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Grisly rape, murder prompted Hoosier sex offender registry; how does it actually work?
Times - 11/29/2020
Nov. 29--Ten-year-old Zachary Snider was smothered with a pillow, strangled, brutally raped and murdered by someone in his neighborhood.
His attacker, Christopher Stevens, was a previously convicted child molester and had been out of jail on probation at the time of the killing, but Snider's parents had no clue. Neither did the neighbors.
That was July 15, 1993, in the small town of Cloverdale on the outskirts of Indianapolis.
A year later, the well-known Indiana murder case ushered in the creation of the state's first sex offender registry, known as Zachary's Law.
At the time, it required the state to keep a public list of people who have been convicted of sex crimes involving children or anyone under age 18. In 1997, it was updated to require anyone convicted of rape, criminal deviate conduct and incest to register with local police after they are released from jail or on probation, regardless of the victim's age.
Statewide, more than 12,000 convicted sex offenders are listed on the Indiana registry, including nearly 800 spanning Lake and Porter counties.
According to the Clark County Prosecutor's Office, Zachary was often seen in the company of Stevens in the neighborhood, and Stevens even videotaped one of his little league baseball games leading up to the murder.
"Zachary's father eventually warned Stevens to stay away from his son when he learned that Stevens had taken the boy fishing," the prosecutor's office said.
A month later, Zachary turned up missing, last known to be headed to Stevens' house. A confession by Stevens to a family member led to the discovery of Zachary's body, which had been tossed over a bridge in a remote area along with his bicycle.
Stevens later admitted to psychologists that he had molested up to 30 children, according to the local prosecuting attorney's website.
How registries work
Zachary's Law, as it is written today, requires offenders who are on probation or parole to register with police. Some are kept on the list for 10 years. Others are permanently kept on the list, depending on the severity of crimes.
The determination whether the registration is for 10 years or life is determined by the offense, age of victim and prior criminal record, according to Indiana Code (I.C. 11-8-8-19).
The registry law also prohibits those who have offended against children or who have been labeled as a sexually violent predator from living within 1,000 feet of school properties, youth program centers or public parks, according to Capt. Larry Sheets, who serves as the Sex or Violent Offender Registry Coordinator for the Porter County Sheriff's Department.
Sexually violent predators or offenders against children also cannot live within a mile of the homes of their victims, he said.
Sex offenders who are not locked up have seven days to register in the county in which they are residing, Sheets said. Those behind bars have the same seven days to register upon their release.
The offender is fingerprinted and photographed, and the registration is updated annually, he said. The registries, by county, are publicly available online, including photos, addresses and conviction information for the offenders.
Offenders are required to register annually, and an offender with predator status is required to report every 90 days and have a new photo taken, Sheets said. Registration is required in each county in which an offender lives, owns property, works or attends secondary education.
"My general thoughts are that the registry is a good idea for those who live in close proximity to the offender," Porter County Prosecutor Gary Germann said. "There is a recidivism issue so it is a matter of public awareness and public safety. The registration is tough on the offenders.
"But it only takes one mistake -- and that we don't want to have happen," Germann said of the prospects of offenders committing new crimes.
These types of offenders are also required to undergo treatment and monitoring, which aims to reduce the chance of their reoffending, he said.
The registry's usefulness
The existence of these registries remains controversial after all these years, with civil liberties groups arguing the online availability of convicted sex offenders' mugshots, home and work addresses constitutes excessive punishment in addition to criminal sentences.
Critics of the registry also say it also can lead to lost job opportunities, threats and housing discrimination.
But child advocate Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, argues the public's right to feel safe in their neighborhoods outweighs the rights of convicted offenders.
Those who have committed such crimes should not be able to live undetected and untraceable by law enforcement and the public, she said.
"The number of cases that actually make it through all the way to conviction is very small. So what's important is that, of the ones that we have identified, that have been convicted, and now they're released back into the public, it's important that we know where these guys are and where they live," Cooper said.
She pointed to a 2009 Florida case in which 7-year-old Somer Thompson was abducted walking home from school. The girl was brutally raped and murdered by a neighbor, and her body was dumped 50 miles away in a Georgia landfill.
"I remember talking to the U.S. Marshals Service when they were down there looking for her, and they said that there were at least six or seven registered sex offenders living in her neighborhood between her school and her home, and multiple registered sex offenders had shrines in their home of her," Cooper said. "And it made it very difficult for them to figure out who might have been responsible for the crime. So I get that there's all these criticisms of the registries, but there is a usefulness to them."
Law enforcement checks
Lake County is home to approximately 660 actively registered sex offenders -- a number that fluctuates daily as people move in and out of state, prisoners are released and required to newly register or offenders' prescribed times on the registry expire.
Neighboring Porter County has 124 registered offenders, according to the sheriff's department.
One offender lives in Illinois, but registers with Indiana because he works in Porter County. Another offender remains on the Porter County registry but is believed to have fled to Mexico in 2012 and still has an active warrant for failing to register, according to the sheriff's department.
There were 40 registered sex offenders living in Portage at the end of October, 20 in Valparaiso and the rest scattered throughout the unincorporated areas of Porter County, sheriff's Capt. Sheets said.
The 121 men and three women all live under a lengthy list of tight restrictions for 10 years or up to a lifetime, he said. Failing to live up to the registry requirements invites new criminal charges.
"Violations can consist of failing to register altogether or failing to comply with the strict terms of registration like providing an incorrect address," Prosecutor Germann said. "The cases range in seriousness from intentionally not registering to someone being homeless and unable to register."
Minor violations, such as being late by a few days to report or not updating vehicle information when plates expire, are usually handled in person and noted in the file, Sheets said.
Violations leading to charges include offenders not living where they had registered or working/not working also where they registered, he said.
Eight Porter County offenders were charged with violations during each of the years from 2015 to 2017, seven charged in 2018, three charged in 2019 and two charged so far this year, Sheets said.
'We don't have a problem'
In Lake County, Sgt. Bryan Kersey is part of a three-man team on the Lake County Sheriff's Department responsible for routine checks to ensure offenders are living at the addresses they listed on the registry and adhering to other registry rules.
Kersey covers mid-to-south Lake County, including its unincorporated areas, while a second, two-man unit covers the more densely populated sections of north Lake County, including Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, he said.
So far this year, Kersey and two other deputies have made 695 attempted contacts and 987 confirmations, for a total of 1,682 checks to various addresses listed on the registry. In all, the team has filed 161 charges against offenders for alleged registry violations.
The violations often are failing to register or failing to notify a change of address, Kersey said.
"As long as they're staying above board, we don't have a problem out of them," Kersey said.
At the Porter County Sheriff's Department, personnel monitor sex offenders' compliance, and each offender undergoes a minimum of one residence check each year, Sheets said. Those labeled as predators are checked every 90 days.
"Most times, patrol officers are sent to the residence to check that the offender is still living where they have registered," he said.
Special patrols also check on the whereabouts of offenders around Halloween and in the spring, and employers can be contacted to verify offenders are working where they have registered.
Offenders are required to give notice within 72 hours of any change in their registration, Sheets said.
Check out your neighborhood
Porter County residents can check for offenders living or working near them by visiting the sheriff's website at portercountysheriff.com and selecting "Sex Offender Registry."
Lake County residents can check out their areas by visiting www.lakecountysheriff.com and selecting "Registered Sex Offenders" under the "Programs" heading.
Offenders can be searched for by name, address and other criteria. There's also an option for email alerts when offenders move in and out of the area.
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