AZTEC — San Juan County Sheriff's Office Deputy Robert Tallman slowly drove a truck — one with a sign that read "Sex Offender Registration Unit" on the tailgate and the side door — through a Crouch Mesa neighborhood on Wednesday.
Two deputies followed in cars with their police lights flashing.
The purpose of the visit was to verify sex offender registration information. The sign and the flashing lights are meant to draw attention to the convicted sex offenders and warn neighbors, Sheriff Ken Christesen said.
Christesen said he has ramped up the sex offender registration program since taking office in 2011. He said he has increased the number of registration checks, improved the program's technology and publicized the process.
"I'm not going to ever be soft on sex offenders," Christesen said. "I want to make sure everybody knows where they live. If the sex offenders don't like it, maybe they should move to a different state."
Making sex offenders' addresses readily available serves the public because sex offenders have a high rate of recidivism, Christesen said. If a child goes missing, police can quickly check people who live near the area and have committed a sex crime against a child, he said.
But a sociologist who works with sex offenders locally said the registration list falls short because not everyone with a sex crime conviction is on the list, and friends and family members — not strangers — commit most of the sex crimes against children.
On Wednesday, there were 309 registered sex offenders living in San Juan County. Of those, 277 lived in the community and 32 were in jail or prison, Tallman said. About 80 percent of the sex offenders on the list were convicted of a crime involving a child, he said.
The list only includes registered sex offenders on the Navajo Nation if they are employed off the reservation, Tallman said.
Depending on their conviction, convicts are registered sex offenders for 10 years or life, Tallman said. Either each year or every 90 days, they must go to the sheriff's office and provide law enforcement with their address, place of work or school, vehicle and other personal information.
Each week, Tallman, the director of the sex offender registration unit, and other deputies randomly check the homes of several sex offenders to make sure the information they provided is accurate.
On Wednesday, there were four men on Tallman's list:
· Michael Kelly Combs, 40, who was convicted of manufacturing child pornography in 2011,
· Hardy Yazzie, 29, who was convicted of criminal sexual penetration in 2004,
· Ted Heath, 46, who was convicted of attempted sexual battery in 2004, and
· Daniel Boucher, 33, who was convicted of three counts of possession of child pornography in 2011.
Combs, Yazzie and Heath were all home, and Tallman met with them briefly.
Boucher wasn't at his home, so Tallman left a note on his door asking him to call the sheriff's office. When a message left on a sex offender's door goes unreturned, it could mean the person isn't being truthful or is failing to register, which is a felony, Tallman said.
Mike Castenell, a Farmington sociologist who works with sex offenders, said New Mexico's sex offender registry laws aren't as stringent as laws in several other states, which require sex offenders to send out fliers to nearby neighbors with their photos and information about their crimes. And New Mexico courts often allow people convicted of a crime that may land them on sex offender registration list to get off the list as part of a plea agreement, he said.
There are 12 crimes that can land a person on the registered sex offender list. Those crimes include criminal sexual penetration and contact, aggravated indecent exposure, sexual exploitation of children, possession or manufacturing or child pornography and kidnapping or false imprisonment against a minor, as long as the suspect isn't a parent.
Castenell said the convicted sex offenders he works with have come to expect sex offender registration checks. He said he hasn't heard of complaints the sheriff's office treats the convicts unfairly.
"When the guys I work with talk about (the sheriff's office) coming to their homes, they say it's routine," Castenell said. "It's something that my guys have come to expect."
Heath, one of the sex offenders whose home deputies checked on Wednesday, said the registration checks are expected and no longer interfere with his life.
"It's all there for everybody to see. It's on the website. All you gotta do is look it up, and you can see where everybody is in the whole state or the country," he said of information on sex offenders.
Heath said the sex offender registration program is a good one. His only complaint was that all of the people on the list are treated the same, and the sex offender list doesn't do enough to differentiate among degrees of crimes.
"It's basically like being in jail, but you're not in jail," Heath said of being a registered sex offender. "Prison's a lot worst. But you're not like every other citizen walking around. And it doesn't matter what you did. You're all lumped together in one big, happy group. It doesn't matter what you did, how major or how minor, you're treated the same. But the way I see it, all sex crimes are serious."
He said the registration and routine checks haven't been what has stopped him from re-offending. He said he made a lifestyle change and hasn't had any legal problems since his conviction 10 years ago.
"It's probably a good program. My feeling is if you are (on the registration program) then you are not going to re-offend," Heath said. "The ones you got to worry about are the ones that aren't doing all that. Those are the ones that are going to cause you trouble. There's thousands of them around here that are lurking that people don't even know about.