Tracking sex offenders takes lots of time

MUSCATINE, Iowa — John Ruiz Hernandez waited Monday afternoon in the foyer of the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office patrol division while Cpl. Michael Schmidt pecked at a typewriter behind a locked door.

On forms and colored carbon copies, Schmidt updated Hernandez’s status on the Sex Offender Registry for Muscatine County.

Hernandez, a convicted sex offender and four-time convicted felon, had been released from the Muscatine County Jail after serving time on a probation violation. He had only five days to report his change in residency to Schmidt. To re-register he was required to report where and with whom he planned to live and work, if his phone number had changed, and any other relevant information.

Schmidt is the primary person in charge of tracking sex offenders in Muscatine County and updating the Iowa Sex Offender Registry. On the wall of his small, shared office is a list of every Muscatine County offender, when that person needs to do a yearly status update and mug shots of offenders from other counties who have warrants issued for their arrest.

“If they violate, I don’t have a problem putting them in jail,” Schmidt said. He relies on the required yearly update and the fact sex offenders must report to him any life-changing event.

“If they get a tattoo, new car, grow a beard or long hair, get married, if their parent dies, when they move to a new address, if they’ve become an amputee,” he went on. “We want to keep record of those things and keep mug shots updated.”

For two years he’s been responsible for the time-consuming job of tracking registered offenders. Schmidt said he’s met all but maybe two of the 57 Muscatine County residents who are listed on the Iowa Sex Offender Registry Web site www.iowasexoffender.com.

He keeps busy. Within an hour’s time Monday afternoon, four offenders had contacted him to report changes.

Another issue he must track is offenders whose crimes were against minors. In 2002, Iowa enacted a 2,000-foot law, making it illegal for those offenders to live within that distance from an elementary or secondary school or registered day-care. When offenders move, and they tend to do so often, Schmidt goes to their neighborhoods and places fliers on doors to inform residents.

Within the heart of Muscatine there are very few places a sex offender can live. A map in Schmidt’s office marks schools and day-care facilities with red dots. The 2,000-foot circumference around each one is highlighted in larger yellow dots. Muscatine’s Riverfront Park and a stretch of Second Street, between Pine and Cedar streets, are unprotected.

It makes life difficult for Hernandez, 39, and other offenders. He entered a guilty plea in 2002 for lascivious acts with a child. He was accused of inappropriate sexual acts with a minor under the age 12.

Hernandez served two years in prison and was released in September 2005. In July 2006, he was charged with violating the 2,000-foot law.

“Since I’ve been out of

prison it’s been hectic. I’ve had so many different residences  since 2005. It’s been hard finding a residence where I can actually live,” Hernandez said. He now lives in the unprotected area on East Second Street. Four other registered offenders also live in the 200 block of East Second Street.

Hernandez said he doesn’t feel as if he committed a crime and said his victim, a relative who later admitted she lied about the accusations, now has a relationship with him and he’s forgiven her. That statement could not be confirmed with the victim.

Though he hasn’t had trouble maintaining a job in construction and has never been persecuted publicly for his presence on the registry, Hernandez said it’s been a very negative aspect of life. As a married father of six children he worries about how people might treat his family. He said he regrets not being able to fight the charge and couldn’t do so because he did not have the money to pay an attorney for the extended battle that would have ensued.

“When I first got out of prison my wife and kids were living on Spring Street and they (law enforcement) made me move,” he said.

Friends have approached Hernandez and told him officials were putting up fliers stating that he’s an offender. It bothered him but he understands.

“I don’t have problems with the law whatsoever. I have a problem with sex offenders who don’t register because I have kids and want to protect them too. I am trying to stay on the straight and narrow and do what the law requires,” he said.

A sex offender can live on protected property only if he or she resided there prior to establishment of the ordinance on July 1, 2002. If the offender was incarcerated and lived in a protected area prior to the ordinance, he or she may return to that residence upon release from prison and remain there.

The 2000-foot restriction is effective only for existing schools and day-cares and their property established prior to July 1, 2002. Schmidt said if a day-care provider moves to a new home and re-establishes a business, that new home is not protected under the restriction unless it is within 2,000 feet of another qualifying establishment.

“My yellow dots are disappearing,” Schmidt said, because when a protected area closes or moves, even on a temporary basis, it’s no longer protected.

For example, he said when the new West Liberty High School was built at a different location and opened in 2006, it was no longer protected.

Schmidt has to keep track of day-care facilities to see if they are still open so he can tell offenders where they can and cannot live in the County.

“In Nichols, there’s one day-care in the center of town and it’s the only thing keeping the ordinance in place,” Schmidt said.

In Conesville there are no schools or registered day care centers, according to Schmidt’s records, so the city came up with its own ordinance. The ordinance, passed in December 2005, prohibits sex offenders from residing within 2,000 feet of a public park, library or playground.

In Louisa County, Wapello has also formed a city ordinance to keep sex offenders out. Sex offender-free and pedophile-free zones were created in places where children congregate.

Right next to a bright blue and yellow sign that reads “Welcome to Wapello” Upon entering the city limits, at the intersection of County Road G62 and K Avenue, a second, smaller sign, reads “Pedophile free zones within city limits — violators will be prosecuted.”

Wapello Police Chief Wayne Crump said that to his knowledge, no sex offenders live in town, but there are two persons on the registry who live outside the city limits.

The Wapello City Code states the reason for the ordinance beyond the state requirement is due to the idea that when sex offenders re-enter society they are much more likely than any other type of offender to be arrested again for similar crimes. The Code states that “reducing the opportunity and temptation is important to minimizing the risk of re-offense.”

Schmidt says that all cities in Iowa should adopt a strict city ordinance to avoid the inevitable disappearance of protected zones. He plans to bring the idea to the Muscatine City Council in the future when he can update his map and explain how zones are disappearing.

Though offenders are bounced from town to town looking for a place to live, law enforcement officials in each county are continually looking for a way to keep the public safe.

“I foresee in five years from now the only yellow dots on my map will be schools. We’ve already lost half of the day cares,” he said. “I have no problem with an ordinance that keeps sex offenders out of Muscatine County.”

Reporter contact information

Melissa Regennitter: 563-262-0526, or mregennitter@muscatinejournal.com

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