him last month but have not pressed charges. He was required, though, to register again as a sex offender.
Cheryl W. Thompson, NPR News.
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