Neighborhood troubled by sex offenders
Officials: Nothing can be done about high numbers in area
Published: Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.
Residents in a neighborhood near downtown Sheffield are frustrated by what they say is a large number of convicted sex offenders living there, but the police chief and sheriff said there's nothing anyone can do about it.
"The only thing they could do as a community is be sure everybody knows who's who in the community," said Police Chief Greg Ray. "Be informed."
The advice doesn't make residents such as Vicki Despigno feel any safer.
"I have a problem with too many of them living here," Despigno said.
"I don't appreciate them walking up and down the street looking at my two granddaughters."
Despigno's granddaughters are 12 and 14.
According to a website maintained by the Alabama Department of Public Safety, there are 31 convicted sex offenders living in Sheffield.
The site provides photos of convicted sex offenders, their names, addresses, charges and their victims' ages and gender. Of the 31 registered sex offenders living in Sheffield, 30 are male.
Seven of them were convicted of crimes involving adult victims.
Of the 24 people convicted of crimes involving minors, four involved underage male victims. The rest of the victims were female, according to the site.
Crimes included sexual abuse, sodomy, enticing a child for immoral purposes and second-degree rape, which involves consensual sex with an underage person. One person was convicted of possessing child pornography.
Ray and Colbert County Sheriff Ronnie May say convicted sex offenders released from prison must register with the sheriff in the county where they plan to reside and must contact the police department in the city where they will reside.
Ray said convicted sex offenders cannot live within 2,000 feet of a school or day care, nor can they reside within 1,000 feet of a former victim.
Four women who live in the area north of downtown and bordering the Manning Homes housing project expressed concerns to the City Council last week but were informed that there is nothing the city can do because a crime has not been committed.
Dallas Walker, of Parsons Street, said she has heard about the number of sex offenders living in the city.
Walker has 7-year-old and 8-month-old daughters and sees children playing outside frequently with no parents present.
"I didn't realize there were that many sex offenders in the area," she said. "I was really shocked to hear that."
Walker said she and her husband didn't know of any sex offenders living near their home when they moved in.
"We love our house," she said. "It's an adorable little starter house in the cutest neighborhood with the best neighbors," she said.
She said she plans to circulate as much information about registered sex offenders in Sheffield as she can so her neighbors know who is living nearby.
Shirley Whitten, executive director of the Sheffield Housing Authority, said she plans to do the same.
Anitra Agnew, who told City Council members her 12-year-old son was approached by a registered sex offender, lives at Manning Homes, which borders the area that is home to several registered offenders.
"If there is any good side to this, it is that at least under the current system, you know where they are," Whitten said.
"The real problem with sex offenders is when you don't know who they are."
Whitten said convicted sex offenders are not allowed to live in public housing.
Both the police chief and Capt. Scott Wallace said for the most part, the registered sex offenders living in Sheffield keep a low profile and mind their own business.
Wallace said two reports concerning recent incidents did not involve registered sex offenders.
"We're investigating both of them," Ray said.
Wallace said residents should not hesitate to report anything unusual that involve their children.
"If there is a problem, come forward," Wallace said.
Ray said registered sex offenders tend to cluster in the same area because they know they will be in compliance with the law.
"There's a network in prison where these people communicate with one another," Ray said.
Whitten said sex offenders will learn through the network about landlords who will rent to them.
Wallace said many of them have little money and cannot afford to live anywhere but in low-income areas.
Ray said the police department has officers who keeps tabs on the offenders, making sure they remain in compliance with the law.
"We want to keep them on their toes," Ray said. "At least once a year we go to their house to make sure they are there. We interview people. We should be able to do that every month, but it's hard to do."
Sheriff May said it's difficult for sex offenders to find places to live, especially in larger cities that have numerous schools or day cares.
Sometimes older motels attract registered sex offenders because they know they can live there and be in compliance with the law, the sheriff said.
Such is the case of Shady Court Motel on East 12th Avenue.
Wallace said a new day care nearby won't require the offenders who live at Shady Court to move, but no new ones may move in.
Despigno said she doesn't believe sex offenders should be allowed to live so close to Riverfront Park, but that isn't part of the law. She said there should be a limit to how many sex offenders can live in an area, but again, there isn't.
Whitten said she would include a reminder in the next Sheffield Housing Authority newsletter, which is circulated to all of her tenants.
She said she will provide tenants with the web address of the sex offender database and allow those without Internet service to view the site in the housing authority's office.
Doris Teague, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, said the sex offender database is updated daily, but depends on local law enforcement agencies to mail them information on new sex offenders that move into their cities and counties.
Whitten said keeping an eye on sex offenders and letting them know they're being watched is a deterrent.
"That works as well as anything," she said.
Russ Corey can be reached at 740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.