Story by Joanne Brayden
Photo by Kevin McClintic
Special to West Seattle Blog
The incident that sparked this story began when a West Seattle resident reported in the comments section of this recent WSB report, “So You Think You Know Who’s at Nickelsville?”, that an automatic notification had informed her/him that a registered sex offender living in the vicinity of the camp that moved back to eastern WS three weeks ago today.
At first glance, that report and how Nickelsville rapidly responded to it seemed to be all there was to tell, but this story, like all tales of human interaction with bureaucracy, turns out to be much more complex than anticipated.
I confess, as the person breaking the story of WSB Forums member Mike’s move to Nickelsville, I was inclined to dismiss the initial comment about a sex offender living at Nickelsville as one of the many Not In My Back Yard reactions to the homeless camp, but as the evening progressed, the probable offender was identified.
The following morning at 7 am, I e-mailed Scott Morrow, Nickelsville’s staff person, to let him know that there was a possibility that a registered sex offender had checked into Nickelsville.
What followed was a swift flurry of activity that woke the management at Nickelsville in the early morning hours and precipitated an investigation into whether this individual currently resided in their community and, if so, how he had evaded the camp’s security process.
Scott first verified that the individual in question was a registered sex offender. Then he called Nickelsville’s security team. They verified that the offender was residing at the camp. The offender was not present when they identified him, having checked out a bicycle early that morning, so they packed his belongings for him and deposited them by the security tent awaiting his return.
Scott then contacted the Nickelsville bookkeeper to verify that the man was not on the list they use to crosscheck for sex offenders. (He wasn’t.) He next tracked down the offender’s intake form. He called Peggy at Jam with Justice, the 501c3 non-profit that hosts the Nickelsville project, who had volunteered to charge the camp laptop and process intake forms until the camp had reliable electrical service. A check of the offender’s intake form verified that he had checked in on May 18 and had initialed acceptance of the No Sexual Predators-No Tolerance Rule.
By 9:30 am, when I arrived at Nickelsville with a copy of a printout of a sex-offender registry that included a picture of the individual who had registered in King County, his belongings were packed and awaiting his return. By 10:20 am, he had returned, been notified he was banned, and had left the area. (The online registry now lists his address as 12th and Jackson.)
While that was a swift conclusion to this incident, it is not the whole story. The question of how Nickelsville could have admitted a registered sex offender in spite of their security precautions is more complex than simple human error.
Nickelsville relies on a series of checks and balances to keep sex offenders and other predators out of their community. The first line of defense occurs at intake registration. After showing a government-issued picture ID, every new resident fills out an intake form that includes the non-negotiable reasons for immediate eviction, including no alcohol or drugs, and no sexual predators. The intake officer reads the rules to them individually and they are required to initial each rule to verify that they understand and will comply.
This offender lied and signed his initials to that lie to gain admittance to Nickelsville.
Security then checks the camp’s printed copy of the King County Sheriff’s Office‘s current sex-offender registration list, which is kept to verify that new residents are not listed.
There are three lists. Nickelsville uses the 100+-page list of unmappables (offenders who have reported to King County but report no location), because that is the list that is far more likely to be accurate for transient sex offenders and is most easily updated. There are two more equally lengthy sex offender lists maintained by King County, a global list which is the one used to notify citizens of registered sex offenders living in their neighborhood, and the list of offenders not in compliance with the terms of their release.
This offender was a Florida sex offender whose first registration with King County appears to have occurred after he became a Nickelsville resident, so his name had not yet appeared on the global list at the time he checked into camp. However, if he had registered the Nickelsville area as his address prior to checking into the community, he would still not have appeared on the list used by the camp (the unmappable list), because he had provided King County with a mappable location.
This is where the second level of security at Nickelsville kicks in. As a general rule, the bookkeeper will cross-check the registration of new residents with local and national website listings the same day they enter the camp. That process was delayed in this case because there was no source of electricity at Nickelsville other than a generator in need of repair.
