News Column

Sexual Offenders Frequent Social Network Sites

Jan 28, 2013

Dawn Thorndill couldn't believe it.

Her 40-year-old daughter, a single mother, met a sexual offender on Facebook and was moving from Michigan to Florida to be with him.

"I was surprised that they allowed sex offenders on it," Thorndill said, according to court documents.

Facebook, in fact, doesn't. But detectives are often so busy keeping track of sexual offenders in the real world they don't have much time left to follow what they are doing in the virtual one.

"It's a big ocean out there," said Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Detective Scott Summers, who works for the sheriff's Sexual Predator and Offender Tracking unit, or SPOT.

By state law, sex offenders, such as someone convicted of child pornography possession, and sexual predators, such as a rapist, are required to give authorities their email addresses and screen names before using them online.

The sex offender dating Thorndill's daughter didn't do that, authorities say. After his new lover's family complained to authorities about him having a Facebook account, he deleted his account and created a new one. Twice. The second time, he used the name Jack Dawson, the Leonardo DiCaprio character in the movie "Titanic."

The offender, Eric Scott Huffman, a 46-year-old homeless man, was arrested in April on a charge of failing to register as a sexual offender, a third-degree felony. He is being held at the Pinellas County Jail on $5,000 bail and is scheduled to go on trial in February.

Once detectives have an offender's email address and screen name, that information is forwarded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which puts them on a website available to the public. Then anyone can log on and check that information.

Even if Huffman had given the SPOT unit his Facebook user names, he still would have been in trouble, because Facebook doesn't allow sex offenders on its site, Summers said.

Whether such prohibitions violate an offender's First Amendment right has come into question lately.

Wednesday, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that an Indiana law prohibiting most sex offenders from using sites such as Facebook was unconstitutional. The law covered too many types of people -- even adults communicating among themselves -- and in such cases interfered with their right to express themselves, the court ruled.

In Pinellas County, most sexual offenders abide by the email address registration law when they stop in at the SPOT unit's office, telling authorities what they plan to do online, Summers said. But detectives don't have the time to see which sites allow sex offenders and which don't.

The SPOT unit monitors 1,800 sex offenders and predators throughout the county; Summers is personally responsible for 200. The investigators' priority is to keep track of their addresses, telephone numbers and places of employment and, in some cases, to make sure they aren't living within 1,000 feet of a school, or day care center or home care center.

"Every time someone comes in to register, there seems to be a new social networking site that we've never heard of before," Summers said. "It used to be Facebook and MySpace, but now they're hundreds of them, not to mention all the chat rooms for all the Internet service providers.

"The problem is there are so many social networking sites that it would be overwhelming to search them on a daily basis for 1,800 sex offenders and predators who may not even be using their real names, which would make it impossible for us to identify anyways."

It's the same situation in Hillsborough County.

With roughly the same number of registered sexual predators and offenders -- 1,793 as of Friday -- investigators have to put a priority on responding to reports that one of their charges was seen watching children at a park or stalking someone.

They just don't have the resources to go online and check to see if offenders are using their proper screen tags, or the same email addresses they've registered with law enforcement, or whether they're on sites they shouldn't be on, said Detective Kat Poynter of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office sex offender unit.

"There's no way you'd have enough people to do that," she said.

So, investigators rely on tips. But even then, it takes a lot of time and effort to verify if a sex offender is breaking the rules.

"It's not a crime out in the open -- 'I rob you and I see you face to face,'" Poynter said. "It's hard to prove.

"They can do the most damage on the Internet reaching out to more people, but how do we prove that? There's no way you can keep track of all the things these guys are doing."

Huffman's case illustrates, among other things, how social networking websites, and particularly Facebook, have displaced in-person communication or even talking on the telephone.

"She was on Facebook with him," Thorndill told Huffman's defense attorney in a deposition. "She never actually met him. It was just through texting and Facebook. ... She never personally met him until she went down there."

Huffman met 40-year-old Raquel Sprik on Facebook sometime before Christmas 2011, court documents state. What concerned the family was that Sprik was taking her 4-year-old son with her when she left for Florida. Huffman moved in with Sprik and her son at 1233 Grove St. in Clearwater, where there was no electricity or running water, family members told authorities.

Soon after, Sprik distanced herself from her mother by defriending her on Facebook.

But Thorndill was able to track Huffman's profile changes, and she and other family

On April 24, Cox met Huffman in Clearwater. He denied having a Facebook account but acknowledged he had a Yahoo Messenger account that allowed access to Facebook. But he denied logging on to Facebook, court documents state.

Sheriff's detectives learned, though, that Huffman had given his Facebook login and password to two women so they could help him play Farmville, a farming simulation game on Facebook. They had never met him in person.

The password for all three of his accounts -- Eric Huffman, Eric Scott and Jack Dawson -- was the same, according to court documents.

Source: (c)2013 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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