A training document released last week by the Vatican, which was issued to newly inducted bishops, states that it is “not necessarily” their duty to report accusations of clerical child abuse and that “only victims or their families should make the decision to report abuse to police.”
Steve Friess has written for Politico and The New York Times. He teaches journalism at Michigan State University. full bio
Tim Fisher steps slowly up the driveway, glancing back with mournful eyes a few times toward his sister-in-law across the street, silently pleading for her encouragement. With neat, shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache, dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and shapeless jeans, Fisher is 49, but in his mind he’s the cherub-cheeked boy with the sun-bleached bangs who walked this asphalt hundreds of times, every Saturday for seven years. Today he trembles with the same trepidation that his boyhood self felt.
By the time he reaches the doorstep, he feels a strange, unsettling vulnerability in being shadowed and hidden from street view by a red-tile overhang. This is his decision, his right, he reminds himself. He just drove five hours from his Las Vegas home to this quiet block in Anaheim, California, fruitlessly trying to release his gathering anxiety with cigarette after cigarette as his sister-in-law soothed him with assurances that she was there for him, come what may.
Now he stands there for a bit, under the overhang, immobilized by a kaleidoscopic clutter of memories. He sees the unsuspecting look on his mother’s face as the man who lives here, Ernie Schwobeda, drops by to pick him up to do Schwobeda’s yard work. Feel blessed, Fisher hears his mother telling him, that a man of God has taken such a personal interest in you. He remembers the sound of the Saturday-morning cartoons, blaring from the TV inside the house he now stands before, which his mom wouldn’t have allowed him to watch. He can taste the ice cream and candy he wasn’t supposed to be eating—before noon, no less—all of it bribes in exchange for his participation and secrecy. He spots the top of the backyard tree where he hid that one time. Even as Schwobeda yelled furiously for him to return, young Tim only emerged from behind the branches after Schwobeda’s wife, Mabel, came home.
It’s a lot to take in, and he needs to steady himself now that he’s at the door after all of these years. This is the moment he has worked toward for decades, that he has rehearsed countless times in every tone. Angry. Sad. Threatening. Pleading.
By now, he has boiled it down to one loaded question: “Do you remember?”
This map illustrates a snapshot in time of a small sampling of the estimated tens of thousands of errors in the nation’s sex offender registries. It shows 42 listings containing mistakes, together involving databases in all 50 states, uncovered in one 48-hour period. Neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor most states and cities with registries conduct or publish audits of the databases’ accuracy, so the extent of the problem on a national level is impossible to know, and can only be represented anecdotally. The registries are in constant flux as offenders update their listings and as members of the public, most notably activist Tim Fisher, alert agencies maintaining the registries to errors. Although each listing was verified at the time it was discovered, it’s unlikely that what is documented here exists in the registries today. Nevertheless, legal experts maintain that each one listed stands for hundreds or thousands of additional inaccuracies. Roll your cursor over your state to see an example of an erroneous sex offender listing there. —Steve Friess
“Have you ever looked up Mike Tyson on the sex offender registry?” Fisher asked me three years ago in a Facebook note. “You should try it.” My highest-profile work at the time was focused on Vegas celebrity, so he knew he could bait me with this tease. Tyson, as anyone who saw the movie The Hangover is well aware, now lives in the Vegas-adjacent city of Henderson, Nevada.
I followed Fisher’s advice, hoping for a simple, dishy scandal about the former boxer and convicted rapist. Instead, Fisher dropped me down into the quicksand he had been wading in alone for years.
I would discover, as Fisher knew from countless attempts to rectify the problem and get anyone else to care, that the “system” of sex offender registries is a failure. The mishmash of databases kept by federal, state, and municipal agencies is riddled with inaccuracies and mistakes that often make it impossible for rape victims to know where their assailants are today; for parents of young children to really know whether a sex offender lives up the block; for ex-convict sex offenders trying to live in peace without fear that a bureaucratic snafu will result in an erroneous arrest for noncompliance; and for innocent people who happen to live where sex offenders are mistakenly listed as residing and are harassed, shunned, and sometimes attacked.
