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Predators in hiding

Convicted sex offender Brandan Snedeger lived off the radar, three moves and seven miles from where he was supposed to be.

His Kansas City roommates, an 18-year-old woman and her boyfriend, were as much in the dark about his criminal past as police were about his latest location.

That’s until, court records say, he allegedly pulled the woman onto his lap and sexually assaulted her. Afterward, she discovered his record of child molestation and statutory sodomy.

“I had no idea,” she said recently. “He seemed fine.”

An unprecedented Kansas City Star investigation revealed a disturbing number of offenders like Snedeger who readily and repeatedly ignore registration laws and evade authorities.

Roughly three in 10 sex offenders did not live where they were supposed to, Star reporters determined in a door-to-door sweep through the three area counties with the most registered sex offenders.

Perhaps most troubling? Many of the missing were the kinds of sex offenders parents most fear. Rapists. Child molesters. Repeat offenders.

“The ones who register and tell you where they are, are the ones you aren’t worried about,” said Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Chris Ricks. “The predators, the real animals, if they do register they give you a fake address. They don’t stay around enough to let you track them.”

Among flaws The Star discovered:

• Building a registry system on offenders’ honesty doesn’t work. Criminals lie.

• Listing teenage Romeos alongside vicious child predators only confuses the public about whom it really should fear.

• Lawmakers burden sheriff’s departments with monitoring an ever-increasing pool of offenders without opening state coffers to pay for it. Roughly 15,000 now live in Missouri and Kansas.

• Law enforcement agencies often fail to communicate on offender movements, creating more registry inaccuracies.

Nationally, nearly 567,000 offenders have appeared on registries this year. Officials said about 25 percent violated registration laws.

“Have the registries done some good? Absolutely,” Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison said. “But if you think law enforcement always knows where dangerous offenders are, you are mistaken.”

False security

Lawmakers crafted the first registries in the mid-1990s, after horrendous high-profile crimes against children like 12-year-old Polly Klaas and 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.

Proponents say the lists help solve some sex crimes and prevent others. Some school officials regularly read them. Neighborhood associations monitor lists and warn residents.

But critics contend the overly broad lists now are more apt to spread fear than provide useful and accurate information.

“There’s a false sense of security people derive from looking at these Web sites where they supposedly can see who offenders are and where they are,” said California’s Marc Klaas, an advocate for sex-offender reforms since a convicted rapist kidnapped his daughter, Polly, from a slumber party and killed her in 1993.

The Star’s survey, patterned after a recent Kansas audit, found just the kind of inaccuracies critics condemn.

From De Soto to Grain Valley, from the East Bottoms to Olathe, Star reporters drove hundreds of miles over three weeks seeking face-to-face encounters with 5 percent of the approximately 1,900 sex offenders registered in Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

Many addresses were bogus. Some offenders had been considered “missing” by officials for years. Parolees had slipped away undetected.

Of the 93 offenders reporters sought, at least 27 did not live where registered. Reporters could not confirm the whereabouts of several others.

Half of the Wyandotte County offenders could not be located or were improperly registered. One-fourth of Jackson County offenders had moved or never lived at their registered address. In Johnson County, 15 percent weren’t there.

“It’s like hide and seek. They’re going to hide,” said Wyandotte County Sheriff LeRoy Green Jr. “We need help. Law enforcement can not do it by ourselves.”

Lying to the cops

Arvel Walls Jr. obeyed the law. Or so officials thought.

On the registry for a 1993 statutory sexual seduction conviction in Nevada, he dutifully reported in person quarterly to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department to reconfirm his residency in the 5200 block of Spruce Avenue.

But when Star reporters knocked on that door, a woman answered with a puzzled look on her face.

“I don’t know Arvel Walls,” she said. “We’ve lived here for about five years.”

The next day she contacted the Sheriff’s Department and asked to have her address removed from the registry.

“He was compliant,” said Sgt. Gary Kilgore, who oversees the county’s registry. “Other than giving us the wrong address.”

Deputies subsequently located Walls and updated his registered address.

He did not respond to requests from The Star for comment.