It is questionable whether the registration for this particular Florida sex offender would have been easily found before he listed with King County, even if the processing of intake forms had not been delayed. There are no photocopy facilities at Nickelsville, and the person checking the local and national registries is not generally the same person who checks the new resident into camp, so they may not be able to immediately visually identify an offender.
This offender was known to use aliases. My Google search revealed more than one registered Florida sex offender with similar physical attributes and the same recorded first and last names, and several more registered in other states. To verify this particular person’s possible sex-offender status before he was listed with King County would have required far more effort than simply looking him up on a national registry.
The next line of defense at Nickelsville is their internal databases. They have always attempted to keep a written record of all residents who pass through their doors. Bookkeeper Mike told me they track who was here, when they were here, when they left and whether they left on good terms. If not, they note the reason for eviction.
Those records are now computerized, so the database of recent residents is easier to access, but Nickelsville doesn’t rely on the written records alone. In addition to written records, they rely on the memories of residents who consider Nickelsville their home. They report anyone who tries to re-enter the camp after being banned.
The camp management makes a special effort to meet and get to know each new resident. Security Mike told me that he has talked with every person who has passed through Nickelsville since their last move, and knows most of their stories. He and the rest of the management team listen for the kinds of inconsistencies that might need investigation.
Lastly, Nickelsville relies on the local police departments and neighbors to notify them of any possible security issues which would include a sex offender registering at their location. King County had not notified Nickelsville of a registered sex offender claiming residence in their community. A neighbor did.
The process of accurately identifying individual sex offenders who lie about their status is far more complex than checking lists. This particular registered offender wasn’t on local lists when he checked into Nickelsville, wasn’t easily identifiable in national registries, wasn’t in camp records, wasn’t previously known to residents, didn’t talk about his sex offender history and hadn’t been reported to the camp by the local police.
Even when everyone does their job to the best of their abilities, as happened in this instance, offenders can take advantage of the fact that they are not yet listed on local registries and lie about their offender status. They can temporarily slip through even the best designed systems.
The best indicator of a community’s safety is what occurs when that happens. Julie, a member of the Arbitration council, part of the camp’s conflict-resolution process, admitted that this is not the first time a sex offender lied on intake to gain entrance to Nickelsville. She added that they don’t get away with their lies for very long. The deception is always discovered within a few days and they are immediately and permanently banned.
This particular incident happened to be magnified by the hyperlocal lens of WSB, but camp management says this particular sex offender would still have been discovered and banned from Nickelsville without citizen intervention, once his intake form was checked against local online offender databases. In a strange twist of irony, the delay in processing his particular records until after he listed with King County facilitated verifying his sex offender status.
For WSB readers, the unfolding story of this offender’s presence in our community was an incident worthy of attention. But that didn’t make this predator’s presence at Nickelsville any more dangerous to our community than any other registered sex offender.
Sgt Sean Whitcomb, the head of the SPD media unit, told WSB that any sex offender without a fixed street address has to check in with King County on a weekly basis. That would include any sex offender attempting to reside at Nickelsville. Because they must report more frequently than other registered sex offenders with a fixed address, they are more easily monitored.
Nickelsville makes a special effort to detect and eject sex predators because of the women and children who might make Nickelsville their home. There were no children living in Nickelsville while this offender resided in the camp, but had there been, Security Mike assured me that they would have been in little danger. The last family was billeted next door to the Security tent and the camp’s management kept a watchful eye on the children.
Nickelsville takes the safety and security of their encampment and the greater community very seriously. The discovery of this registered sex offender highlighted the importance of immediate access to computer records and online resources at Nickelsville. The newly charged laptop was on site by the end of the day and the generator has been repaired. The status of new residents is once again being verified in a timely manner.
If you see any safety issue involving Nickelsville residents, they ask that you bring it to their attention. They are very appreciative of the extra eyes and ears you provide.
You can call the Nickelsville staff at 206-450-9136 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suspicions. The staff says they will be promptly investigated.
This weekend, part 2 of the report: Who’s in charge?
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