Federal guidelines say what information states ought to provide and advise how to keep it up-to-date but only 17 states are certified by the Department of Justice as “substantially compliant.” There are hundreds of sex offender databases, and they’re not, for the most part, networked or cross-referenced. When, for instance, Indiana says an offender who committed a crime there has moved to Wyoming, the information sometimes reaches officials there, sometimes doesn’t. Likewise, when that offender arrives and registers in Wyoming, sometimes Indiana is told, sometimes not. Sometimes they tell the wrong state.
Keeping these files updated and correct is a gargantuan task of staffing and technological acumen that outpaces the budgets and capabilities of most law enforcement agencies. Rather than provide more budget or streamline the system to minimize errors, state lawmakers either ignore the problems or, in a fit of tough-on-crime pique whenever that is politically expedient, add more rules.
“It really is a medieval system,” says former California state Sen. Tom Ammiano, who, before term limits forced him out of office last year, tried but failed to advance legislation aimed at tackling these problems in his state. “I kept asking how much money we were spending to make these mistakes. I hated being an accomplice to these inaccuracies. But nobody in politics wants to be seen as being soft on sex offenders.”
Several tiny activist groups work to either abolish the sex offender system or make it fairer to convicts, but Fisher is pretty much on his own when it comes to fixing the inaccuracies. He doesn’t work full-time, so—to the occasional alarm of his husband and other relatives—he spends most of his waking hours spotting and documenting errors and then trying to persuade the folks who oversee the databases to correct them.
He has a lot to do. Wrong addresses for sexual assault convicts abound. Incorrect physical traits and even mixed-up mug shots are common. Inaccurate lists of charges are not only easy to find but maddening to correct (see above).
All of this is what makes the Mike Tyson example so potent, because anybody on TMZ or Instagram can probably suss out where he is at any given moment. Following Fisher’s guidance, I went to the thing commonly referred to as “the sex offender registry,” the National Sex Offender Public Website. There, as Fisher predicted, I found Tyson with three listings—one each for the states of Indiana, Florida, and Nevada. Indiana, where he was found guilty and imprisoned, said his address was unknown. Florida, where he lived for a time after his release, indicated he lived in Arizona. Arizona had no listing at all. Nevada’s listing stated that he was “out of compliance,” meaning he had failed to register and was at risk of being arrested by the Nevada State Police.
But Tyson was not out of compliance. The city of Henderson, like many municipalities in the U.S., also has a sex offender registry. There, Tyson was listed exactly right. His correct home address appeared along with a current mug shot (with the facial tattoos he acquired after his conviction in 1992) and the address of a property he owns in Arizona. Which Arizona’s registry didn’t list.
“Mike Tyson is the most famous sex offender in the country,” Fisher says. “If his listing is this fucked up, what does that say about the rest of the system?”
Perhaps it was just a one-off goof? Wrong. At Fisher’s urging, I tried to find an erroneous listing myself. It took about 10 minutes. I randomly went to the list of wanted, noncompliant sex offenders on the site for Nevada’s registry and found Bryan Devoin Kirkland, who raped a teenager in Michigan in 1994. Kirkland, I’d learn, had listings in NSOPW in Nevada, Michigan, and Tennessee. The Michigan site said he was compliant. Tennessee gave a Michigan address for Kirkland—but it was different from the one Michigan had. Nevada indicated he had tattoos on both arms and one knee, but Michigan said he had no tattoos.
What is the now-30-something woman who was Kirkland’s victim supposed to make of any of that? Should she expect to bump into this guy at the 7-Eleven on her corner? She probably has no idea.
That’s not what Congress intended when it passed Megan’s Law in 1996, requiring each state to produce a public registry. The law was named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton Township, New Jersey, who was raped and murdered by a neighbor who had two prior convictions for sexually assaulting young girls.
