Fall River Resources – October 20–26,
By Amanda Lehmert and Sean Gonsalves
After working together for two years to monitor convicted child rapist Paul Nolin, the collaboration between state officials and Mashpee police ended in the summer of 2002.
That's when the state lost track of him. Now, a year later, Nolin stands accused of the kidnapping murder of Jonathan Wessner, a 20-year-old Falmouth man.
Yesterday, neither the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board nor the Mashpee Police Department could say for certain why Nolin apparently fell off their radar screens.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Matthew Patrick, D-Falmouth, is exploring legislative measures to ensure that convicted sex offenders are more easily tracked by authorities.
Earlier this month, Nolin, 39, pleaded innocent to charges of kidnapping and murder in connection to Wessner's death.
According to witnesses, Wessner, an aspiring golf pro, left a party at Nolin's house at 17 Nye Road in Falmouth at about 3 a.m. Sept. 20.
He apparently was killed in a small boathouse and then buried about 50 feet away under rocks on a secluded Woods Hole beach. A source close to the investigation said Wessner was stabbed and beaten to death sometime between 7 and 7:30 a.m.
Wessner's body was found Oct. 4 by state and local police who searched areas of Woods Hole for several days after his disappearance.
Nolin moved to Mashpee in the summer of 2000 after serving 18 years of a 20-year prison sentence for raping a 10-year-old Lowell boy. He registered with the state sex offender registry that year.
But according to internal Mashpee police records, he had to be reminded to register in 2001 and 2002.
In both years, state Sex Offender Registry Board officials asked Mashpee police to go to Nolin's apartment and tell him he must re-register with the board or be arrested.
Sex offenders who are no longer in prison or jail are required by law to register annually with the sex offender registry. They must report both their home and work addresses.
After police reminded him, Nolin registered in 2001 but it wasn't clear yesterday if he registered properly in 2002. Sex Offender Registry Board spokesman Charles McDonald said he couldn't discuss the specifics of Nolin's case.
Mashpee police Deputy Chief Al Todino said yesterday that his department twice sent officers to Nolin's Tracy Lane apartment in Mashpee in the summer of 2002.
On July 25, 2002, Todino said, an officer "hand-delivered" a registration card to Nolin. In the ensuing weeks, Mashpee police were notified again by a Sex Offender Registry Board official that Nolin had yet to file his registration card.
On Aug. 10, 2002, Todino said, two Mashpee detectives went to Nolin's apartment again and informed him that if he failed to register he would be arrested, according to police records. Nolin told the detectives that he had sent his registration card to the registry board on Aug. 6, according to records.
That was the last time Mashpee police went looking for Nolin, Todino said.
Moved from Mashpee
Two months later, Nolin moved from his Mashpee apartment to the house
on Nye Road. The Falmouth police were never notified he lived and worked
in their town because he failed to notify the registry.
Charles McDonald, spokesman for the Sex Offender Registry Board, said yesterday that, as a matter of procedure, when the board can't locate an offender the local police are informed by the board and asked to find the person.
He would not comment as to why that did not happen when Nolin failed to re-register in the spring or summer of 2003.
Mashpee police say they have no record of having been contacted by the board after they visited Nolin's apartment in August 2002. And furthermore, Mashpee police say, it is the board's responsibility to seek an arrest warrant if an offender isn't in compliance with the board's regulations.
Arrest warrants not common
McDonald said that, as a general rule, the Sex Offender Registry Board
does not seek arrest warrants, but that police don't need one to apprehend
an offender who is in violation of the state's registry law.
In fact, Todino said, because of limited administrative staff, Mashpee police do not regularly check the sex offender registry database. Instead, they rely on the board to alert them if an offender is in violation.
"We have never known the Mashpee Police Department not to fulfill its obligations" under the sex offender registry law, McDonald said.
The registry board classifies sex offenders with one of three levels, which is determined by the likelihood of the offender to commit another offense. Convicted sex offenders get a hearing before they are classified as level 1, 2 or 3.
