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Tracking tech-savvy sex offenders gets trickier

The crackdown on child pornography and other sex offenses has created manpower shortages and technology challenges for probation officers, police and federal agents.
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The pursuit of Lee Shelton began the moment the convicted sex offender was released from prison.

It ended months later with a U.S. Marshals Service helicopter hovering near a D.C. junior high school as Shelton kissed a 14-year-old boy. In between, authorities used two Global Positioning System devices to help track him, learned he was online at the library and seized a secret laptop with a power source in the trunk of his car. His parole was revoked, and he is back in jail.

Shelton, who originally was convicted of molesting boys at the National Air and Space Museum and on the grounds of the Washington Monument, is one of thousands of sex offenders accused of similar crimes after their release from prison or while on probation. His parole violation illustrates the challenges of monitoring hundreds of thousands of offenders.

The nationwide crackdown on child pornography and other sex offenses has created severe manpower shortages and technology challenges for probation officers, police and federal agents struggling to track offenders who are jumping online with cellphones and portable game systems and flocking to social networking and other sites, where children or pornography can easily be found.

There are more than 716,000 registered sex offenders nationwide, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a 78 percent increase since 2001, and that does not include all offenders because some crimes do not require registration. Sex-offender registries have grown even faster in the Washington area, with more than 24,000 people listed. Not all receive the scrutiny given to such offenders as Shelton.

The focus on crimes against children that began in the Bush administration shows no sign of abating under President Obama. Federal child sexual exploitation prosecutions are up 147 percent since 2002, and the Justice Department is hiring 81 more prosecutors for these cases. Funding for task forces that bring charges in state courts rose this year from $16 million to $75 million.

But many of those offenders are now leaving prison, even as revenue-strapped states are cutting the budgets of probation departments. In Virginia, probation and parole cuts this year totaled nearly $10 million, including $500,000 for electronic monitoring of sexually violent predators. Maryland also has cut its budget.

"The burden on probation and parole officers is going to explode," said Ernie Allen, the national center's president.

The monitoring of virtually all sex offenders is required by law when they are on probation or parole.

The problem has gained national attention with the discovery of 10 bodies and a skull at a registered sex offender's home in Cleveland and revelations that Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped at age 11 in 1991 and allegedly held captive at a California sex offender's house until her reappearance in August. Officers had visited both homes and noticed nothing wrong.

Those cases underscore a troubled registry system that has been the public face of sex-offender monitoring. An estimated 100,000 offenders do not comply with registration requirements. Law enforcement doesn't know where many of them are.

Electronic gadgets
But the most alarming development for officers is proliferating electronic gadgets and the temptations they pose to sex offenders. A man on probation in Iowa for molesting a 9-year-old girl, for example, was recently caught downloading pornographic images of a young girl on his PlayStation Portable — while walking to his probation appointment.

Sometimes, offenders cannot be monitored even while in custody. David L. Franklin, a church deacon, pleaded guilty in federal court to sending child pornography to an undercover D.C. police detective. While awaiting sentencing, Franklin struck up another online conversation with the same detective, who traced the defendant to an unusual address — the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility.

Franklin had smuggled a cellphone into his jail cell and was on his bunk, online, when guards grabbed it, sources familiar with the case said. He was sentenced last month to 135 months in prison. Franklin's attorney, Dani Jahn, declined to comment.

"When a sex offender has access to hundreds of tools, how we can possibly keep up with this explosion is beyond me," said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in the District, which helped capture Shelton and supervises about 650 other sex offenders convicted in D.C. Superior Court. An attorney for Shelton could not be located.

Sipes said officers are especially worried about social networking sites frequented by children, such as MySpace, which this year said it banned 90,000 registered sex offenders. Facebook has said it is also actively trying to prevent sex offenders from joining its site.

One example: A Virginia man on probation in the District for having sex with a 16-year-old girl as two younger girls watched told officers that he kissed a 15-year-old female runaway he had picked up. Because he was prohibited from contact with minors, authorities searched his computer, which revealed that he was chatting extensively with teen girls on MySpace and stalking a 17-year-old girl in person, law enforcement officials said. His probation was revoked.

Probation and parole officers use GPS devices, polygraph tests, home visits and treatment to track sex offenders, but those tools can be used only during periods of supervision, which often end after three to five years. Parole is post-prison, while probation is generally a sentence in lieu of prison, but the terms are often used interchangeably.

The newest trend in sex-offender management is computer monitoring, which experts said is being done by a majority of state agencies. Maryland began using monitoring software for sex offenders last month; Virginia is researching it. Most federal districts monitor computers in some form.

A monitoring program installed on an offender's computer is designed to capture every keystroke, Internet site and program, including chat and e-mail. Officials can monitor the computer remotely by logging onto a Web site or getting an e-mail if the offender does anything troublesome.

"Anything they shouldn't be doing is going to leap off the page at you," said Jim Tanner, a former probation officer in Colorado and a leading proponent of monitoring. Violations are punished with warnings, harsher parole or probation conditions, parole or probation revocation or new charges if the action constitutes a crime.

Yet even this new tool is flawed. The software won't stop an offender from sneaking a laptop, using a family member's computer or logging on at the library. There is virtually no monitoring equipment for cellphones, BlackBerries or children's gaming devices, which require a time-consuming and expensive forensic analysis.

The monitoring equipment is expensive, so many agencies can't afford it or use a free program that can't retrieve deleted files.

Despite the limitations, proponents say computer monitoring is catching increasing numbers of violations and new crimes. But in the cat-and-mouse game officers play with offenders, old-fashioned police work often wins out.

'Very smart and manipulative'
D.C. probation officers learned, by questioning a man on probation for trying to rape a 9-year-old boy, that he was viewing child pornography on the computer at his mother's home, court records said. Federal agents and police searched his home.

An analysis showed the man, John Anthony, had deleted nearly 3,000 files of what the government called "sadistic and masochistic" child pornography up to an hour before the search, and officials said he was chatting on Yahoo as agents entered the house. Anthony pleaded guilty in D.C. federal court to possessing child pornography and was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison.

Aprille Cole, a nine-year veteran of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, relies on home visits, hard work and instinct in tracking sex offenders. "They're very smart and manipulative," said Cole. "We get to know their family members, friends and co-workers. We know their girlfriends and whether they have children."

On a recent visit to the Southeast D.C. apartment of a man on parole for molesting his 10-year-old daughter, Cole began firing questions the moment she and her partner, Kevin Jones, walked through the door.

"What's in that box?" she asked as she looked in the closet.

"Who is Sean?" she said as she spotted an unfamiliar name on the kitchen calendar.

"What's up with your girlfriend?"

"I'm not into girlfriends right now," the man answered.

"Then why is there a ponytail holder in your bathroom?" Cole said.

"I know he's lying about the girlfriend," she later told a reporter.

Officers would not disclose the man's name, citing privacy laws. He is not on computer monitoring because he says he doesn't have a computer.

In the man's bedroom, more than 30 stuffed animals were lined up on a table, including an oversize Elmo doll.

He said they belong to a former girlfriend.