Like most never-abused Americans, much of what I knew of sex offender registries I learned on TV. That is, every year during sweeps week, a news anchor somewhere opens a broadcast with a variation on this lurid question: “Is there a pedophile living on your street?” The answer, invariably, is “Probably,” and the proof is presented as a terrifying map of a residential neighborhood crowded with dots, each signifying the home of someone convicted of a sex crime. Never mind that not all “sex” crimes are alike; some of those dots represent people who were caught peeing in public or guys who, as teenagers, had consensual sex with their just-underage girlfriends. Never mind that local-news producers have no way—and rarely bother to try—to confirm whether the information is accurate.
NSOPW contains more than 800,000 listings of sex offenders, and it’s impossible for anyone outside law enforcement to accurately assess how pervasive such inaccuracies are. Add to that the fact that every state has its own registry, as do many counties, cities, and police departments, many of which don’t feed into the national registry. In an era when governments have shown themselves to be frequently incompetent at handling complex technological tasks involving millions of records—witness the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website—can it be a surprise that so many independently operated sex offender registries can’t keep highly sensitive information straight?
“You have hundreds of registries…and they all have their own rules and their own way of doing things,” says Andrew Harris, an associate professor of criminology and justice studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who in February received a $1 million federal grant for a three-year study into what ails the system. “Part of the goal of having the federal government step in [in 2006] was to instill some uniformity in how the systems were implemented. Yet I can’t point to one particular standard that is uniformly implemented across every single state.”
It’s easy to see, in as mobile a country as this, why the registry is infested with inaccuracies. Offenders must register within three days of moving to North Dakota, but it’s 10 days in neighboring Minnesota. Tennessee requires offenders who visit for more than two days to register, but West Virginia gives itinerants 15 days. Some require registrants to notify states when they move away; others don’t. Some, like California, list all offenders—from rapists to prostitutes to men arrested for public urination—while most do not. Some states charge offenders a registration fee.
“This is what frustrates me,” says Vicki Henry, founder of Women Against Registries, a group advocating on behalf of the families of offenders, who are often targeted for vigilante attacks. “In the statutes, it is your responsibility to know what your requirements are and all that. But there’s the federal, state, there’s the county. It shouldn’t be this complicated. It should be simple.”
In the absence of any available national data to identify the dimensions of the problem, it must be illustrated anecdotally. To that end, in January I challenged Fisher to spot current examples of registration mistakes involving as many states as possible within a 48-hour period. He managed to document problems with entries involving 46 states, cases ranging from convicts listed as noncompliant in one state but clear in another to a child rapist listed as “wanted” in Texas who wasn’t on the national registry at all. “I shouldn’t be able to find these people, and certainly not this easily,” Fisher says. “If they’re noncompliant over here and not over there, I shouldn’t be the one who figures that out—should I?”
TakePart contacted the offices that manage the statewide sex offender registries in all 50 states. About a quarter responded, almost all to insist their lists were accurate—despite being provided with current, demonstrable examples to the contrary—and to blame discrepancies on faulty information provided by the convicts or other states. The U.S. Department of Justice, which manages NSOPW via its SMART (that’s short for Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking) Office likewise blamed mistakes on the states. A SMART Office official, who agreed to answer questions on condition of anonymity, says that it’s not the SMART Office’s job, its name notwithstanding, to ascertain the accuracy of information. The website is “a pointer system to all of the jurisdictions’ public websites,” the official says. “It’s not a database. It’s not a registry. It’s simply a search engine that allows you to search on all the different public websites with one search.”
Administrators of these registries know they’re full of mistakes. “Communication between sheriffs and the states and the police departments is very bad,” says Rose Richardson, support manager for Watch Systems, a Louisiana-based tech company whose Offender Watch software is used by jurisdictions in 38 states to manage registries. “They call all the time and complain to us about each other. We have to calm them down and say, ‘OK, we have to call over and work out the problems,’ because they can’t work it out with each other.”
“They’re not really mistakes,” says Patrick Saunders, supervisor of the sex offender registry in Nevada, where, according to data Saunders provided, more than 20 percent of “active offenders” on the site are noncompliant. “The system is dependent on the offender doing what he’s required to do by law and then other states communicating between states. If an offender doesn’t notify us, we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Saunders, at least, described ways his staff of 17 try to locate noncompliant offenders—through other law enforcement channels, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Social Security Death Index, among others—before they give up and flag them in the FBI’s national criminal database as absconding. Most state officials were more similar to Natalie Spires, sex offender registry coordinator for South Carolina, whose opaque two-sentence email reply to a list of 12 questions stated tersely, “If mistakes are found, we have a process in place to first verify and then correct.” They’re not doing a very good job; one of the first errors Fisher found during his 48-hour sprint was one involving South Carolina.