The levels determine not only the dangerousness of the person but also regulates how much police can share about the offender with the public. Information on level 1 offenders stays with the police; the public can access information on level 2 offenders by going to the police station and asking for the information; and police can actively make public information about a level 3 offender.
Nolin was one of an estimated 14,000 sex offenders who remain in the
backlogged classification system. He was never classified, so to this
day police are not legally able to share his record with the public.
McDonald said classification procedures can be stalled if the offender is not properly notified. Courts have said offenders must have due process, including being notified of the classification hearing.
With all the attention that Wessner's death has brought to the troubled registry, Patrick said he is going to explore ways to fix it.
"I have kids. My son's 15. He could have easily been somebody who went through that (convenience store where Nolin worked). I think you just have to put yourself in the family's position. You have to walk a mile in their shoes and it's just a frightening thing to contemplate. It wasn't an accident. It was just the system not working."
Patrick outlined a number of ways laws could be expanded, including a requirement that the registry board classify offenders before they leave prison; sexual predators whose whereabouts are unknown to the police should be tracked down; and the most dangerous offenders should be on permanent parole.
"The system doesn't work. We need to keep better track of these people," he said.
The registry board and state parole officials also need the funds to get the job done, he said.
Sex registry overhaul sought
By David Kibbe
BOSTON - Cape Cod's legislative delegation is calling for reform of the state's sex offender laws after a convicted child rapist was accused of kidnapping and murdering a young man from Falmouth.
State Rep. Matthew Patrick, D-Falmouth, is researching legislation that would put high- and moderate-risk sex offenders on lifetime probation and set uniform standards for local police departments to release information to the public about sex offenders.
The sex offender registry was created in 1996 to warn the public of potentially dangerous sexual predators, but a Cape Cod Times investigation found the registry in many cases failed to alert the public to rapists, pedophiles and other offenders in their community.
The Times review also found local police vary widely in how they inform the public about sexual offenders, with many departments doing little to alert the public and others confused about how to disseminate the information.
Last month Paul R. Nolin pleaded innocent to kidnapping and killing Jonathan Wessner, 20, of Falmouth. Wessner was last seen leaving a party at Nolin's house at 3 a.m. Sept. 20.
Nolin served 18 years for raping a 10-year-old Lowell boy before moving to Mashpee in 2000, but his status as a sex offender was not known in the community because the level of his offense was never classified by the state. He later fell through the cracks of the sex offender registry when he moved to Falmouth in 2002.
"I have been deeply troubled by Jonathan Wessner's death," Patrick said in a letter to the Cape Cod Times. "There is no way anyone can justify the dysfunctional system that we currently have, and it is a shame that Jonathan Wessner had to die to bring that reality home."
Patrick said police departments should be required to notify neighbors by mail when a sex offender moves into their town. He pointed out that neighbors are notified in writing when someone seeks a zoning variance, but there is often no warning when a pedophile moves next door.
State law requires sex offenders to give their current home and work addresses to the Sex Offender Registry Board after they are released. Once they are classified by the board, police are allowed to publicly disseminate information about high-risk offenders. People have to go to their local police station to get information on moderate-risk offenders.
Nolin, a 39-year-old church handyman, had registered as a sex offender with Mashpee police when he was released from prison three years ago. But police could not release information to the public about him because he had yet to receive a risk classification by the Sex Offender Registry Board, which has a backlog of 14,000 unclassified offenders. Nolin failed to notify police that he moved to Falmouth last year, as required by law.
Patrick met with state Rep. James Vallee, a Franklin Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee, and plans to meet with House Speaker Thomas Finneran to discuss changes in the law. Vallee could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Gomes seeks review
State Rep. Shirley Gomes, R-Harwich, who served on the Criminal Justice
Committee when the law was crafted, has also written to Vallee, asking
for a complete review of the registry and the sex offender law.
"Hindsight is great," Gomes said. "Unfortunately, another life has been lost. This is what we were trying to prevent to begin with. I'm frustrated and angry that in this particular case it has not worked as it should ... Let's go back and look at this again, whatever else we can do to make sure it's implemented properly."