More than one offender has tried the address trick. Authorities say it’s impossible at times to keep registries accurate when some offenders feed them pure misinformation.

Or feed them no information at all.

In The Star’s door-to-door search through Wyandotte County, a couple of homes on the list sat vacant.

At a third Kansas City, Kan., house, a resident said he hadn’t seen the offender registered there “in months.” And at yet another home, one elderly woman came to her door saying her late husband’s grandson had lived there “years ago,” but she hadn’t seen him in a long time.

It’s hard to find people who don’t want to be found, says Green. Especially in a county where many of the offenders rent and move often.

“They’re just like checkers, jumping from one place to another hoping to hide their identity,” he said.

And if they’re caught, they offer excuse after excuse, says Lt. John Resman of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department.

He says he’s heard it all when his department attempts to verify addresses of offenders who haven’t returned quarterly letters to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

Kansas sends the letters, and requires they be returned, as a way to monitor offenders.

“You get, ‘I didn’t know I had to let anyone know I moved,’ ” Resman said. “Some move and forget to call, or to come in and register.”

Snedeger, 25, didn’t forget. The Kansas City man intentionally skirted registry laws, he told authorities after his arrest for allegedly assaulting his unsuspecting roommate, according to court documents.

At the time of the September incident, court records show he lived at 96th Street and Blue Ridge Boulevard. But he was registered in the 5100 block of Hickory Road.

Snedeger, one of the offenders randomly chosen for The Star’s survey, told detectives he had moved three times without updating his registration, court records said.

He faces charges of forcible sodomy, sexual misconduct and failure to register. He pleaded not guilty.

His address now is updated correctly to 1300 Cherry St. — the Jackson County Jail.

No money, no time

Wyandotte County sheriff’s officials have known for nearly a year they’re falling short.

Last summer Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline released audit results showing that Wyandotte had the worst compliance rate of 43 counties studied. Of 13 Wyandotte offenders sampled, just six were obeying registry laws.

Green ordered changes, telling his patrol deputies to check addresses when they could. He recently asked commissioners for a full-time deputy to track sex offenders.

What else can you do, Green and his staff ask, when there’s no extra money for enforcement?

“You have to manage with the resources we have,” Green said.

It’s an obstacle for authorities on both sides of the state line.

Even while Kansas and Missouri legislators push more laws addressing sex offenders, authorities get no extra money to enforce them. And as the lists continue to grow — with most Missouri offenders on for life — the problem only gets worse.

In Jackson County, home to more than 1,400 registered offenders, authorities know that at least 300 have not properly registered or met periodic requirements to update their information. But the Sheriff’s Department lacks money to hire extra deputies to keep track of them.

And though the department hired a retired police officer last year to find and register offenders, officials call that a stopgap measure.

Smaller counties, like Allen County in east-central Kansas, keep a better handle on the problem because they have fewer offenders. Sheriff Thomas Williams divvies the county’s two dozen offenders between his deputies. Each month, deputies get a new list.

“We want to make sure they are living where they are supposed to be living, doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Williams said.

But in larger jurisdictions, officials claim that’s impossible.

“We can’t go knock on 1,400 doors, unfortunately,” said Jackson County’s Kilgore.

As of April 1, Wyandotte had 317 offenders and Johnson counted 258, among the most in Kansas.

What makes prosecuting violators even harder is the time needed to build a case. Once deputies find an offender improperly registered, Kansas law requires an investigation before an arrest warrant can be issued.

It can be days or weeks before a case is sent to the district attorney. By then, the offender often drops off the radar again.

Last year, Morrison charged eight offenders with failing to register, the state’s lowest felony. Most violators likely would qualify for probation while ones with the worst criminal record could face about a year in prison.

In Missouri, failure to register carries a possible prison sentence of up to four years for some first-time violators.

But authorities in Jackson County concede that prosecution has been virtually nonexistent.

Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders said his office is working with the Sheriff’s Department to identify and prosecute flagrant violators.

“There was a huge gaping hole,” Sanders said. “We knew we were way behind.”

Communication failures

One offender still registered at an Independence address this month actually has been in federal custody since October on a bank robbery charge.