Some were more open to confirming there are problems. It would be impossible for Vermont officials to deny it, for instance, because the registry has failed two successive Legislature-mandated accuracy audits. In each, one in 2011 and one in 2014, reviewers found “critical errors” in more than 10 percent of the entries. Vermont won’t list addresses of offenders until a “positive audit” is done, to quote the law’s nebulous standard. The registry’s overseers doubt it can be achieved.
“Given the resources allocated to the registry, the number of individuals on the registry, and the number of different data points that feed into this system, it was and will continue to be challenging to have no errors,” says Jeff Wallin, director of the Vermont Crime Information Center. “It’s something to strive for, but it’s going to be a real challenge.”
Sgt. Matthew Patterson, who oversees the sex offender investigative unit for the Virginia State Police, also acknowledges that the quest to keep the entries for the 21,500 offenders in the commonwealth accurate is “profound.” In an email, he lists four reasons for inaccuracies, including “the responsible nature of the offender” and “the need for a real-time system” to keep track when offenders change addresses.
Attempts to fix these problems, rare as they are, invariably fail. “Everything is sloppy and not thought out,” says Ammiano, the former California state senator. Ammiano wanted to pare down who ends up on the public registry to leave off the public urinators or the 30-year-old who once, at 17, committed statutory rape by having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Then, he says, registry managers could better focus on keeping records for truly heinous criminals accurate. “It’s such a radioactive topic, most of the electeds shy away from it or just use it as great fodder to grandstand on.… I couldn’t get the votes for it. People told me they thought it was great policy, but some of them are very craven.”
For more than two decades after Ernie Schwobeda’s 1984 conviction, Fisher did his best not to think about the abuse he had suffered. Schwobeda, a volunteer Sunday school instructor at Anaheim’s Central Baptist Church and a weapons engineer for Hughes Electronics Corp., began grooming Fisher as his mark when Fisher was seven, telling the boy’s mother, Beverly, he would put him to work in his yard and provide a role model of industriousness.
Fisher says he was an introverted, difficult child, embittered by his divorced mother’s remarriage and wounded by his bricklayer father’s decision to move 500 miles away, for work in Chico, California. In the early 1970s, nobody found it curious or suspicious that a childless 35-year-old man wanted to spend so much time alone with a parishioner’s prepubescent boy. And the boy enjoyed the earliest visits with Schwobeda, who let him watch TV and eat candy against his own mother’s and stepfather’s rules.
A few months into their Saturday routine, though, Schwobeda began to touch Fisher inappropriately. Before long, the man was groping and manipulating the child as soon as the Volkswagen was parked and his garage door rumbled shut. The child knew something was awry, but Schwobeda kept him silent with a balance of bribes and threats. Filled with shame and terror, he kept quiet, although many times he would insist on playing an impromptu “game” of hide-and-seek to stave off Schwobeda’s advances. That one time, he remained up a tree in the backyard until Schwobeda’s wife came home. “I knew if I could stay hidden long enough, he’d run out of time,” Fisher says.
The abuse continued until Fisher, at 14, told his mother he wished to live with his father in Northern California. Furious, she called Schwobeda, whom she viewed as a father figure to her son, to ask him to talk sense into her son. Instead, Fisher told Schwobeda that he’d tell his mother about their sexual relationship unless Schwobeda advised her to encourage him to move in with his dad. Schwobeda agreed, Fisher moved north to be with his dad and that was the last conversation they ever had.
Fisher nonetheless remained haunted, whiling away his teen years cutting school, drinking, doing drugs, and having risky sexual encounters. By the time he was 18, he decided he needed to report the abuse. His older sister begged him not to, worried that the revelation would crush their mother. “She said it would kill her to know she was putting me in this guy’s hands every weekend,” Fisher says. “She asked if I could just forget it and get on with my life. But I couldn’t.”