Patrick said more should be done to find the 14,000 sex offenders who have not been classified, a list that dates back to 1981. The whereabouts of many of them are unknown. The registry has classified about 4,000 offenders since the Supreme Judicial Court allowed the law to go forward in June 2001. About 10,000 offenders have registered since the Legislature first passed the law in 1996.
State legislators have blamed court decisions, as well as funding cuts, for the backlog. The Legislature cut the board's $3.8 million budget by 12 percent, or $440,000, this year.
"What's a life worth?" Patrick asked. "How many more are we going to lose before we get this straightened out?"
Patrick is studying a wide range of legislation, such as requiring electronic monitoring bracelets for unclassified offenders, and barring staff from having a personal relationship with offenders when they have a role in their release.
Patrick supports a bill filed by Gov. Mitt Romney that would require offenders to register with the Sex Offender Registry before they are released from prison, rather after they are set free.
Patrick said more needed to be done to help victims of sexual abuse as well. "If it isn't a focus, it should be," he said.
State Sen. Robert O'Leary, D-Barnstable, and state Rep. Jeffrey Perry, R-Sandwich, also said they would support moves to tighten the law.
"Anything we can do to strengthen the law, I think we should, in my opinion," O'Leary said.
The Legislature has been debating ways to close loopholes in the law that allows authorities to seek the civil commitment of dangerous sexual predators.
Perry was concerned there was no consistency from one police department to another about how information about offenders was released. He is a former Wareham police officer who holds a degree in sociology.
"There is certainly a school of thought, and one that I would probably agree with, that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated, so we as a society need to keep a tight leash on them," Perry said. "Perhaps we can do it through some type of permanent probation, which would have put some enforcement behind the registry."
State Rep. Eric Turkington, D-Falmouth, is working with Patrick on the legislation. Turkington said he would meet with Vallee and local police chiefs to discuss ways to improve the system.
"The Sex Offender Registry has not been a success story," Turkington said. "In fact, clearly, it's been a colossal failure. It's clearly a dysfunctional system."
State knew Nolin was in Falmouth
By Amanda Lehmert and Sean Gonsalves
Officials at the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board knew as early as last January that Paul Nolin had moved to Falmouth. But Falmouth police say they were not told that Nolin, a child rapist who now is accused of murder, lived in town.
In fact, board officials sent Nolin a letter to his Falmouth address in January and then again in May, each warning him that if he failed to register within five days he would be prosecuted, according to registry records examined by the Times.
Nolin didn't register, but no prosecutorial action was taken. And no assistance was requested from Falmouth authorities to get Nolin to register, Falmouth police Sgt. A.J. Bettencourt said yesterday.
This is despite the fact that registry board officials sought the help of Mashpee police to get Nolin to register in 2001 and 2002, when he lived in that town. But last February, when board officials ruled Nolin was in violation of registry requirements, Falmouth police still were not notified.
The department "never received anything with Paul Nolin's name on it. I would have acted on it," Bettencourt said.
It is the policy of the board to notify police departments when a local offender is in violation of registry law, registry spokesman Charles McDonald said yesterday. He wouldn't comment on why Falmouth police were not told about Nolin, saying he is legally prohibited from doing so.
Mashpee police went to Nolin's Mashpee apartment several times in 2001 and 2002 at the request of registry officials, Mashpee police officials said Monday.
But in October 2002, Nolin moved to a bungalow at 17 Nye Road in Falmouth. He did not tell the registry board about his new address as required by law, according to Sex Offender Registry Board records examined by the Times. The records were provided by a source not associated with the board.
It wasn't until police started investigating the disappearance of Jonathan Wessner last month that the Falmouth police learned Nolin lived a few blocks from the police station and worked in a convenience store across the street from the town's recreation department. That's when they also found out the child rapist was not properly registered as a sex offender.
Wessner, 20, was last seen at about 3 a.m. Sept. 20 leaving a party with Nolin from Nolin's Nye Road home.
Nolin, 39, served 18 years for kidnapping and raping a 10-year-old Lowell boy in 1982. He pleaded innocent Oct. 2 to charges of kidnapping and murdering Wessner. He is being held without bail at the Barnstable County House of Correction.
