By Roger McKinney
Globe Staff Writer
BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. - Steven Ernst and Gary Wayne Nichols each received an unexpected visit on Monday.
Both are registered sex offenders living in Baxter Springs. Cpl. Troy Newman and Detective Doug Holbert with the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department dropped in on them unannounced as part of the department's Sexual Predator Identification and Response program. The program is called Spider for short.
The officers interviewed Ernst and Nichols to determine whether the information the department had on file for them was current.
Newman said it is a priority for the department to know where sex offenders live.
The Kansas version of Florida's Jessica's Law, which increases penalties against sex offenders and those who fail to comply with the offender registry, took effect July 1.
Newman said the Sheriff's Department began the Spider program at the beginning of the year by finding the current addresses of all the registered sex offenders in the county. He said about half of the offenders comply with the requirements of the registry, but the other half largely disregard the requirements and do not notify the Sheriff's Department when they move.
"They all (sexual offenders) try to tell you that they don't remember signing the paperwork," Newman said.
Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline reported last July that an audit of the offender registry conducted by sheriffs in 43 counties found that 28 percent of registered offenders in the counties were not complying in at least one area, and 21 percent were not complying with address requirements. The address records of nearly 14 percent of the offenders were not verified by the end of the audit.
Knock and talk
A computer program randomly generates a list of names of registered sex offenders for the officers who are part of the Spider program to check up on each month.
Ernst and Nichols on Monday were cooperative with Holbert and Newman. Ernst was convicted of attempted aggravated criminal sodomy and sodomy with a child younger than 14. Nichols was convicted of indecent solicitation of a child for a sexual act.
"It doesn't bother me," Ernst said about the visit. "I kind of expect it, since I committed the crime."
"It doesn't bother me none," Nichols said. "I understand what they need to do. I don't plan to do another offense."
Newman and Holbert said that for the first time since they had been visiting Nichols, he had children living with him. They said that since his probation has expired, that is no longer prohibited.
When the registered offender is not home, the officers hang a brightly colored sign on the doorknob. The sign reads in large, bold letters, "attention registered offender," and directs the offenders to appear at the Sheriff's Department within three days.
The officers said that when they determine that a registered offender is not living at the address the person has indicated, they will request that an arrest warrant for the person be issued.
Newman said the officers also talk with neighbors to find out whether the registered offender has exhibited any suspicious behavior, especially around children.
Whitney Watson, spokesman for Kline, said that as part of Jessica's Law, the attorney general had sought a mandatory 25-year sentence for a first conviction of a serious sex crime against a child younger than 14, a mandatory 40-year sentence for a second offense, and a mandatory life sentence on a third offense.
Instead, Watson said, the Legislature approved presumptive 25-year, 40-year and life sentences at the judge's discretion.
Watson said the definition of a serious sex crime includes only rape.
The penalty for failing to properly register was increased to a presumptive prison sentence.
Holbert said the new Kansas law should help.
"It's about time Kansas started putting people away instead of slapping them on the wrists," he said.
Newman said a long prison sentence is nothing compared with the suffering the child victim experiences.
"You've taken away the child's childhood, their innocence," Newman said. "They're changed for the rest of their lives."
Sandy Morris, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center in Pittsburg, said she thinks the Spider program is a wonderful idea. She said the offenders she is most worried about are those who have not yet been arrested or convicted.
"They're still out there, and nobody's watching them," she said.
Morris said she fears that the increased penalties under Jessica's Law may cause some jurors to become more reluctant to convict someone.
Web site listing
Newman said the Spider program will allow the Sheriff's Department to quickly identify sex offenders living in an area if a child is abducted.
One difficulty the Spider program has encountered is when registered sex offenders move into Cherokee County from other states and counties, Newman said. He said one registered offender was identified during a traffic stop. He said that since Cherokee County has accurate information on the whereabouts of its sex offenders, authorities can notify police agencies in other jurisdictions when a registered offender moves there.
The offender registry on the Kansas Bureau of Investigation's Web site lists 41 registered offenders in Cherokee County. The registry includes child and adult sex offenders, and violent offenders.
Newman said the Spider program has made the registry that is available for public viewing at the Cherokee County Law Enforcement Center more current and more accurate than the KBI registry. He said few people come in to examine the file.
"Before I bought a house, that's one of the things I would want to look at," Newman said. "I definitely want to be aware of where they live."
Who was Jessica?
Jessica's Law was sparked by the kidnapping, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in 2005 in Florida. She was buried alive. John Evander Couey, a convicted sex offender, is charged in the case. Jessica's Law in many states includes lifetime electronic monitoring for sex offenders who target children.
Source: The Associated Press
In other states
Missouri: Gov. Matt Blunt signed Missouri's version of Jessica's Law last month. It includes a mandatory 30-year sentence for forcible rape or sodomy when the victim is younger than 12, and requires lifetime monitoring for those offenders. The penalty for repeat offenders is a life sentence without possibility of parole. The law also adds more details to the state's sex-offender registry.
Oklahoma: Jessica's Law, requiring electronic monitoring of sex offenders, passed the Legislature and was signed into law by the governor last year. This year, Gov. Brad Henry signed into law a bill that allows for the death penalty for repeat sex offenders.