The police investigation yielded a traumatizing discovery: Schwobeda had at least two other victims after Fisher. Police charged him with 47 counts of molestation; he pleaded guilty to nine counts to avoid a trial and was sentenced to two to 12 years in prison.
By the time Schwobeda was released on probation in 1985—after serving nine months—Fisher had moved with a boyfriend to Las Vegas to start anew. But the issue of sexual abuse lingered, most notably because of the coincidence that the man he moved to Vegas with confided to him that he was a convicted sex offender in California and did not intend to register in Nevada. Fisher says he broke up with the guy and called the police, but that event planted the first questions in his mind about those registries and how they were managed.
He recalls feeling racked with guilt over the idea that his failure to speak out sooner gave Schwobeda years to abuse the other boys. But somehow, Fisher says, he managed to largely bury the matter deep in his psyche for the next 23 years.
Sex offender registries, at their conception, were intended as a tool for law enforcement, not the public. California started the first in 1947, but it wasn’t until 1994, following the disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling of St. Joseph, Minnesota, at the hands of a suspect who had abducted and molested another boy in the same manner, that Congress mandated registries in every state. Wetterling was never found.
Congress passed Megan’s Law in 1996, giving states wide discretion in how they administered the public registries. As a result, different states included different crimes and required convicts to register for different lengths of time at different intervals. In subsequent years, the system grew ever more balkanized and confusing for both police trying to enforce it and convicts trying to stay current.
In 2003, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children issued a report claiming that “at least 100,000 sex offenders are noncompliant and no one knows where they are.” Although that figure would be debunked in a 2010 study that showed it had been recklessly compiled, it nonetheless was widely reported and continues to be cited by activists like Fisher. Harris, the UMass Lowell professor, says that moment of outrage might have been productive had it focused on the real culprits, which, to him, are excessively complicated regulations that collide with administrative error and lousy interagency cooperation. Rather than try to figure out whether 100,000 sex offenders had absconded or if instead they were clerically or bureaucratically misplaced in the various conflicting databases, the false “statistic” became another arrow in the quiver of officials leveraging sex-crime fear for political gain. Congress in 2006 passed tougher requirements for ex-convicts and more complex laws for local authorities. The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act is more commonly known as the Adam Walsh Act after the six-year-old Florida boy whose murder in 1981 was instrumental in the formation of the NCMEC. (His father, the activist and TV personality John Walsh, did not reply to requests for comment.)
SORNA demanded that states comply by July 2011 with a list of registration standards, some of which were controversial. Several legislatures balked, for instance, at publicly listing juvenile sex offenders for the rest of their lives. But the biggest stumbling block has been money; states found that the cost of complying far exceeded the federal grant money they would lose as punishment for failing to do so. A 2008 Justice Policy Institute analysis showed that states like Florida would have to spend nearly $30 million on technology, personnel, and court and jail expenses but stood to lose $1.2 million for failing to do so.
As of 2015, only 17 states, three U.S. territories, and some 80 tribes are “substantially” SORNA-compliant. The Department of Justice has decided, given the meager response from the states to the law and its deadlines, to accept partial compliance. “There is not a strict compliance standard,” the SMART official says. “Every state determines what is going to go on their public websites.”
Tim Fisher woke up one night in 2008 in his backyard, crying and trembling uncontrollably. He and his boyfriend of six years, bookkeeper Patrick Ball, had built a nice, stable life for themselves in a modest Las Vegas bungalow with a front stoop sheltered from the busy street by olive trees. Things were good, calm.
And then they weren’t. The night he awoke, sweat soaked, to his own screaming sparked a flood of debilitating memories. The phantom scent of Schwobeda’s cologne seemed to hang around him. He woke from nightmares in which the white pain of being raped seemed as real as it was when he was a child or in which he gasped for air as if he were once again being forced into oral sex. He couldn’t shake the instinct to hide.
Until then, he’d never looked at the sex offender registries that had gone online in the decades since Schwobeda was convicted. When he did, a red-lettered notation sparked a new wave of terror: “WARNING: This registrant may have subsequently relocated.”