Wessner's partially buried body was found Oct. 4 on a secluded Woods Hole beach. He was killed Sept. 20 in a small boathouse about 50 feet from where his body was found, according to sources close to the investigation.
The registry board is supposed to notify police departments, and in some cases the public, when a sex offender lives or works in their city or town. State law requires offenders to inform the board of their new address and place of employment when they move to another residence or change jobs.
They must also re-register annually during the month in which their birthday falls. Nolin's birthday is in May.
The board has no enforcement powers. It relies on local police to find offenders that are in violation of the registry law and either persuade them to register or arrest them, McDonald said.
But first, board officials must notify the police that a sex offender is violating the registry requirements. Otherwise police would not know of the violations.
When Nolin lived in Mashpee, registry board officials asked Mashpee police more than once to visit Nolin when he failed to register in 2001 and 2002, according to Mashpee police. Nolin finally complied after the police visits.
Moved to mentor's home
In 2000, when he got out of prison, Nolin registered with the board without
having to be reminded. He moved to an apartment in the Mashpee home of
the Rev. Donald Turlick, a Catholic priest who described himself as Nolin's
mentor. Turlick was also one of Nolin's therapists at the state's treatment
center for the sexually dangerous in Bridgewater.
Because registry board officials cannot discuss Nolin's case, it was uncertain yesterday how the board learned of Nolin's move.
But registry records show that the board mailed a notice to Nolin at his Falmouth residence on Jan. 7, 2003, informing him he must re-register.
The letter warned Nolin that "Failure to complete the (re-registration form) ... and send it to the Board within five calendar days of receipt of this letter will result in prosecution."
A February 2003 internal registry memo said Nolin was officially placed in violation for failing to register with the board.
In May, Nolin was sent an identical warning notice, again threatening prosecution if he didn't register within five days.
McDonald would not say why the board took no legal action against Nolin.
Nolin finally registered his Falmouth address with the board on Sept. 23, after he became a suspect in Wessner's murder and nine days before he was charged with the killing.
Nolin, an apprentice working with a Falmouth plumber since 2000, told
the registry board he was self-employed and thus did not have to give
a work address. He never notified the board that he worked at a convenience
store, according to records examined by the Times.
But Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe said even if a sex offender in violation of the registry law is arrested, the offender is not likely to serve any jail time.
"Our office would be happy to prosecute anyone who was brought in on a violation for failing to register. But as a practical matter, that would do little to ensure public safety because that is a minor offense for which most defendants would be simply told to register and then be released," O'Keefe said.
Mashpee police could not tell Nolin's neighbors or other Mashpee residents that a convicted child rapist lived in town because Nolin had not yet been classified by the registry board.
Three levels of classification
Information identifying sex offenders cannot be made public until the offender is classified as either a level 1, 2 or 3. The designation level is determined by the likelihood of the offender to commit another offense.
Information on level 1 offenders can be accessed only by the police; the public can access information on level 2 offenders by request at a police station; and police can actively make public information about a level 3 offender.
It is because Nolin has not yet been classified that McDonald is not allowed to talk about his case.
Because the state Supreme Court has ruled that all sex offenders are entitled to a classification hearing, O'Keefe said, "it virtually renders that statue a nullity."
"With literally thousands of people (backlogged in the classification process) and no resources for the board to handle that, the classification process becomes relatively meaningless," O'Keefe said.
Nolin was in the pre-classification process. O'Keefe said Nolin was on track to be classified, but his hearing was put on hold when he moved to Falmouth.
There was nothing in Nolin's Sex Offender Registry Board records indicating a classification hearing had been scheduled. He is among about 14,000 sex offenders statewide still not classified because of the backlog. About 4,000 offenders have been classified since the board was created in 1996.
McDonald said the classification procedure can be stalled if the offenders are not duly notified of their classification hearing.
Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board
This seven-member board classifies sexual offenders according to how much of a risk they present to the public once released from prison. Members are appointed by the governor. Their average salary is $84,000 a year.
