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Mid-South sex offenders prove difficult for authorities, citizens to track

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Criminals could be hiding in plain sight, putting children in danger without parents even knowing it. One local family learned this the hard way.

Earlier this summer, WREG tried to track down a man caught with a young girl in the backseat of his car. This violent sex offender spent years in prison and since getting out in 2011, violated the terms of his release seven times, yet the child's family had no clue.

"He never did mention that," a family member said. "You know, that he was a sex offender, he got in some trouble like that. He never mentioned anything like that, I would have talked to him. Look, you know, that you`re not supposed to be around kids."

But we couldn't find the offender anywhere. The address listed on his inmate registry was incorrect, and the homeowner said he never lived there full time.

Meanwhile, his address listed on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's sex offender registry doesn't exist.

We sat down with the TBI, and they explained while they maintain the state's sex offender registry, all of that information comes from local agencies, such as the Memphis Police Department or the Shelby County Sheriff`s Office.

"They are the reporting agency for the offenders," TBI spokesperson Kelli McAlister said. "And they also are responsible for making sure that the information submitted is correct. And that is a time table that I believe, they set on their own."

WREG researched exactly 389 sex offenders across eight different zip codes in the Memphis and Shelby County area, cross checking their addresses with local law enforcement, and the state's sex offender registry.

Shockingly, only 177 of 389, just 45% of offenders, had the same listed address at the local and state level.

Meanwhile, 165 of the 389, 42% of the offenders, had a different address between the two levels of law enforcement.

It all leads to the question, where exactly are these offenders living, and who is keeping track of them?

We spoke with Memphis Police, who described an ongoing battle to keep track of the 1,700 offenders living in the Memphis area.

"It can be problematic,' Lt. James Taylor said. "We've had people who have moved into a house, and they'll be like, 'Hey, my house is on the sex offender registry.' So, we've had to do that before because they're constantly moving around."

While the sheriff's office does help with some crime in the city of Memphis, they say they're only responsible for the sex offenders who live in unincorporated Shelby County, a much smaller number.

"We have to try and stay on top of that," SCSO LT. Tony Townsend said. "We have good communication and working relationships with all the municipalities here in Shelby County. If they get information that we need, or we have information that they need, we share that pretty readily."

The problem isn't necessarily that authorities have the wrong address, although they admit some offenders are non-compliant and try to avoid detection.

The real issue with the registry is tracking these criminals. How can the police and public track them with so much incorrect data, and how does this disconnect happen?

"The breakdown is probably the information that is uploaded when we change the address in the system," Taylor said. "TBI might not have gotten to it yet and been able to change it as fast as our people are declaring a different address."

According to TBI crime logs, there have been more than 4,600 sex crimes in the Memphis area over the last five years. While the registry remains a work in progress, authorities assure the public they're tackling the problem daily.

"We do the best we can do," Taylor said. "We get a lot of citizens that come forward and complain about an address that a sex offender may live at, and I`ll send my investigators out there, and we`ll end up locking somebody up."

"We do have our fair share of sex offenders that we stay on top of their information and make sure we stay on top of their information and make sure that we know where they are to the best of our ability," Townsend said.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a solution to the gap in information at the local and state level. But there are several ways to track a specific offender or the area that you live.

"There are mechanisms within our website that allow folks to keep track of sex offenders in our area and where they are registered to live, whether that's the mapping feature," McAlister said. "You can also get emails based on your zip code or a specific offender if you want to track that person or a certain area."

While law enforcement does not endorse confronting an offender directly, they always welcome help from the community.

"You've heard that phrase, if you see something, say something," McAlister said. "This falls in line with sex offenders as well. If you believe someone is out of compliance, contact your local law enforcement."

"We try to be everywhere," Taylor said. "Whenever we're needed. But it takes both of us. It takes everybody within Memphis to make Memphis a better place to live."

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