“Why wouldn’t he be there? Where would he be?” Fisher says today.
Schwobeda was, in fact, properly registered and lived in the same house where he violated Fisher and the others. But the ex-boyfriend, the one Fisher moved to Vegas with in 1985, had conflicting listings. Nevada showed him as compliant, while California said he was missing. Which was correct? If the ex-boyfriend’s victims looked him up in California, the state where he was convicted, how would they feel to see the state had lost track of him? Fisher emailed California’s registry managers to point them to the Nevada listing. It took months and several more emails to get the two listings reconciled.
Fisher became baffled by what he was discovering about the nation’s registries. Early on, he reached out to various national child abuse organizations but found little interest in the problem, so he launched the website Juvenile Justice Now to document his growing list of registry mistakes. He issued a state-by-state report card judging each registry by ease of use, interactivity with NSOPW, and his understanding of its level of accuracy.
Rose Richardson, the executive with Watch Systems, was alarmed to see one of the states deploying Offender Watch software—Ohio—receive an F from Fisher. When she reached out “to get a sense of what he was doing,” he began burying her in lists of errant registry information. “We thought that’s great because I don’t know anyone else doing this,” she says. “Almost everything he sent me checked out.”
Watch Systems operates America’s closest thing to a unified system. The Covington, Louisiana, company has contracts to manage 16 statewide registries and hundreds of smaller ones for police departments and municipalities in 35 states. But, Richardson says, its information is still only as accurate or complete as what various agencies input. What’s more, NSOPW draws its information solely from state-level registries, so countless discrepancies arise between NSOPW and what Offender Watch provides to the public.
Richardson was not the first to see Fisher as a useful resource. Nevada’s Saunders took note of Fisher’s emails, starting with one pointing out that an offender was listed at different addresses by the state and by Vegas police. “He’s the only one who has contacted us looking at a large number of offenders,” Saunders says. “Anything that makes our information even more accurate than it is, we’re welcome to having that provided to us. When Tim gives us lists of where offenders are, we do verify them.”
Others treat him as a pest. In 2012, he wrote to Washington state to show that offender Daniel Stone Fenn, whom it was listing as “non-compliant,” was in a Pennsylvania prison. The registry operator replied first by telling Fisher to “delete me from your email list.” He explained his work, but the operator insisted that he cease contact. “If the person has absconded, the U.S. Marshal Service is notified and they determine whether or not to pursue,” she wrote.
The SMART official disputes a key premise from which Fisher and Harris operate, that public registries exist to keep victims abreast of offender movements. “Every state has ways for victims to receive information to track their crimes,” the SMART official says. “If they were a victim of that crime, there are separate ways for victims to track their abusers provided by the states.” Victims of violent crime are typically told they can contact the law enforcement agency that arrested their attackers, or the court that convicted him or her, to find out their whereabouts. It’s unclear, though, how long that would take, whether someone would be told at all if he or she were to call 20 years after the crime, and what hoops the survivor would need to go through to get answers. Many abuse survivors prefer to avoid such logistical challenges and find it far easier to first go to the relevant public sex offender registries.
The NSOPW, Fisher insists, is the first place a survivor looks “because they can do it whenever they want and they can do it at any time of day without having to actually talk to anyone. So a 14-year-old who has been raped will, at some point later in life, probably use this tool to locate where their attacker is now. Most survivors look at some point.”
Zooming south on Interstate 15 toward Anaheim, I ask Fisher if he thinks his focus on the registries might be unhealthy. His sister-in-law, Sheryl Moses, sitting in the back, admits she and her brother worry because Fisher gets overwhelmed and forgets to sleep or shower for days. I expect Fisher to be defensive, but it’s a question he has contemplated. “It really depends on how much I do at a time,” he says in a measured tone that belies the intensity with which he has been chain-smoking for hours. “My therapist says I am putting myself through a form of exposure therapy, that I’m desensitizing myself. That’s what I needed to do. I dove in head first and pretty much haven’t stopped because these registries are so messed up, and nobody else is doing this.”