According to state law, the board chairman must have knowledge and experience in the criminal justice field. At least three board members must be licensed psychologists or psychiatrists with special expertise in assessment and evaluation of sex offenders and one of them must have experience evaluating juvenile sex offenders. All three must be familiar with the state's forensic mental health system. At least two members must have at least five years of training and experience in probation, parole or corrections. At least one member must have expertise or experience with victims of sexual abuse.
The registry employs 40 people. This year it operates on a $3.4 million budget.
* Jennifer Franco: Chairwoman and executive director since April 2003. Franco was the chief legal counsel at the Executive Office of Public Safety from October 2001 to April 2003 and is a former chief of staff of the Sex Offender Registry Board. She has also worked for the state Criminal History Systems Board and was a volunteer lawyer for the Family Law Battered Women Project at Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services. She graduated from New England School of Law and Hofstra University.
* Alicia Henry Walsh: She served as acting chairwoman of the board for two months before Franco was appointed. She was an assistant chief of staff under former Gov. Paul Cellucci, advising the governor on public safety, elder affairs and economic development. She was director of policy in the Executive Office of Public Safety in 1999 and is a former assistant clerk magistrate in Berkshire District Court. She also worked as a state legislative aide. Walsh graduated from Western New England College School of Law in Springfield and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
* Nadine Murkison: She was the assistant chief probation officer at Essex Superior Court and taught juvenile justice at North Shore Community College in Beverly. She investigated child abuse and neglect reports as a state social worker. She graduated from Northeastern University and holds a master's degree in education from Cambridge College.
* Thomas McPhee: He was a probation officer in Plymouth and Suffolk Superior Courts for more than 20 years. He has coached youth sports teams on the South Shore. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Bridgewater State College.
* Kate Frame: She was a Middlesex County prosecutor from 1997 to 2002. As a member of the Child Abuse Unit, she prosecuted cases involving physical and sexual abuse of children. She also worked in private practice in several law firms in the Boston area. Frame graduated from Boston College Law School and Holy Cross College.
* Doreen Fay: She is a licensed psychologist and was an assistant professor at Lesley University in Cambridge and a psychologist in private practice. She has worked with children and adults, and provided counseling for families of children who are victims of sexual abuse. She is a former consulting psychologist for Lawrence Public Schools. She has a doctorate from Boston University and graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
* Vesna Nuon: She has been a volunteer high school tutor and taught English as a second language at St. Rose Church in Chelsea. Nuon holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She has worked as a jobs counselor for Vietnamese and Cambodian youth in Chelsea and is active in community and domestic violence issues in Lowell.
Source: Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board
State: Police had offender information access
By Amanda Lehmert
Although Falmouth police say they were never notified by the Sex Offender Registry Board that a child rapist and now accused murder moved to town last January, the board said yesterday that the police had that information at their fingertips.
But local police say they do not regularly check an electronic database of offenders provided by the registry nor are they required to do so by law.
Paul Nolin, who pleaded innocent to kidnapping and killing a Falmouth man, is required by law to register his home and work address with the registry board while awaiting a sexual offender classification hearing.
Nolin pleaded guilty to kidnapping and raping a 10-year-old Lowell boy in 1982.
If he is determined to be a Level 2 or Level 3 sexual offender by the board, his personal information will be provided to the community.
Until then, only local police have access to his information. On several occasions in 2001 and 2002, Mashpee police, at the registry board's request, went to Nolin's home and reminded him that he must register. On each occasion, Nolin re-registered with the board. However, police lost track of Nolin when he moved to Falmouth in 2002.
Although records show that the board knew Nolin lived on Nye Road in Falmouth as of January 2003, police said they were never contacted by the board, even after he was considered in violation for not registering.
Nolin could have been arrested by police and, if convicted, sentenced to up to five years in prison for not registering.
Yesterday board officials said Falmouth police could have found that Nolin was in violation and living in their town from the registry database.
"On January 7, 2003, the address of Nye Road in Falmouth was identified as one of several potential addresses of Paul Nolin by the Sex Offender Registry in the Sex Offender Registry database," said spokesman Charles McDonald. "This database is available and accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week to all police departments and it includes registration status."
