Who is policing sex offenders online? A WINK News investigation

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Sammy Zimmermanns, Pixabay via MGN

FORT MYERS, Fla. – What’s simple for many people – changing one’s profile name or email address for Facebook – can result in up to five years in prison for Lee County’s approximately 800 registered sex offenders and predators.

That is, if they don’t notify law enforcement.

Sex offenders and predators are allowed to have social media accounts in Florida, but must register them with their local sheriff’s office first. That information is then sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which says it is up to the offender to register their accounts.

A WINK News investigation found at least 13 offenders in Lee County who have not done so.

“I would like that list because the sheriff’s office takes it very seriously,” said Sgt. James Richard, who oversees the Lee County Sheriff’s Office’s sexual predator offender unit. “When there’s information provided that that’s really going on, it will be investigated and if they are found to not be in compliance, they will be charged.”

FDLE has records of every sex offender and predator in the state, but did not have a list that included their online accounts until WINK News asked for it.

WINK News used the list to identify the offenders who did not register their Facebook accounts with FDLE, including James Horton, who was convicted of sexual battery. His Facebook page is filled with what appears to be dozen of underage girls from other countries.

The sheriff’s office now have 13 open criminal investigations based on the list provided by WINK News. FDLE has also asked for the list.

‘Quite a task’
Sexual predators must check in with law enforcement four times a year; two times annually for sex offenders.

Registering social media information is one of 19 registration requirements sex offenders in Florida must comply to.

Changed license plates? That has to be registered. New email? That too.

“The Internet, it’s a worry obviously,” Richard said. “People use that to either con children, make first contact. Stuff of a criminal nature, it’s easier to be behind the screen and commit crimes, then it is to do that in person.”

The four detectives in the sexual offender unit, the only dedicated one in Southwest Florida, spend the majority of their time knocking on doors to validate an offender’s listed home address.

“In so far as monitoring their day-to-day (social media) postings, no we do not,” Richard said. “Through their contact with the sex offenders and predators, that’s how we can gain knowledge of whether they’re using the wrong identifiers or they are not registering (their social media information). You know, it’s social media, it’s really hard to monitor all 800 on a daily basis. It’s quite a task.”

What if an offender doesn’t use their real name on social media?

It’s not illegal, as long as they register that name with FDLE.

“I would tell parents to monitor their children’s phones, that would be the starting point,” Richard said.

‘Just protect them’
Richard didn’t get into details regarding whether his unit has enough resources – “the sheriff’s office is doing the best we can,” he said.

Probation officers have more leeway in controlling an offender’s social media use, Richard said. While state law allows offenders to have social media accounts, Facebook and Twitter rules disallows such on their respective platforms.

The sheriff’s office is considering software that would improve its monitoring of offender social media accounts, Richard said.

Preventing sexual offender and predators from using social media must ultimately be determined by lawmakers, or a judge who restricts such use at sentencing, Richard said.

WINK News asked lawmakers why there’s not a social media ban for sex offenders and predators in Florida. We’ll share their answer on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

“Talk to your children. Try to explain the dangers that are out there,” he said. “Monitor their social media. Take their phones, look through their phones. There are applications out there that track what your child does on their phone. Being a parent is not always glorious, but you do what you are supposed to do, just protect them.”

Every time Mel Johnson’s 15-year-old son receives a Facebook friend request, a brief conversation takes place.

“He can’t accept any friends that we don’t know,” said Johnson, a father of two.

Johnson is one of few outside law enforcement who regularly interacts with sex offenders. He does so as part of a ministry re-entry program.

“They should pay the price,” he said of those who don’t register their accounts with the state. “They know what guidelines they need to go by.”

How parents monitor their children’s social media interactions can stretch to an outright ban.

“There is so much going on out there that I can’t protect her from,” said Jacquelyn Saltrs, whose 16-year-old daughter isn’t allowed on social media. “It’s easy for (sex offenders) to have access to that, they could end up showing up to your house. For me, it’s more of a protection thing.”

Saltrs added that WINK News’ findings only solidified her approach.

“Only thing she has is an email, but I keep track of that,” she said.

Robert Hamlin, who has a 17-year-old son, believes a social media ban for offenders isn’t enough.

“These people need to be identified, and blocked from all internet access, not merely social media,” he said.

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