Perhaps, but the idea of driving to an abuser’s door to confront him is rife with potential emotional and physical hazards. Victim-offender dialogue is a fraught arena, one that criminal justice systems nationwide struggle with, even when it occurs in an official context; many states disallow victims to meet with their attackers in prison, even if both parties agree. What if the offender, surprised by the unannounced confrontation, is still violent or dangerous? What if emotions take over and abuse survivor tries to exact some sort of retaliation on the former tormentor? What if the imagined payoff—the opportunity to unload anger or elicit some contrition—fails? On many levels, it seems inadvisable in most circumstances. When I suggest as much to Fisher, he repeats that he is aware of the pitfalls but feels compelled to do it anyway.
We’re quiet for a while, but the naysaying nags at Fisher. Two nights earlier, he says, he was a guest on an Internet radio show hosted by the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse and got similar pushback when he announced his plan to confront Schwobeda. “Even there, other survivors wanted to know, ‘Why don’t you just let it go?’ ” he says. “I was shocked that people I know said to me, ‘To what end? Just let it go.’ I had one response: ‘Do you forgive a man who raped your child?’ ”
The question lingers in the air. We don’t speak for the next hour.
It is hard enough to be a registered sex offender when everything is properly listed. In many places, restrictions on how close to schools and parks an offender may live make it difficult to find housing, and alarming criminal histories often sabotage efforts to find work. Almost every month, too, there are news reports somewhere of a registrant being targeted with vigilante violence or property damage. A robust debate continues over whether the registries are a form of perpetual parole and whether anyone is any safer thanks to Megan’s Law.
But the abusers and the abused agree on one thing: If the registries exist, they ought to be accurate. As frustrating as it is to folks like Fisher that mistakes are so common, sex offenders with incorrect listings live in fear of being rearrested even when they try their best to keep their information up-to-date and complete.
Brian E. Oliver, 45, for instance, moved to Minnesota in 2012 from St. Louis after years of failing to persuade the Missouri Sex Offender Registry to properly list the offenses he was jailed for. Twice, he says, he succeeded in getting Missouri to stop indicating that he had pleaded guilty in 1995 to charges of forcible rape; he was actually convicted of illicit sex with minors under 12. The listings also incorrectly indicated the age of his victims and the make and model of his car. On each occasion the errors reemerged. In Minnesota, his offense is not among those included on the public registry because it occurred more than 20 years ago. “Every 90 days, I have to go in there and reregister, and that’s fine,” says Oliver, who has a doctorate in criminology and lectures on ways to spot adolescent pedophiles. “My whole point is, OK, if I have to do this and I suffer the consequences, the least you can do is make sure the information is correct.”
The city of Chicago came under scrutiny last year after revelations that police turned away hundreds of sex offenders trying to register—and then arrested some of them later for failing to register. Attorney Patrick Morrissey drew attention to the problem by filing lawsuits, including one on behalf of convicted rapist Douglas Montgomery, who had a heart attack within days of arriving in Chicago after his release from prison. Aware he would be out of compliance if he didn’t register before Jan. 24, 2011, he had the hospital where he was convalescing call Chicago police to alert them of his location. When he got out of the hospital, police prevented him from registering because he was homeless and lacked the $100 registration fee. He was rearrested months later while living under a bridge and sent back to jail, where he cost the city more than $140 a day. The city has since added staff and created fee waivers for poor offenders.
“The purpose of the registry is to be able to monitor people who have been convicted of certain crimes, to provide some safeguards for some people. Registration is so complicated and complex, these people roam streets through no fault of their own,” Morrissey says. “It’s almost a system created to re-incarcerate people. I really didn’t truly appreciate how unclear and how muddled this registration process is until I started this work.”
The FBI does regular audits to ensure the accuracy of its sex offenders information, but only law enforcement can access that. Many FBI updates never reach managers of the public registry. Thus, the nation has parallel systems—one for police and one for the public—that primarily don’t interact, the SMART official acknowledges. “The way different states handle the privacy and security of their records varies, and so for states to share information in a backdoor database is another step that we’re not facilitating,” the SMART official says.
