The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 22, 2018 1:00 am

Detectives track down unregistered sex offenders

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

In a subterranean office at the Charles “Bud” Meeks Center for Justice, a small band of Allen County Sheriff's Department detectives spend hours tracking convicted sex offenders.

The well-lit but windowless office at South Calhoun and Superior streets is where sex and violent offenders go to update their addresses, place of work, personal status and even inform officers of new tattoos.

Sometimes detectives Michael Smothermon, Jeff Shimkus, Jeff Halsey and part-time officer Robert Heffner go out of the snug, underground bureau to find the offender.

“We do what we can to track them down where they're living,” Smothermon said. Once released from incarceration or if there are other personal changes, offenders have 72 hours to update their status.

The number of registered sex offenders has grown in Allen County, even though nearly 300 were removed from the registry in 2009 when the state registry law changed. As of Friday, the registry had 490 names with an additional 66 registrants who do not live in Allen County, but work or go to college here, Smothermon said.

More offenders living in Allen County are entering the registry each month, while fewer are leaving. 

Offenders from other areas may relocate to Allen County and law enforcement efforts to find them have become more aggressive along with educational efforts that have led to more reporting of sex offenses, the detectives said.

“One of the reasons that the volume of offenders keeps increasing is because of the lifetime registration requirement. A lot of people on here are never going to get off,” Smothermon said. “Coupled with that, you have offenders being released from the (Department of Corrections) for the very first time for a sex offense that requires registration.”

Smothermon estimates the number of sex offenders released in Allen County could be as high as 15 every quarter. That doesn't include individuals convicted of sex offenses in other Indiana counties who move to Allen County.

Plus, victims are reporting these crimes at a much higher rate than before, Smothermon said.

“We know there's better reporting because children are being educated at a young age in today's society to report abuse,” Smothermon said.

Fort Wayne police reports show a gradual increase in reported molestings in the past 10 years. 

Allen County has an active registry of about 500 sex or violent offenders, the number it had in 2009 when an Indiana Supreme Court decision, known as the Wallace Decision, ruled that sex offenders who committed crimes before their offense required registration, had to be purged from the registry.

The registry began in 1994 when Indiana law required all sheriffs to register local sex offenders on a state registry. Changes and additions were made in 2001, 2006 and 2007.

In another change in 2009, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that all violent offenders who had committed their offenses prior to July 1, 2007, and who were not required to register as violent offenders as a condition of probation or parole, were to be removed from the registry. Violent offenders are those who have been convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter. There are five on the Allen County registry.

Active registrants include sex offenders on home detention, on parole and on probation. A sex offender who is incarcerated is not on the active registry.

More than half are on the registry for life. The other half are on the registry for 10 years or the number of years their convicting jurisdiction sentenced them. About 2 percent are women, the detectives said.

“It's a public misconception that a lot of people think they're on here for Romeo-and-Juliet type of offenses, where the offender is slightly older than the victim. The truth is the majority are very much older offenders than their child victims,” Smotherman said. 

Currently, 84 of the 490 offenders were convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor. Of those, about two would be considered as Romeo-and-Juliet cases, Shimkus said.

Sexual misconduct with a minor, an offense in which the victim is 14 or 15, is normally a 10-year registration. However, there are caveats in the  law. For instance, if the offender was deemed to use force, then it would trigger a lifetime registration. Other lifetime caveats include rendering the victim unconscious or plying the victim with drugs or alcohol.

“The registry has been designed to avoid the Romeo- and-Juliet situation where an 18-year-old has consensual sex with a 15-year-old,” Shimkus said. “The law gives the courts some discretion in these situations so that an 18-year-old convicted of having consensual sex with a 15-year-old is not automatically labeled a sex offender.”

If the offender is 19 years old, it depends on when the offense occurred and what the law deemed at that time, Shimkus said.

Division's start

Before the division's creation in 2006, Smothermon and Shimkus were working in the warrants division and noticed there were runaway sex offenders. In 2005, the two were looking for a child molester on a parole warrant.

“We found him and charged him with failure to register,” Smothermon said. “He never went to prison until we arrested him for failure to register.”

Before that arrest, Smothermon said he “hit the law books and found the statute.” In the year before the division's creation, the two officers tracked down 19 more sex offenders.

They also found that efforts to enforce the statute were sporadic and research produced evidence that the statute was unenforceable, Shimkus said.

“We were required to take photos of sex offenders, but they weren't required to show up for the photo,” Shimkus said. That year, Shimkus said he rewrote the law with state Sen. Tom Wyss. In 2006, the division was created by then-Sheriff James Herman.

Since the division's creation, the team has arrested more than 300 offenders for failure to register.

The division expanded to three officers and last year, Robert Heffner, a retired Allen County deputy, joined as the division's fourth officer. The division fields hundreds of calls a month from people who find out a registered sex offender lives in their neighborhood, the men said, and want to know what to do.

In most cases, sex offenders know their victims. What these officers want is “for parents to be parents and believe your child if they tell you they've been molested,” Smothermon said.

After 12 years on the job, Smothermon and Shimkus have seen and read a lot.

“Many of (the cases) you can't get out of your mind,” Shimkus said.

“When they start telling their stories, they say things like, 'I pled guilty because my lawyer told me to do it.' We don't even care. You're gonna register,” Smothermon said.

But when they walk in the door, “there's no judgment,” Smothermon says. “Not all of them are monsters.”


Arrests made on lunch breaks

Mike Smothermon and Jeff Shimkus keep a sense of humor as they handle grim sexual assault cases, and one coincidence has them shaking their heads.

They both made happenstance arrests on their lunch break at McDonald's on Jefferson Boulevard, 10 years apart.

In May 2008, Shimkus sat quietly eating his cheeseburger when a man he recognized as having been convicted of sexual battery came through the fast-food restaurant's doors with his girlfriend. The two men exchanged glances, but the offender made no move to acknowledge Shimkus.

As the offender ordered his meal, Shimkus quickly checked the man's status, going out of the restaurant to further check on his in-car computer and then re-entered. The offender was arrested with no trouble.

In March this year, Smothermon went to the same restaurant only to have one of the county's offenders wave at him and say “Hey, there.” The offender had recently returned to Fort Wayne after living in Maryland and was sitting with his girlfriend.

Smothermon asked the girlfriend to step into the vestibule and learned from her that the offender had returned more than six months ago without registering.

Both detectives says they get to know their offenders well once they're on the registry.

Smothermon finished his meal and then approached the man asking him how long he'd been back in Fort Wayne. When he told him six months, Smothermon asked him why he hadn't registered again.

“I didn't know I had to,” the man replied. He was arrested on the spot.

Sign up for our crime and courts newsletter

Sent daily when events warrant