By Leila Atassi
About two-thirds of the registered sex offenders who claim to live at a men's homeless shelter on Cleveland's East Side, either have not spent a night there in the past three months or have never even set foot in the place.
And a Plain Dealer analysis suggests several of them might be living surreptitiously in the suburbs.
Court records and information provided by administrators at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, which runs the shelter at 2100 Lakeside Ave., confirm that more than 100 of the 166 sex offenders registered to that address are unaccounted for.
Increasingly stringent limitations on where sex offenders can live have driven many to register under false addresses and live off the grid -- beyond monitoring and treatment, say sex offender management and re-entry specialists.
And as the county's list of sex offenders grows to more than 3,000, with fewer resources to monitor them, it is impossible to know how many might have registered under one location and are living at another.
State law prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or day-care facility, and many communities have passed ordinances expanding those restrictions to include parks, libraries, even churches.
But detectives argue that, although residency restrictions pose housing problems for some, in most cases, the offenders simply are attempting to keep their whereabouts unknown.
"If there were no restrictions at all on where these guys could live, they would still lie to us," Detective Sue DeChant said in a recent interview. "They say they're not working, and they have a job. They say they don't have a vehicle, and they own 25 of them. They just don't want anyone to know who they are."
Sex offenders must register their address and other information with the sheriff's office every 90 days for a period of at least 10 years. The information, along with photos of the offenders, is posted on the state attorney general's website and is intended to alert residents of the presence of sex offenders in their neighborhoods.
After an offender is convicted, he or she has three days to register, a process that takes about an hour initially.
Playing a game of cat-and-mouse
DeChant said in many cases, it is obvious the offenders are not homeless when they try to register as a resident at the men's shelter. They often show up wearing nice clothes, jewelry or expensive-looking sunglasses and accessories, she said. Photos of the offenders on the registry website corroborate the detective's observations.
But offenders are required only to sign a document pledging that the information they provide is accurate, and they do not have to prove residency.
Within a week, a deputy sheriff will visit the shelter, call or send a list of names to cross-reference with the shelter's electronic check-in system that keeps track of attendance at the facility. But by then, the offender is off the radar.
Sheriff's detectives, who called the process a cat-and-mouse game, say that in any given week, at least one or two offenders are found to have fraudulently registered to the shelter.
After The Plain Dealer asked the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office for a list of the shelter's sex offenders whose whereabouts are unknown, detectives said they discovered two dozen new cases of registration violations that will be passed on to a grand jury for indictment in the coming weeks.
"A guy who is trying to assimilate and make good in his community is going to make good," said Detective Katie Orlando. "But these guys are using a very positive program in their own deceitful and deceptive way. And we want to do all we can to stop them from doing it."
But the detectives acknowledge that preventing registration fraud and maintaining the integrity of the registry is a daunting task for the department with only two deputies managing a growing sex offender caseload.
Verifying the entire list
Periodically the deputies will set out to verify the entire list of offenders' addresses, but priority is given to new registrants and offenders convicted of the most severe crimes, said Lt. Don Michalosky, who supervises the sheriff's sex offender unit.
When the deputies discover that an offender does not live at the reported address, he or she is charged with a registration-related crime. And the case is passed on to prosecutors and eventually a grand jury for indictment.
Last year, the Sheriff's Office filed charges against defendants in about 400 cases for flouting registration requirements, Orlando said.
The U.S. Marshals Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force then assumes the duty of tracking down the missing offenders.
U.S. Marshal Peter Elliot said his office draws upon the informational systems of jurisdictions across the country in its search. His task force, which also includes officers from local police departments, devotes weeks every year to rounding up sexual predators. And once captured, the offenders can face federal prosecution -- in addition to the state charges -- for failing to comply with the registration requirements outlined in the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.
However, with 20,000 arrest warrants outstanding on all varieties of violent criminals in Cuyahoga County alone, the search for errant sex offenders poses a formidable challenge, Elliot said.
Court records show that many of the offenders falsely registered to the men's shelter have been charged by a grand jury with registration violations, and some have been prosecuted multiple times in the past for similar infractions. The severity of the violation mirrors that of the offender's underlying sex crime, and if convicted, the offender can face the same consequences, including time in prison.
But the majority of those registered to the shelter with pending charges remain living off the grid -- some with at least two-year-old warrants for their arrest -- in communities that are unaware of their presence.
Lakewood Law Director Nora Hurley said she was shocked at the extent of the registration fraud and at the possibility that sex offenders could furtively be living in restricted zones of suburban communities.