Fisher’s original plan was to sit outside Schwobeda’s house and wait for him to leave, then follow his attacker and confront him in a parking lot or a restaurant while his sister-in-law filmed it all for YouTube posterity. It left an awful lot to chance—whether Schwobeda would be home, whether he’d go out, how other people would react to what could appear as Fisher haranguing a little old man—and then it didn’t matter anyway.
On our first sweep through the neighborhood, Schwobeda and his wife are out front trimming some bushes. Fisher lets out a series of gasps at this unexpected first glimpse of his tormentor in more than 30 years, a slow-motion hyperventilation to go along with our crawling pass by the house. They appear to be a sweet elderly couple in matching green gardening gloves and white T-shirts.
Schwobeda seems to notice. Does he recognize Fisher, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a teen? Is he looking because that’s what people do when a strange car goes by too slowly? Or, perhaps, is this sort of gawking commonplace because of the sex offender registry, and is he bracing for all-too-familiar threats or epithets?
Fisher, too, is uncertain. He pulls into a nearby Wendy’s to regroup. “What should I do?” he asks his sister-in-law. “He was right there. Right there! Wow. Oh wow.” She drapes her arm over his shoulder and rocks him gently but says little.
Suddenly, Fisher stands up. “Let’s go,” he says. “Let’s do this.”
Minutes later, Moses is across the street straining to see what’s happening. A neighbor, annoyed by her presence on the sidewalk in front of his home, heckles her. Everyone knows Schwobeda is a registered sex offender, he says, but to neighbors he’s a quiet, harmless old fellow. “Why don’t you let the man be?” he asks.
As she considers that, Fisher reaches Schwobeda’s door. Since the earlier drive-by, the couple have dropped their garden equipment on the lawn and apparently gone inside. Fisher never finds out why. (Schwobeda didn’t return calls for comment.)
Fisher rings the bell. From inside, a small dog yips. Fisher waits. He hears feet shuffle, but nobody approaches the windowless door. He presses the glowing pearl-swirled button again. Some noise comes from a picture window to the right of the door; fingers part a couple of blind slats. The neighbor and Moses see it too. Fisher rings the bell one last time, stands there. The dog yips some more.
He gives up and walks back down the driveway to the car. He has been denied the chance to redeposit his fury and pain on the doorstep of the home where it was born. But as soon as he starts driving away, it’s clear that he is elated. He doesn’t light a cigarette for a full 15 minutes.
“He’s afraid of me,” he says, grinning. “I did what I needed to do. I overcame that initial fear. And I just realized, he doesn’t have any power over me anymore. I scare him.”
This is an outcome he had not considered. He pictured screaming, tears, a door slammed in his face. It hadn’t dawned on him Schwobeda would cower.
He is lighter and more cheerful. Perhaps it is the adrenaline, or maybe he really has unburdened himself in a way he didn’t anticipate. But if his activism has been a tool for venting anger and making sense of those horrific years, what now? If he replaces the taunting mental image of Schwobeda as a menace with one of him as a decrepit, frightened soul, what becomes of Fisher’s quest to fix the registries, one error at a time?
“The thing is, I have to keep going,” he says after a few moments reflecting on these questions. “I’m one of the lucky ones. My abuser is listed correctly. I had the choice to walk up to his house and ring his bell. I did that, and, at least right now, I feel so much different.
“So I’ll keep sending the emails, keep trying to get one state to communicate with another. If that’s a way to turn a bad into a good, I’m halfway there. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Somaly Mam was born either in 1970 or 1971 in Cambodia. Nobody knows for certain, since there are no records of her birth. She and her family lived in extreme poverty. When she was 12 years old, her parents abandoned her. She survived alone until a man she had never met before found her. He promised her he’d find her family if she went with him, so she did. He took her in and she became his slave. He instructed her to call him “grandfather”.
He regularly abused her until the age of 14, when he sold her off to a man who she then was forced to marry. He would beat and rape her, and sometimes even fire a gun at her. One day, at 15 years old, she finally fought back – she took his gun and shot him in the foot. He then sold her to a…