Bristol case sparks sex offender questions
BRISTOL — Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs wants to change state law so that local law enforcement can’t be left out of the loop when a registered sex offender moves into their community.
In early March, Gibbs learned that a registered sex offender had been living in Bristol since early October without his police department’s knowledge. State law requires that offenders notify the Department of Public Service and the Sex Offender Registry when they move, said Gibbs, but not local law enforcement.
“If you’d asked me a month or two ago if I saw any problems with this system I’d have said no,” Gibbs said. But now, he thinks “there are holes in the system that could cause a sex offender to move into a jurisdiction and reoffend.”
Gibbs has begun reaching out to local legislators with a series of recommendations to address the flaws in the system. The change that’s most important to Gibbs is that both state authorities and offenders themselves notify a community’s local law enforcement — whether it be the local police department, sheriff’s department, constable or Vermont State Police — when a sex offender moves into that community.
According to the Department of Public Safety’s online Sex Offender Registry, 38 registered sex offenders reside in Addison County.
The Bristol Police Department last Wednesday night held a public forum to address concerns about sex offenders and community safety. One mother in the audience, toddler in a stroller in tow, voiced a frustration that seemed to be shared by many. She described how the public discovered that Mark Hulett, a registered sex offender, was living in Bristol.
“It took a bunch of mothers to figure it out first and then it spread like wildfire,” she said.
“It shouldn’t have happened that way,” replied Gibbs.
Not only was Hulett living in Bristol for five months without the police department’s knowledge, Gibbs alleged that he had been living in violation of the terms of his probation, which stipulated that he could not live in an apartment building that also accepted families with children.
“He was placed in a place where he’s not supposed to be,” said Gibbs. “He had conditions that said he was not supposed to live in an apartment that accepts children. The apartment he was in had a family in it with children and two apartments next to it with children, because it also said he can’t live in a neighborhood where children are playing or children are. So there were a couple of the conditions that he had that probation should have noticed.”
Bristol police learned that Hulett was living in Bristol when the department received a call on March 5 from Bristol resident Beth Derringer, who runs a home-based daycare center roughly half a block from where Hulett was living.
“My phone lit up at 6:15 on a Saturday morning,” said Derringer, of the calls that came pouring in from concerned parents. “The state updated the sex offender website that morning, and my phone lit up because everybody in the community knows I run a daycare.”
Hulett was living in an apartment on Mountain Street, close enough to Derringer’s home and daycare business on Devino Lane, she said, that “he would be able to see my kids playing in the front yard.”
Hulett’s Middlebury-based probation officer, Cheryl Patch (the probation officer at the time of his placement in Bristol was Nate Hudak), declined to comment and instead directed the Independent to Randy Coble, sex offender supervision and re-entry coordinator for the Vermont Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Abuse, which is part of the Department for Children and Families.
When asked if Hulett had been in violation of the conditions of his probation when he lived in Bristol, Coble responded, “No. He received permission to move to this residence. Once it came to light that a day care was near the residence, Hulett was moved from that location.”
Hulett was moved out of Bristol entirely.
Gibbs holds that local law enforcement can best work for public safety “if we know the day somebody moves into our community.”
His recommendations to make sure that that becomes standard procedure include:
• Requiring offenders to report to local law enforcement when they move into a new jurisdiction.
• Requiring offenders to supply local police with the current conditions of parole, probation or release.
• Requiring offenders to provide local and state authorities with proof of residency, such as a tax bill, rental agreement, electric bill, etc.
• Requiring offenders to provide some form of official identification — such as a driver’s license, military ID, etc. — when local law enforcement officers do compliance checks.
• Involving the community in placement decisions.
Gibbs would also like to see a more consistent approach to doing local compliance checks, which are often shared across various law enforcement agencies.
“The system is designed to make it safer for the community but also to put enough checks on an offender so that they aren’t as likely to reoffend,” said Gibbs, “so there’s a benefit to both the community and the offender to correcting some of these flaws.”
Gibbs said that his recommendations wouldn’t require a new law but could be addressed by changes to existing laws.
SEX OFFENDER NEXT DOOR
At the Bristol forum, Gibbs acknowledged both that “nobody wants a sex offender living next door” and that offenders “have a right to try and move on with their life and be safe as well. This is why we don’t give their address.” But he also explained that in a handful of cases in his 30-some-odd years on the Bristol force, he has, on an as-needed basis, taken additional steps to notify the community, such as posting fliers.
“There has to be more community awareness that these people are out and about,” said Derringer, who supports Gibbs’ recommendations. “And when it comes down to an offender’s rights, their rights shouldn’t be above our children. I understand that there’s certain laws and there’s certain things that if they’ve gone through programs, fantastic. However, if you’ve taken the innocence of a child, you do not deserve more rights than a child in my opinion.”
Coble, the sex offender supervision and re-entry coordinator, attended Wednesday night’s forum but wasn’t called upon to respond to community concerns at that venue. When reached by the Independent for comment, he responded by email, “The department understands that this can be an emotional situation for community members and takes its responsibility to supervise sex offenders seriously.
“The term ‘sex offender’ typically invokes the perception of stranger danger and unknown assailants. This is not the case. In Vermont, sex offense cases overwhelmingly involve offenders who know and/or are related to the victim. It is important to educate parents and children of the dangers that are both known, and unknown, in the community.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].
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