RELEASED TO REOFFEND: NEWS 11 INVESTIGATES THE SEX OFFENDER NEXT DOOR
November 14, 2019
News 11 investigates the sex offender next door:
Statistics show 99% of child sex offenders reoffend, yet they are still being released into our community.
We spoke to police, probation, victim advocates, lawmakers and even knocked on the doors, of those who have spent years in prison and now have to register as a sex offender for life.
Convicted sex offenders have to inform law enforcement of where they'll be living, even if homeless these predators have to tell police something - even under the bridge off First Street is sufficient. Every time they move, police put it on social media, those who live nearby are alerted and we put it on the news. The goal isn't to instill fear, rather keep you informed.
"It doesn't mean something is going to happen, doesn't mean they're a violent person, we want you safe and to be alerted," Sgt. Lori Franklin said, of the Yuma Police Department.
In Yuma County, sex offenders are living among us. "I don't know if we have more, or we are just reporting more," Stephanie Pla said, from Adult Probation.
On average - 60 people are on probation at a time, in Yuma County. "We see a lot of child pornography, putting cameras where they shouldn't be and there's been an upswing in revenge porn," Pla said. Over the years, she's seen her share of success stories.
"They get married, have kids, get a good job and get back into society - there's nothing more rewarding." But she has also seen the other side. "A lot of it has to do with control. They are very narcissistic, they don't care who they hurt, as long as they can please themselves," Pla said.
We set out to ask them for themselves. After knocking on several doors, some convicted sex offenders told me to get off their property, others chose to tell their story.
"It involved me and my step daughter. She told her mom I was molesting her friend, but I was just fixing her bra." This man spent decades in prison. He was convicted in 1981 for sexual conduct with a minor then again in 2001, for the attempted molestation of a child.
I asked, "Do you think you're a danger to children? He replied, "I have grand kids. No!"
The Yuma County Sheriff's Department has listed him as level three, meaning he's been deemed the highest risk to re-offend - yet after serving his time, he is now a free man. "I don't really care what the public thinks, because I don't have to answer to the public."
He took part in sex offender rehabilitation programs while in prison - that he says did help - possibly even shed light on a motive, sharing with me, he was molested by his father, starting at just four years old. He says he endured that torture another 12 years. "I assumed the same mindset, my core beliefs got warped."
Statistics show it is indeed often someone you know. "94% of the time, it's a family member," Dianne Umphress said, who started the family advocacy center, Amberly's Place in Yuma, 20 years ago. It's grown into an empire. She said, "We have five sexual assault nurse examiners on call 24-7. The youngest victim we've had was just four months." And the oldest to date - 85 years old.
In the first year, Amberly's place saw 48 victims come forward - now, they help about 2,500 people each year. And still sexual assault is the most under reported crime; one in six women have a story to tell. "Seeing broken people come in here, and they leave not quite so broken, that's where my passion comes from," Umphress added.
Her motivation also comes from a murder that remains a mystery today. "Amberly was a young girl, she was murdered in her own home and sexually assaulted in 1996," Umphress said.
It was around the time, Dianne was building this safe haven for victims of abuse, to have a place to come forward and get help. She was given the blessing by Amberly Mendoza's mother. Since then, Amberly's name, story and legacy have helped change the lives of thousands of now survivors. "Even when the worst thing happens, there's life after abuse. You can survive. You can still have a happy life," Umphress said.
Through this story, I learned silence is the biggest factor for why abuse continues.
Everyone agrees, more needs to be done. Again, Amberly's place statistics have stayed the same for 20 years, showing 99% of child sex offenders re-offend.
Police catch the predators, probation keeps an eye on them, so change would really have to come in the form of a new law. I reached out to several lawmakers. Congressman Paul Gosar, (R) Arizona said, "It defies common sense that these offenders receive light sentences, and are often released into society when the data shows high risks of recidivism." He says he is looking for legislative solutions to 'hold these horrendous offenders accountable, and keep america's children safe.'
Representative Walter Blackman (R) Arizona, said in part, "There are some who believe we should include sex offenders as part of the criminal justice reform debate," but he says he can't support that.
And, Representative Tim Dunn (R) Arizona says "Longer prison sentences for violent, high risk sex offenders are only a partial solution – there also needs to be cooperation at the state and local levels to ensure that resources exist to both reduce recidivism and keep our communities safe."
Those convicted of child sex abuse serve between five years to life in prison, then those released are on probation for ten years to life. "Sex offenders are not allowed to be released early. They have to serve their entire sentence," Pla said.
Probation often includes drug and alcohol tests and random - surprise check ins. We just happened to be there for one. Officers showed up, as we were door knocking. Registered sex offenders are also required to hand over the passwords to every electronic. The internet opens up your child, to a world of sexual predators.
Message from Executive Director Laura A. Ahearn: Please visit our website at www.crimevictimscenter.org for news, information and resources in your community.