McDonald could not say what other potential addresses were listed for Nolin. He said more than 500 police officers have been trained to use the database.
Both Mashpee and Falmouth police departments said they do not regularly check the database for local sex offenders who are in violation, but instead rely on the registry board to contact them if there is a problem.
Papers trace Nolin's release
Nine years after he was committed to the Massachusetts Treatment Center for the Sexually Dangerous, a state review board still considered convicted child rapist Paul R. Nolin Jr. a threat to society.
Three months later, with four psychologists testifying on his behalf, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled Nolin was no longer "sexually dangerous," a key change in status that led to his transfer to state prison and eventual release.
Judge Charles M. Grabau changed Nolin's status in 1995 despite testimony by Dr. Nancy Connolly, a psychologist and chairwoman of the board at the treatment center, who said his "attendance and level of participation in his therapy was exaggerated by his treatment team."
In recently released court documents, Connolly, the state's sole witness in the 1995 case, stated "Nolin needed a greater understanding of the relationship between the violence he had exhibited when he committed the underlying crimes and pedophilia."
Nolin pleaded innocent last month to charges he kidnapped and murdered Jonathan Wessner, 20, whose body was found on a beach in Woods Hole two weeks after he was seen leaving a party with Nolin on Sept. 20.
Nolin has lived on Cape Cod since his release from the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, where he served the remainder of his 12- 20-year sentence on three counts of rape of a child under the age of 14 and kidnapping.
He was sentenced in 1983, but was transferred to the state's Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous two years later. He eventually sought release from the center, where he could have been held indefinitely if the "sexually dangerous" designation had been maintained.
Nolin petitioned in 1994 for his transfer back to the state prison, but Grabau rejected the original request, saying the state demonstrated he had a "superficial understanding of his sexual offending, continues to have inappropriate violent fantasies, and has an ambivalent approach to participation in treatment."
According to court documents, Nolin lured an 11-year-old boy into the woods in Lowell where he threatened to beat him up and raped him three times.
He pleaded guilty to three counts of rape of a child and kidnapping and was sentenced in 1983.
Once at the treatment center, a facility that is one of five prisons in Bridgewater, Nolin underwent an annual review of his treatment and progress.
Nolin's 1991 review indicates that he was abused and neglected by his parents.
During Nolin's 1994 review, the board of the treatment center unanimously agreed he should continue treatment and still be classified as "sexually dangerous," documents said. Board members said Nolin needed to work on his family history.
Connolly maintained Nolin should not be released from the center during at least two court appearances. According to the court documents, Nolin also had violent fantasies about assaulting a correctional officer.
But four psychologists testified in 1995 that Nolin was no longer sexually dangerous.
Dr. Cornelius Kiley testified Nolin had taken responsibility for his crime and was not likely to reoffend.
Dr. Paul Zeizel said Nolin seemed to have "matured from the rebellious attitude" he had when he entered the treatment center, according to court records. Nolin had been clean of drugs since 1991 and participated in more than 2,000 hours of therapy since entering the facility, the documents indicate.
Nolin also testified on his own behalf, telling the court he had a program for anger control and relapse prevention.
Relapse prevention plans help a sex offender manage sexual urges by understanding the steps that lead to an offense.
Donald Turlick, a retired priest and former therapist at the treatment center, said he helped Nolin address "issues relevant to Mr. Nolin's eventual return to the community and would continue to act in this capacity during Mr. Nolin's transition to the prison system and to the community."
Turlick, who was no longer serving Nolin in a clinical capacity, was classified as a "mentor" in court documents.
The testimony was convincing to Grabau, who ruled "the Commonwealth has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Nolin remains a sexually dangerous person."
Turlick and his attorney did not return messages yesterday.
When Nolin was released from prison in 2000, he moved to Turlick's home in Mashpee where he rented the basement apartment, Turlick told the Times.
Turlick helped him get a job and eventually helped him move to Falmouth.
States succeed as Mass. fumbles
By Frederick Melo
Some of the problems that have made Massachusetts' sex offender registry law a shambles have been dealt with successfully in other states.
