Archive for July, 2011
Two Citrus County Sheriffs stood in the living room of a mobile home on South Snowbird Terrace, in Homosassa, talking to the occupants who rented the place by the month. A child was missing had they seen anything? Dorothy Marie Dixon shook her head. She said she lived there with her fiancé, her niece and grandson. She lied, neglecting to mention her brother, John Evander Couey.
Down the hall, in a back bedroom, a nine year-old girl crouched in a closet, ordered by her abductor not to make a sound. She didn’t.
The next day; February 27, 2005, Jessica Marie Lunsford would be dead.
In the days that followed, a picture of the man who kidnapped and murdered the child would unfold. He was a wanted man, with a warrant for his arrest, but with no police agency searching for him. Couey was a registered sex offender who had walked away: “absconded” from his registered address.
The outrage began a revolution in the way sex offenders are tracked and monitored. State legislators passed the “Jessica Lunsford Act”: a law which not only increased the penalties for sex crimes committed against children, but set out new protocols for law enforcers in the way they manage offenders in their jurisdictions.
Cities were given options to pass ordinances pushing offenders away from schools and playgrounds, and to develop their own tracking programs. The law was like a promise made to the children of Florida, and some municipalities, like the City of Melbourne, have kept that promise.
Gathering All The Marbles
There were two absconders in the City of Melbourne when Officer Valerie Claycomb became the Sex Offender Tracking Officer. Now, one year later, there are none. Jose Cruz had been missing for five years when an investigation by Claycomb and Agent Mike Schmidt, her counterpart at the Sheriff’s Office, located him in Puerto Rico. Federal Marshalls hauled him back in March and installed him in a “Frequent Flyer” cell.
Vigorous interface with the family of Mathew Biggs, brought an end to his seven-month run. Biggs was persuaded to return from Georgia and surrender to Melbourne Police in May.
No one knows when John Couey began to drift. Sometime after August 27th 2004, the last time police verified his address, Couey began to roll like a marble around the tiny town of Homossassa. He would take a job as a mason’s helper, where he would work for a time at local elementary school. It would take nearly six months before he would close the four-mile distance between his last, registered address and his victim’s home.
“We check each of the offenders at least once every ninety days…” Says Claycomb, who monitors Melbourne’s 103 sex criminals with the help of a part-time clerical worker. “ … if we have complaints, we check more often”
By law, sex offenders in Florida must report to the sheriff twice, per year. Those designated as Sexual Predators must report four times. If they live in Melbourne they can add two: Claycomb schedules two additional appearances in her Melbourne office.
“We update everything when they come in…phone numbers, emails, next of kin, known associates, workplace.” says Claycomb, “ We even take swabs for DNA.”
Melbourne’s Sex Offender Tracking unit compiles a complete criminal history on all their charges, including details on their sex crimes. Facts about their ‘Method of Operation” (how they did what they did), are loaded into a database, so that if a child is abducted or a sex crime is committed, details on the crime can be matched with information on local sex offenders. The search for a likely suspect can begin within hours rather than days or weeks.
If law enforcement had this tool in 2005, the deputies who stood in the trailer that day, might have known they were talking to the sister of a missing child-molester. Dorothy Dixon was literally the only person in the world who would open the door and let John Couey in. His own mother, who lived near Gainesville, severed all ties with Couey in 1978, when he was caught attempting to rape his five year-old stepsister. Karen Goshe, his drug-addicted wife, had been estranged from him for nearly fifteen years.
Seamless Passage – Unified Response
The forty-six year-old drifter had been on probation for several years when he abducted Lunsford. Indeed, probation officers were the first to notice him missing from his stated residence after he failed to report to them. Three months before Jessica’s death, they asked a judge to issue a warrant for violating his probation. The warrant was promptly signed, dated and filed along with thousands of others – virtually ignored by police.
“We usually know about warrants before they are issued.” Says Claycomb. She maintains regular contact with probation officers who supervise about half of Melbourne’s sex criminals. When their sentence is complete and the iron hand of the probation officer is lifted, they pass seamlessly into the attentions of officer Claycomb.
John Couey’s probation officers had another handicap back in 2005. Though they were aware that he was placed on probation for driving drunk and possessing marijuana, they had no knowledge of his prior criminal record. In fact, he had been arrested 26 times over three decades. His criminal history included two sex offenses perpetrated upon young girls. Probation officers were not even aware that he was a registered sex offender.
Officer Claycomb is a member of the Central Florida Sex Offender Task Force, a group of law enforcement professionals who manage and supervise offenders. They meet bi-monthly to trade information on individual offenders and the train with the newest techniques for keeping registrants on a short string.
“We have representation from sheriff’s departments, municipal police, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Law Enforcement,” says Detective Robert Tyrrell.
A Specialist In Action
Tyrrell, a member of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department, is the current Director of the Task Force. He is a strong advocate for maintaining special officers like Claycomb:
“Most departments have regular patrol officers verifying addresses in addition to their regular duties. Sex offender management works best when you have a specialized, dedicated officer assigned to the task. Patrol officers have to deal with drugs, homicides, domestic violence…and policing sex offenders is simply piled on top of these other duties.”
By the third time Citrus Sheriffs returned to Dorothy Dixon’s trailer, John Evander Couey was their person of interest. This time, investigators headed straight for the back room and saw bloodstains on Couey’s bed sheets. As they bounded down the wooden stairs, on their way to Savannah Georgia where Couey had fled, they passed within yards of the soft spot in the sand where Jessie Lunsford’s body was buried.
At that moment Couey’s registered address was still listed as Grover Cleveland Boulevard – the location he walked away from, almost six months earlier. No one informed the F.D.L.E. – the agency tasked with maintaining the state registry.
Compliance Officer Claycomb flips through her notes sitting in her tiny office at the Melbourne Police Department. “ We are averaging nearly two arrests per month.” she says. “In Melbourne, sex offenders have more contact with law enforcement than anywhere else in the county…”
Claycomb says she fields a constant flow of phone calls and emails from residents, who have questions about their sex offender neighbors. “We get tips and information from the community, which is always helpful in tracking these folks.”
The job of tracking sex offenders has come a long way since 2005, when our registry relied upon offenders themselves to provide information on their whereabouts, and open warrants were tucked away in files waiting for another arrest to awaken them. We were promised an end to a passive system where loose bolts like John Couey were left to rattle around the machinery, and competing state agencies treated information like private property.
Melbourne’s sex offender specialist leans back in her chair, just missing the boxes stacked against the wall. A modest smile breaks her crisp, professional demeanor, as she tells me about the Halloween Task Force, in which volunteer officers fan out across the City of Melbourne. While costumed children roam the streets in search of candy, they pay a face-to-face visit to each of the city’s 103 sex offenders.
The trick is in deploying specialists to police sex offenders, and the treat lies in keeping a promise to the children of Melbourne.
Read more about Melbourne Police Sex Offender Tracking Unit: http://www.melbourneflorida.org/police/melbpred.htm