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April 26, 2014

SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRY: Website can give you information on who lives around you

State site spearheaded by Indiana Sheriff’s Association

TERRE HAUTE — Do you know everyone who lives in your neighborhood?

Not just the folks next door, but everyone who lives within a mile of your home?

If you live in a dense city neighborhood, chances are the answer is “no.” Truth is, even if you don’t really know them, there are some residents you should be aware of.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that about 80 percent of all addresses have at least one sex offender living within a 1-mile radius. And, more than half of rapes and sexual assaults occur within a mile of the victim’s home.

“I know who lives in my neighborhood, but that’s because of my job,” said Bill Watson, director of the Vigo County Community Corrections program, which monitors some people with criminal convictions who have returned to the community at large.

“As a parent, when my children were younger, I checked the sex-offender registry to see who was in my neighborhood,” Watson told the Tribune-Star recently. “No one’s going to hang a sign out saying that they have a sex offender living there.”

Public outrage

Where sex offenders reside in Vigo County became a more heightened concern earlier this month, when a convicted sex offender was arrested for allegedly abducting and molesting a young girl who was living with her family in the same extended-stay motel in Terre Haute. Timothy Blazier, 50, has been charged with child molesting and attempted rape for the April 1 incident that occurred at the EconoLodge motel on Margaret Avenue.

Many Terre Haute residents had no idea about the living arrangement, and voiced outrage. Some even protested with signs at the entrance to the business, alerting the public that the motel allows sex offenders to live there.

After the alleged attack, some people wondered: “Does the public have a right to know that a sex offender could be staying in the same motel as a family with children?”

The answer is “yes,” and the reality is that public notification does occur. But there is no requirement that a motel must notify the public — or even know — if a registered guest is also a registered sex offender.

Because state law requires sex offenders to register with a local law enforcement agency, the public is able to find out where sex offenders are residing at any given time. If that residence is at an extended-stay motel, such as the EconoLodge, that address shows up on the local Offender Watch website, accessible by the public.

“The state spent a lot of time and money developing the website as a tool to keep the public informed,” said Steve Luce, a retired sheriff who is now executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association. The ISA spearheaded development of the Offender Watch program in cooperation with the Department of Correction, and all 92 Indiana counties are now using the same software to track offenders and to notify the public.

“I think a lot of time, the public doesn’t take the time to research and use these tools,” Luce told the Tribune-Star as he was traveling to a regional sheriff’s meeting to discuss law enforcement issues. “The sheriffs’ association tries to promote this as a free tool to the public as much as we can.”

In fact, the sheriffs’ association has scheduled six regional meetings since April 2 to meet with DOC officials and sheriffs to address registry concerns, as well as changes in state law and sentencing guidelines.

“We are trying to work with them all to come up with good solutions, so that incidents like the EconoLodge don’t happen,” Luce said. “We are trying to help offenders be compliant, and to educate the public.”

Shared

responsibility

Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing attended one of those regional meetings in Montgomery County, and he told the Tribune-Star that the EconoLodge incident received a lot of discussion.

“The public needs to exercise due diligence in being informed, and the registry is a good way to find out who lives where,” Ewing said. “People are on the Internet all the time, and this site takes just a few clicks to get registered for alerts. If someone doesn’t have Internet access, they can just call the sheriff’s office, and we will look up information for them on who’s in their neighborhood.”

Ewing noted that most states have some form of registry, so it is also important for people to check their vacation destinations, as well, to see if any registered offenders will be in the vicinity.

Sex offenders can live and work in wealthy areas, middle-class subdivisions and poor neighborhoods. There is no socio-economic stereotype that points out people convicted of a sex crime.

Once convicted, however, those who reside in Indiana must follow the statute IC 11-8-8, which details the responsibilities of convicted offenders, as well as the duties and responsibilities of law enforcement agencies across the state.

By Indiana court order, an offender can be prohibited from residing within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare center, youth program center or public park. An offender who owned a home prior to being convicted can simply return to that home, even if it is located near a school or other prohibited area. However, those who do not own a home must comply with the 1,000-foot rule when finding a place to live. In a city such as Terre Haute, which is dotted with schools and daycare centers, it can be difficult for offenders to find affordable housing that meets the 1,000-foot restriction.

Deputy Bernard Burns of the sheriff’s department is assigned to regularly update Vigo County’s sex offender registry and to have contact with the offenders, themselves.

Burns told the Tribune-Star that he works with the DOC and the offenders as they are released into Vigo County to make sure that the housing they select meets the mandatory distance from a prohibited location. The law enforcement component of the offender registry identifies the radius of each prohibited location, so he can make sure an offender’s address falls in an acceptable area.

The residency restrictions, Burns said, particularly impact offenders with limited economic resources and no family to offer help. The EconoLodge is one of the few locations in Terre Haute that is outside a 1,000-foot zone, and its low price makes it more accessible than a higher-priced hotel.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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