While states such as Alaska, Arizona, California and Connecticut have made sharp headway in keeping their registries up to date and easily accessible to the public, the Bay State continues to fumble behind.
Passed by the Legislature in 1996, Massachusetts' system is a patchwork bureaucracy slowed by its own processes, beset by legal challenges, with inconsistently enforced guidelines on how the public should be informed about these convicts, and simple loopholes for criminals to disappear through.
Other states have faced similar problems. However, they have succeeded where Massachusetts has failed.
They have streamlined how convicts are registered, speeding the entire process and putting information in police and public hands more quickly.
They have centralized access to their records, making them more available to the public, in some cases on the Internet.
They have also kept closer watch on these convicts once they're registered to make sure they aren't able to avoid monitoring. And if these ex-criminals do manage to find ways to duck under police radar, some states have created special law enforcement teams to find them again.
Since the mid-1900s, all 50 states have required convicted sex criminals to alert police to their whereabouts after leaving prison. The data have been used by law enforcement to crack cases and monitor criminals, but in the 1990s states broke new ground by making some of the same information available to the general public.
Problems in the Massachusetts system have come to light as a result of the murder of an East Falmouth man, allegedly at the hands of a convicted child rapist whose registration as a sex offender was never made public because a rule in the state's system prohibited police from doing so.
Paul Nolin was convicted in 1983 of luring a child into the woods of Lowell and raping him three times.
Nolin, who was released from prison in 2000, signed in with the Sex Offender Registry Board, moved to Mashpee, and then to Falmouth, where authorities believe he recently murdered a 20-year-old aspiring golf pro named Jonathan Wessner.
State Sex Offender Registry Board officials knew Nolin moved, but Falmouth police were never alerted about Nolin's presence. Despite Nolin's history and the seriousness of the allegations against him, the state's registry board has never classified him a high-risk sex offender. That is a critical step under the 1999 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that created a three-tier system for assigning a risk designation to every offender. Information is made public for only the most dangerous people, but nothing is available until such a risk designation is made.
Even today, Falmouth police are still not legally permitted to inform neighbors a sex offender lived in their midst.
The court decision created a major backlog in processing Massachusetts'
sex offender cases. Only 4,000 of the state's 18,000 sex offenders have
"Recently, I've heard that it would be a great idea to do the classification while they were right in prison, even before they're released," said State Rep. Shirley Gomes, R-Harwich, a former committee member. "We look back at it now, in the areas we've had problems with, and it seems like it makes good sense."
And while the registry has been given more work to do in classifying these sex offenders and giving each one a hearing, the Legislature cut the board's $3.8 million budget this year by 13 percent, or $440,000.
In contrast to Massachusetts, Connecticut State Police Sgt. Paul Vance credits the Connecticut system - which makes no distinction between moderate-risk and high-risk sex offenders - with helping authorities keep tabs on the overwhelming majority of that state's sex crime cases.
A Connecticut state police Web site contains the names and photos of all sex criminals who have been convicted in Superior Court, making separate hearings unnecessary.
In Arizona, all high-risk and moderate-risk offenders are listed in an elaborate online database. The classifications, however, are made by the Department of Corrections around the time the convict is released from prison, based upon a point system that takes into account such factors as the type of crime and age of the victim.
"We've got about 13,000 (convicted sex offenders) statewide, that we're responsible for verifying their address annually," said Chris Ramsey, administrative assistant with the Arizona Department of Public Safety's Sex Offender Compliance section.
"I'd say probably 80 percent of that is done on time, or within a 14- to 16-month timeframe," Ramsey said.
Again in contrast, Paul Nolin never received a state classification since his release in 2000.
Coordinating with police
In several states, sex offender registries operate in close communication
with local law enforcement authorities, or are assigned their own teams
of special agents.
The seven-member registry board, which operates under little public scrutiny, relies on local law enforcement officials and the offenders themselves to keep their whereabouts up to date.
"The burden's left to the localities," said Arthur Frechette, head clerk in the Lowell Police Department, which arrested Nolin in the early 1980s for raping a child. "That's the biggest problem."
