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Tracking sex offenders in Maricopa County

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PHOENIX -

If you live in Maricopa County, chances are a convicted sex offender is living within a few blocks of you. In fact, here at FOX 10 in downtown Phoenix, we've got 185 known sex offenders as neighbors.

A newly created sheriff's posse is trying to keep track of these people so you have a better idea of who your neighbors are.

Tracking sex offenders in Arizona is often a game of cat and mouse. A third of all high risk sex offenders in Arizona are unaccounted for. Authorities don't know where they are.

That's why 10 months ago the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office created the "Level 3 Posse." Volunteers like Mark Hanley are out on a Monday morning, paying an unexpected visit to high risk sex offenders.

"We have about a half a dozen or so level 2 and level 3 and verify that they're living where they're registered to live."

He wears a bullet proof vest as a precaution.

"The problem is, if they've done something wrong they don't know why you're coming to the door."

On this day we dropped in on Fernando Romero. In 1992, he fondled the breast of an underage relative and was placed on 10 years' probation.

But he failed to register as a sex offender, and that sent him to prison for a year. It's a mistake he says he won't make again.

Hook: "You're cool with these guys coming to check on you from time to time, its ok with you?"

Romero: "Yeah that's fine."

Released two years ago, Romero registered as a sex offender.

Romero: "It's a hard thing to have to tell somebody that, I mean single ladies don't want to hear that."

Hook: "And people are afraid to have their kids around you right?"

Romero: "They're scared they're totally scared and I don't blame them for that."

Hook: "The urges you had, are they gone now?"

Romero: "Um yeah… I still like to look at attractive woman now, but older women. As far as little kids? No."

Romero's got a job and a family, and he's following the law. Unfortunately, many others are not. And finding them is difficult.

And it's a big job. In the database, there are over 5,000 registered sex offenders living in Arizona. 300 of them are under the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

Mark Hanley and 7 other posse members donate their spare time tracking sex offenders in Maricopa County.

"We put hundreds and hundreds of hours in, it's all tax free."

During every visit, Hanley asks if he can take a good look around. "The Jaycee Dugard rule," he calls it, to make sure no one is imprisoned or being abused on the property.

We met Lawrence Walker. He told us he ended up a sex offender for urinating in public in California and not paying his fine.

Hook: "Lawrence, this has followed you around your whole adult life almost? How has that made your life difficult?

Walker: "It's made my life hell."

Walker registered when he moved to Arizona. So far, he's followed the law.

"Henry," we'll call him, served 6 years in prison for having sex with his 14-year-old stepdaughter.

Henry: "It happened 20 years ago and it was a real poor judgment and it was my fault. I was the authority figure."

Henry is highly educated. A master's degree. Medical school. He's a member of the Mormon church. Henry was living in an upscale east valley neighborhood.

So he registered using a phony address.

"No sex offenders can reside in that community. I had to put down a different address indicating that I'm homeless," says Henry.

The Level 3 Posse figured it out within minutes. He re-registered, and now his neighbors will be notified.

Hook: "This strikes me that you've got to do a lot of game playing to live a normal life, once you've served your time, is that correct?"

Henry: "You have to notify everybody that you're a sex offender and there's such a stigma attached to that that most people walk away from you."

The Justice Department estimates 6 percent of all sex offenders will re-offend. Officers will tell you that number is much higher. And that's why Mark Hanley and the Level 3 Posse is out there.

"Making sure that they're living where they're supposed to be living and are registered and they know we are going to be around every 6 to 12 months, I think that keeps them in check," says Hanley.

"They're just doing their job it's not their fault you know what I mean. I can understand there's messed up people out there in this world," says Walker.

"It's a lifetime ordeal I don't think you'll ever get past it," says Romero.

The sheriff's Level 3 Posse believes by the end of the year it will have attempted to make contact with all 300 sex offenders in its jurisdiction.


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