Wyandotte County authorities considered another offender from The Star’s survey missing for nearly a year. Reporters tracked him to Jackson County, where he’s a properly registered Missouri offender. Such discrepancies boil down to a lack of communication between agencies. They don’t always tell each other when an offender has moved or been arrested. By law, technically, it’s the offender’s responsibility.

Even offenders under parole supervision find ways to exploit communication lapses.

In The Star’s survey, six offenders claimed to be registered at a state-operated halfway house in Kansas City’s West Bottoms at 651 Mulberry St.

Only two of the six actually lived there at the time, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. Three never may have lived there, officials said.

In all, the county’s registry showed 99 persons convicted of sex crimes supposedly living at 651 Mulberry at the time of the survey. It represented the largest concentration of registered sex offenders in Missouri. At least on paper.

But when The Star provided names, corrections officials verified that only 43 actually bunked there.

The officials checked the other 56 offenders and found 22 back in prison. Eleven remained on parole and lived elsewhere. Thirteen faced arrest warrants for absconding. And the department didn’t know the whereabouts of 10 former parolees.

As a result of The Star’s inquiry, the Corrections Department sent updated registry information to the Sheriff’s Department, said corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth.

“We want to make sure everybody knows where they are, law enforcement and the public,” Hauswirth said.

Kilgore, who supervises the county’s registry, said he felt troubled to learn of the halfway house discrepancies.

“It sounds like a breakdown in communication at all levels,” he said.

| Staff writer John Shultz contributed to this report. INSIDE: Six ways to make sex-offender registry laws better | A13  | @ To read the series or check out sex-offender registry sites, go to KansasCity.com

Woman uses registry to identify rape suspect

Matthew Cullen occupies a jail cell awaiting trial because of Kansas’ sex-offender registry.

Just hours after an Olathe teenager was choked into unconsciousness and raped, she logged on to the registry to look for the stranger who told her his name was Matt.

The 17-year-old studied the faces of several hundred offenders living in Johnson County. None looked familiar.

The next day she returned to the computer to look at Wyandotte County offenders. She got to the tail end of the C’s on the alphabetized list and let out a gasp as she pointed at Cullen’s picture, her father said.

He remembers her calling out: “Oh my God, Dad, that’s him.”

Olathe detectives investigated and arrested Cullen, recently paroled from prison after serving time for the attempted rape of another teenager. The current rape case against him is pending in Johnson County District Court. He has pleaded not guilty.

“If it wasn’t for him being out there on that site he may not have been captured,” the victim’s father said.

WHERE ARE THEY?

These hard-to-find Missouri and Kansas sex offenders have evaded authorities as well as their obligation to register. For other hard-to-find offenders, see page A14.

Daniel G. Bearden

Age: 45

Crime: Twice-convicted child molester in Colorado.

Update: Last registered at a Kansas City halfway house. Wanted on Missouri Department of Corrections warrant issued in September 2004.

Abraham Fontanez

Age: 43

Crime: Convicted of rape in Jackson County.

Update: Wanted as a parole absconder since July 2002. Last known address was at a Kansas City halfway house.

Alfonso Newton

Age: 62

Crime: 1998 Jackson County conviction for first-degree child molestation.

Update: Last was accounted for in August 2003 living in Kansas City, Kan.

Woman uses registry to identify rape suspect

Matthew Cullen occupies a jail cell awaiting trial because of Kansas’ sex-offender registry.

Just hours after an Olathe teenager was choked into unconsciousness and raped, she logged on to the registry to look for the stranger who told her his name was Matt.

The 17-year-old studied the faces of several hundred offenders living in Johnson County. None looked familiar.

The next day she returned to the computer to look at Wyandotte County offenders. She got to the tail end of the C’s on the alphabetized list and let out a gasp as she pointed at Cullen’s picture, her father said.

He remembers her calling out: “Oh my God, Dad, that’s him.”

Olathe detectives investigated and arrested Cullen, recently paroled from prison after serving time for the attempted rape of another teenager. The current rape case against him is pending in Johnson County District Court. He has pleaded not guilty.

“If it wasn’t for him being out there on that site he may not have been captured,” the victim’s father said.

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