SEX CRIME LAW IGNORED MORE THAN 33,000 CONVICTED OFFENDERS UNACCOUNTED FOR STATEWIDE.
California has lost track of more than 33,000 convicted sex offenders - 44 percent of the total - despite a state law requiring rapists and child molesters to register each year for inclusion in the Megan's Law database.
Megan's Law goes unenforced almost as often in Los Angeles, where nearly 30 percent of convicted sex offenders are not registered, or in Ventura County, where officials estimate the figure is about 25 percent.
``We don't know where they are,'' acknowledged Margaret Moore, who until recently ran California's sex-offender registry.
Sex offenders are not checking in with law enforcement, which in most cases is a felony. And many overworked police departments are not following up.
Experts say sex-offender databases nationwide have fallen short of their promise.
``It's not only in California,'' said Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, a national victims-rights group. ``We're expecting sex offenders to be reporting their addresses, and that's the problem.''
The 1996 law is named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a child molester who had moved in across the street. All states have similar laws designed to warn communities about the presence of such ex-cons.
After repeated requests last year, the state Department of Justice provided The Associated Press with numbers on every ex-convict who showed up in California's sex registry between 1946 and Nov. 27, 2002.
The data show that the state does not know the whereabouts of at least 33,296 sex offenders, or 44 percent of the 76,350 who registered at least once. Many of these ex-cons haven't been heard from since that initial registration.
The total number of offenders whose whereabouts are unknown may be even higher: No one knows how many never registered at all after leaving prison.
Failing to register could put high-risk offenders in jail for up to three more years, but most police departments are not enforcing the law.
No one knows how many of these missing sex offenders have struck again. But nationally, 52 percent of rapists are arrested for new crimes within three years of leaving prison, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The facts show people's faith in the database is misplaced, Ahearn said.
``It's really unacceptable that the registry is not as accurate as it should be, and people in California should be outraged by that,'' Ahearn said. ``People have this false sense of what Megan's Law guarantees, and they just fall into this illusion. They're not crying out because they're believing that everything is just fine - and it's really not.''
Los Angeles and Ventura County sheriff's departments and police departments in Los Angeles, Glendale, Burbank, San Fernando and Simi Valley all report they are missing a significant number of sex offenders who should be registering annually.
``Finding them is among our top priorities,'' said Detective Jack Gray of the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys Division. ``Some of them forget to register; some don't want to be found. When we do find them, they give us every excuse in the book.''
More than 27 percent of the registered sex offenders in Glendale are missing, and sex-crimes detectives say tracking them is a difficult task.
``We find that many of the ones who don't register have become transients,'' said Glendale police Sgt. Randy Osborne. ``We have no idea where they are, but they will be found eventually and be prosecuted.''
Ventura County sheriff's Sgt. Steve Wareham was not surprised that more than 25 percent of the county's sex offenders failed to register.
``It's the nature of these types of people that some don't want to be found, but we are diligent in finding them because many remain a threat to society,'' Wareham said.
Wareham said the problems can come from registrant laziness, delays in police records being processed, sex offenders moving to another jurisdiction or a true desire to remain unregistered.
``When you have all these factors, we don't have the manpower necessary to keep tabs on them all, at every moment,'' Wareham said. ``We have to balance our normal caseloads along with tracking these guys.''
Among those missing is Richard Flick, convicted of molesting four young children in the 1980s and '90s. Flick was freed from Atascadero State Hospital in 1999 despite warnings from the hospital staff that he hadn't resolved his sexual attraction to children.
Even Flick said it would be ``disastrous'' for him to be released without supervision. ``I'd be a fool to walk out there on my own,'' he said.
A search of the database turned up no information on his whereabouts.
Megan's Law databases are supposed to help the public and police monitor convicted sex offenders by keeping track of their home and work addresses and other personal details. Adults can search the database at sheriff's offices or police stations.
But no one audits California's database for accuracy. State Justice Department officials cannot even say how much the program costs.
The data provided to the AP show that 27,577 sex offenders are ``out of compliance,'' meaning they haven't registered in at least a year. An additional 5,719 ``cannot be accurately categorized''; of these, most have not been heard from since 1995, said Norm Pierce, manager of the department's Violent Crime Information Center, which oversees the database.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer touts the sex-offender database as a valuable tool for the public, one that is updated daily and available in 13 languages. But when presented with the AP's findings - the first-ever analysis of the database's accuracy - he acknowledged that changes are needed.
``Having self-regulation is fine if there's effective oversight,'' said Lockyer, who stopped short of saying California lacks such oversight.
``Our system is inadequate, woefully inadequate,'' he said. ``It can only be improved by putting money into the local law enforcement agencies. It's a matter of resources.''
With a $34.8 billion deficit in California, more funding is unlikely - even from a tough-on-crime governor.
And while Gray Davis' spokesman praised the database as highly popular, he also sought to distance the governor from responsibility for its problems.
``This is not our program,'' Byron Tucker said. ``I know the governor is supportive of this program. Obviously there's room for improvement.''
People who move into new neighborhoods or who want to check out neighbors, teachers or coaches are often frustrated to learn how limited the available information is.
Californians can search by last name, ZIP code or county, and see a photo of the registrant, along with the name, birth date, type of crime and physical description, including any tattoos. But the public isn't allowed to see the offenders' addresses, and with most ZIP codes including more than 6,000 residents, pinpointing offenders is nearly impossible.
Also, only police can see whether the registration is current - or whether the offender hasn't been heard from in years.
Lockyer said persuading police and sheriff's departments to spend more on crime prevention is key - but added he's aware of no requests for more state money to improve the accuracy of the database.
Former state Assemblywoman Barbara Alby, the advocate for children and author of California's Megan's Law, said she was appalled by the findings.
``We've got to put some teeth in the law for law enforcement,'' she said. ``We should tie some of their funding to making sure this is getting done.''
Some states take a firmer approach. In Washington, law enforcement officers go to sex offenders each year to confirm their information, rather than relying on ex-cons to report in. Only 10 percent of that state's 17,105 offenders could not be found, said Toni Korneder, Washington's criminal history records manager.
Among the bright spots in California are San Jose, which spends $600,000 on a staff of seven people working on a full-time basis to monitor 2,700 sex offenders.
Last year, when a 7-year-old girl was raped, Sgt. Tim Porter quickly ran a list of every sex offender who fit the suspect's description living or working within a mile of the attack.
``Every single one of them was in compliance,'' Porter said. ``Because of our record-keeping system and our monthly audits, when we have to pull a list of suspects, it's fairly accurate.''
But with nearly half of the state's sex offenders missing from the database, most other agencies can't respond as well or as quickly.
``We'd have a list, but it wouldn't be accurate,'' said Officer Frank Alliger in Oakland, where no one works full time on the registry and no compliance checks are done on the city's 1,500 convicted sex offenders.
Most other local efforts are less organized and understaffed.
``We could definitely use some help,'' said Detective Terry Chew, the lone officer responsible for tracking Sacramento's 1,945 registered sex offenders.
He said he thinks 300 or more are not complying, but ``there's so many of them out there, it's hard to keep track.''
MEGAN'S LAW VIOLATORS
In Los Angeles County, the Megan's Law database is available to view at all Los Angeles Police Department divisions, all Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department stations and most local law enforcement agencies. Local information is also available from Los Angeles County's sex-offender Web site at: gismap.co.la.ca.us/sols/viewer.asp.
MEGAN'S LAW VIOLATORS
SOURCE: California Department of Justice