Hurley said her city goes to great lengths to enforce its residency restrictions, among the most stringent in the region -- banning some sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of libraries, parks or city-owned recreational facilities, including swimming pools.
Police officers even will physically measure the distance between property lines and will visit offenders' homes and order them to move within 30 days. So far, that warning -- and the threat of a first-degree misdemeanor charge -- has been enough to nudge offenders into compliance, Hurley said.
But treatment and re-entry specialists say laws such as Lakewood's could unintentionally exacerbate the problem of registration fraud. When a city toughens its residency restrictions, it triggers a ripple effect among its municipal neighbors, said Alisa Klein, public policy consultant for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Those cities, in turn, pass similar ordinances to avoid becoming a haven for sex offenders, she said.
Many sex offenders, left with limited housing options and facing homelessness, end up living outside the community, on the fringes of society -- or will choose to register a false address, Klein said.
"The stigma associated with the label, combined with the ostracism of an entire community, makes people register at one address and hide somewhere else," Klein said. "And it means their probation officers can't find them, they're not getting management supervision, they're not attending specialized treatment groups. The minute they go underground, their re-entry becomes much more risky."
The association, which bills itself as an international, multi-disciplinary organization dedicated to preventing sexual abuse, promotes measures to educate the public on the limitations of the sex offender registry, the facts about recidivism and how to recognize a true threat to public safety, Klein said.
Effective public policy also should include a holistic approach to sex offender management -- focused on treatment and providing offenders a social support network to help them assimilate into the community, she said.
New legislation considered in Ohio
In Ohio, however, new legislation seeks even broader restrictions on housing options for sex offenders throughout the state.
H.B. 11, introduced in February 2009 by State Rep. Tracy Maxwell Heard (Email), a Columbus Democrat, would prohibit sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a recreation center, playground or "other place where it is reasonable to expect children to frequent or linger."
Loretta Ryland, coordinator of the Cuyahoga County Council on Sex Offender Issues, called measures such as the proposed bill a "head-in-the-sand approach" to managing the sex offender population.
"Housing is a major challenge for all the agencies that interact with sex offenders," Ryland said. "Even under the current law, it seems like an insurmountable problem. And there is always a push to strengthen those laws. But if you place more restrictions on sex offenders, it will drive them underground and make it more difficult for us to monitor them and keep the community informed as to where they are residing."
State Rep. Clayton Luckie (Email), a Dayton Democrat, said a bill he proposed to keep tabs on homeless sex offenders might also solve the false registration problem at 2100 Lakeside.
H.B. 369 would require any sex offender without a fixed residential address to wear a GPS-tracking device until he or she finds permanent housing. That would include all offenders registered to homeless shelters, Luckie said.
"It's not invading privacy or anything like that," Luckie said. "This is making everyone safe, and it's a smart law. We have a way of monitoring drunk drivers, we have ankle bracelets on robbers, why not on sex offenders?"
Luckie said he believes the threat of being fitted for a GPS tracking device could be a powerful deterrent for those planning to use the shelter as a false address.
Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries plans to oppose the bill because it discriminates against the homeless by not equally punishing others who have committed the same offense, said Michael Sering, director of Housing and Homeless Services for the organization.
What's best for public safety?
Sering said public safety would be served better by devoting resources to programs that help sex offenders succeed in society, rather than creating barriers to self-sufficiency.
One sex offender living at the shelter, who told his story on the condition of anonymity, said he has struggled long enough with the barriers that already exist. Complying with registration requirements -- while so many of his counterparts have not -- has rendered him homeless since December, he said.
In 1984, the Vietnam veteran was sentenced to 34 years in an Illinois prison for raping a woman with whom he says he was romantically involved. He was paroled in 2001 and moved back to his hometown of Cleveland to live with his mother. But he soon found himself on the street when he was told his mother's home was too close to a school.
Finding affordable housing has been a challenge ever since. Both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority ban lifetime sex offender registrants from receiving housing assistance. And the now 61-year-old sex offender said his applications to other housing options have been rejected four times in the past six months.
Still, he says that after spending 171/2 years in prison, he wouldn't dare falsely register his whereabouts and risk heading back to the penitentiary.
"This is my address, which they have at the Justice Center," he said, referring to the men's shelter at 2100 Lakeside Ave. "I'm trying to be honest and trying to do the right thing, but the laws of Ohio are affecting me. Those of us who are really trying to turn our lives around and do better in society should have a place to live. Not secluded or isolated on an island, but out here in society. I did my time, give me a chance."