‘A big problem’ few in law enforcement are addressing
DENVER – In less than a month’s time, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office arrested two registered sex offenders and charged them with using social media websites, a felony.
Both men use Facebook.
Ronnie Monroe Grant Jr., 38, used his real name on the site and told deputies he “used the page to communicate with his kids,” Lt. Tim Johnson, head of the sheriff’s Major Crime Unit, said. “We told him we really didn’t care. It’s against the law.”
Robert Steven Smith, the second man charged, was not using his real name, Johnson said, and investigators were tipped off about Smith’s page.
More than 10 years ago, when Smith pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a Charlotte woman, the victim warned the judge, “If this man is allowed to be free, he will do this again and the next time will kill somebody.”
Though the issue of sexual predators meeting victims through social media has been debated nationally, even having a show – “To Catch a Predator” – devoted to it, law enforcement officials locally and statewide have remarkably few statistics about the extent of the problem, itself a indicator of how difficult it is to catch these individuals.
“I don’t have any data, and I don’t know anybody who does,” Thomas Bennett, executive director of the N.C. Victim Assistance Network, said Tuesday, May 10. “I’m not aware of any data about how many sex offenders may be setting up Facebook pages.”
For one thing, the offenders are skilled at hiding themselves on social media, including MySpace and Twitter, Bennett said, and law enforcement agencies don’t have the time or resources to try to search for them. A spokesman for Facebook said the site takes its job as gatekeepers seriously and works proactively to catch potential predators. “Protecting our users, especially the many children who use Facebook, has always been a top priority for us,” spokesman Fred Wolens said. “We’ve devoted significant resources to developing innovative and complex systems to proactively monitor the site and its users, including those not on a sex offender registry, for suspicious activity.”
The only statistics the Herald Weekly could find – those compiled by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts – document the problem and show that it’s growing. The number of cases of registered sex offenders charged with using social media more than tripled statewide in just one year – from 36 in 2009 to 127 in 2010.
But that’s barely one case per county, and the largest county in the state – Mecklenburg – reported not a single case in either 2009 or 2010.
The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for maintaining the county’s sex offender registry, adding people to the registry or taking them off and monitoring to see if they are keeping a current address. But sheriff’s officials said they don’t investigate registered offenders’ use of social media and referred calls to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Sgt. Marsha Dearing, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s sex crimes unit, said in an email that she is “not aware of anything like that and haven’t charged anyone recently. The Sheriff’s Department handles the sex offenders and typically any charges relating to that, even though our unit might be contacted to follow up with something like this.”
In the pantheon of crimes that law enforcement agencies have to worry about, sex offenders using social media gets “a fairly low priority,” Bennett, head of the victim assistance network, said. But that doesn’t mean he’s not concerned about the issue.
“It is a problem,” Bennett said. “It would be good to get a handle on it, but to my knowledge, I don’t know of anybody who has.”
Part of problem is finding the offenders. Bennett has seen a national statistic that 250,000 registered sex offenders have simply disappeared from sight. They were registered at one time, but now, “no one knows where they are, what names they’ve taken on, what roles in life they are filling,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”
At the same time, he has not seen a similar statistic for how many registered offenders are missing in North Carolina. He’s not sure anyone is keeping that statistic, leaving the burden on parents.
“You’ve got to know where your child is going in the cyber world,” Bennett said, “and if you don’t know and can’t control it, then you’ve got to think seriously about restricting the child’s use of the Internet. I’m am confident that some sex offenders are using the cyber word to continue their activities. … Some of these people are very obsessive and very intrusive and can become quite dangerous.”
Just read the court record of Stanley resident Robert Steven Smith, the registered sex offender most recently charged with using social media. On Feb. 2, 2000, Smith, then 31, pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual offense. In summarizing the case to the judge, a prosecutor said Smith was operating his own business, Pooper Scooper, where he cleaned animal waste from yards.
On April 14, 1997, Smith approached a Charlotte woman working in her yard and asked if he could offer his service. When she said, no, he offered to mow her yard. The woman said she would take his phone number, but when she went into her to write down his number, he followed her in, forced her into a bedroom, where he took off her clothes and committed a sex act on her, but left after she told him she’d pray for him.
The woman gave police an excellent description, and Charlotte police investigators connected the assault to a similar attempted assault in Fort Mill, S.C.
The Charlotte victim told the judge: “He was a stranger who forced himself upon me in my home in the middle of the day and committed horrible and degrading acts against my will, everything but what is legally termed rape. I thought I was going to die and have never been so scared.
“The legal process has been brutal to me. I have continued, however, because of my deep and sincere belief that if this man is allowed to be free, he will do this again and the next time kill somebody.”