"The way the system is set up, some of these people will never get picked up," he said. "The law needs to be changed. The best way would be to have a state police officer stationed in Salem, where the sex offender registry is located. That way, with a monthly or weekly warrant application at the local district court, he could get a warrant for their arrest."
The divide between the registry and local police was underscored by the recent revelation that Falmouth police were aware Nolin had failed to update his annual registration, but did not arrest him.
However, in Connecticut, for instance, sex offenders are required to register with local police every three months, or they can expect a visit from state or local police.
Only 47 of the state's 3,228 convicted sex offenders have disappeared from police monitoring entirely, possibly by moving out of state, Vance said.
In California, the problem with offenders going missing is rampant, but the state has made an improvement. The Department of Justice has assigned seven teams of special agents to check up on offenders who fail to register.
Working with local law enforcement agencies, the Sexual Predator Apprehension Teams have helped whittle the state's list of 33,000 "missing" sex offenders to 25,000 since January.
Authorities there are doubtful, however, that the list will fall below 20,000 without a heavy infusion of additional funding and manpower.
The teams and an associated Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement Task Force were established in 1994 and operate on an estimated annual budget of $6 million.
"The inherent problem with a data base like this is you have convicted sex offenders who are supposed to voluntarily register," said Christina Clem, spokeswoman for California state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "And sometimes, they don't do what they're supposed to do."
Getting information online
In Massachusetts, Internet access to sex offender information is limited,
and varies widely from locality to locality depending on how police departments
- which are ultimately responsible for disseminating the information -
interpret the law. Only two Cape police departments have online listings
for the worst offenders living in their towns.
Rather than promote a uniform system, the Bay State has created a patchwork approach toward alerting the public about high-risk offenders.
An effort to create a statewide database of the most dangerous sex offenders in Massachusetts was blocked by a May 13 Supreme Judicial Court ruling.
The court issued a temporary restraining order stopping the Sex Offender Registry Board from posting information about high-risk offenders on a state Web site. Spurred by the governor's office, the board intended to have the site ready on May 15.
Alaska, Arizona and Connecticut, on the other hand, are among states that claim to be using the Internet to their advantage.
Those states post sex offender information on a statewide database, available to anyone with Internet access.
The Connecticut database, lists all serious offenders alphabetically - from flashers to rapists and child pornographers - as long as they have been convicted in Superior Court.
In California, the state Attorney General's office maintains a computer database of all "serious" and "high-risk" sex offenders accessible to the public from law enforcement offices across the state.
In addition, all cities in California with a population of more than 200,000 residents are required to maintain a local database of sex offenders.
Three states - three systems
Classification: All offenders are ranked on a three-tier system according
to how dangerous they may be to the public. Until a convict gets a classification,
information about that person is unavailable to the public. Only 14,000
of the state's 18,000 offenders have been given a designation.
Tracking offenders: Convicts must register with police once a year. If they don't do that, they face arrest, but enforcement of this rule is unwieldy at best and absent at worst. And many offenders simply disappear just by moving, leaving police with an old, invalid address.
Classification: There are no hearings to classify offenders in various risk categories, resulting in all information about these convicts being processed in a timely way.
Informing the public: Name, address, and some information about the crime is available on all the state's sex offenders on a centralized database accessible over the Internet. This system faced a legal challenge, but the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the state. Offenders are listed alphabetically.
Tracking offenders: Convicts must register with authorities every three months, or risk arrest. Of the state's 3,228 sex criminals, only 47 have dropped of police radar screens.
Classification: Some offenders are given designations as being "serious" and "high-risk."
Informing the public: This system is primarily request-driven, that is residents must check the state's central database, which is accessible at their local police department. From that, people can get names, county of residence, zip code and other information about offenders, but not a home address. Also, all cities of 200,000 or more must run their own local database.
Tracking offenders: Convicts are required to register once a year with
authorities or risk arrest. Working with local police, nine special Sexual
Predator Apprehension Teams work across the state to find offenders who
have disappeared. Since January, the number of missing offenders has dropped
from 33,000 to 25,000.
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