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How military sex offenders fly under the radar after returning to civilian life

January 14, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
There are hundreds of service members who have been convicted of sex offenses but never appear on any public registry once they leave the military, disappearing into neighborhoods across the country and, in some cases, preying on new victims. Special correspondent Mark Greenblatt of the Scripps News Service reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The issue of sexual assaults in the military has been front and center in recent years, and has sparked a heated political debate.

Tonight, we take a look what happens when some sexual offenders are released from the armed services.

Correspondent Mark Greenblatt of the Scripps News Service investigative unit has our story.

MARK GREENBLATT: In the calm of Central Wisconsin’s rolling hills, big-city dangers seem as if they’re an entire world away. Yet, right here in the small town of Reedsburg, population 10,000, a serial sex offender from the military chose his latest victim, an unsuspecting civilian.

WOMAN: I can’t sleep at night knowing that that man was in our house and that I didn’t catch it, I didn’t know it, I didn’t realize it, I didn’t suspect anything.

MARK GREENBLATT: This Wisconsin mother, who asked us not to use her name to protect her family, is talking about Matthew S. Carr, who met her daughter on the Internet in 2010. He claimed he was a gynecologist assistant in the U.S. Air Force awaiting deployment to Afghanistan.

The looming departure seemed to help explain her daughter’s fast-moving relationship.

WOMAN: And it wasn’t many weeks later that she shared with me that he planned on moving to Wisconsin and they were going to get engaged. Well, I still wanted to check him out, so I went online and did a search.

MARK GREENBLATT: She looked for crimes and also on registries for sex offenders.

And what did you find?

WOMAN: Nothing. Nothing at all.

MARK GREENBLATT: But it turns out Carr was concealing a secret. The Air Force had kicked him out following a court-martial conviction in 2003 for the indecent assault of seven women. It sentenced him to seven years in prison for conning one woman after the next into fake gynecology exams.

But it all came back up when another suspicious family member dug up Carr’s military record and gave it to the mother.

WOMAN: I read it, could not begin to believe it or comprehend it at first. My blood turned absolutely cold, started to shake and I said, she’s in danger right now. And so that’s when we decided to act immediately.

MARK GREENBLATT: What did you do?

WOMAN: We jumped in our vehicle and we headed towards Reedsburg, which is a good 45 minutes to an hour away.

MARK GREENBLATT: But, by then, Matthew Carr had already sexually assaulted her daughter.

Had he been registered as a sex offender, you would have found that out before he ever moved out here.

WOMAN: Yes. It didn’t have to happen the way it did.

MARK GREENBLATT: Eventually, Matthew Carr went to prison in Wisconsin, but it turns out there are hundreds of convicted military sexual offenders whose names and offenses don’t appear on any public registry once they leave the service.

A nine-month investigation by Scripps News discovered at least 242 offenders who have gone under the radar, disappearing into neighborhoods across the country and, in some cases, have gone on to prey again and again.

The federal Adam Walsh Act requires civilian sex offenders to register before they’re released from prison, but the military lacks the authority to do that. So, instead, the Department of Defense turns to the honor system, trusting the very sex criminals that it convicts to register themselves after they leave the military brig.

Of more than 1,300 cases reviewed, we found that one in five rapists, child molesters and sexual offenders convicted in the military do not appear on any public registry. And there are other problems. When Matt Carr showed up in New York, federal probation officials say mistaken paperwork from the military made it appear as if he was convicted of a lesser assault, just a misdemeanor that is not a sex offense there.

New York State ruled he didn’t have to register. That allowed Carr to move in stealth to Wisconsin, where he never checked in with police.

TIM BECKER, Chief, Reedsburg Police Department: And now he has victimized people outside in the civilian world, where he didn’t need to. We could have stopped all that from happening.

MARK GREENBLATT: And then there’s former Army Specialist Basil Kingsberry.

Convicted of rape and forcible sodomy at court-martial, Kingsberry got out of Fort Leavenworth in 2005 and told the military he was heading to Mississippi. He ended up in Georgia instead, where he slipped through the system’s cracks.

Have you found Basil Kingsberry yet?

VERNON KEENAN, Director, Georgia Bureau of Investigation: Not yet.

MARK GREENBLATT: You’re looking?

VERNON KEENAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, we’re looking.

MARK GREENBLATT: Vernon Keenan is the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which had Kingsberry in its sights nine years ago, but investigators here mistakenly thought his military conviction was overturned.

They wrote for clarification to the sex offender unit at the military prison in Fort Leavenworth and even to the U.S. Army records center in Virginia, requesting a written reply if Kingsberry did in fact have to register.

But Keenan says:

VERNON KEENAN: We have no record of him responding.

MARK GREENBLATT: And so Georgia ruled he didn’t have to register, allowing Kingsberry to move around freely ever since.

We tracked him to this small town in York County, South Carolina. Authorities had no idea they had a convicted sex offender living in their community.

TRENT FARIS, Constable, York County, South Carolina, Sheriff’s Office: In the state of South Carolina, if you move here, you have to — and you’re a convicted sex offender, you have to come to the local sheriff’s office and register as a sex offender.

MARK GREENBLATT: Incredibly, the York County Sheriff’s Office arrested Kingsberry in June on a domestic violence incident at this apartment complex. But local officials never knew about the Army convictions, his 11-year sentence or that he needed to register.

Law enforcement officials have no idea where he is today, and they’re worried.

VERNON KEENAN: I think any time we have a sex offender who is not registered as required by law, that that is a matter of public safety.

MARK GREENBLATT: And when there are hundreds that are unregistered?

VERNON KEENAN: That is a disaster waiting to happen.

MARK GREENBLATT: The Department of Defense’s own inspector general concluded this August that the military’s inability to register its own prisoners while still behind bars enables offenders to evade registration later.

The Department of Defense declined repeated on-camera interview requests, so at a recent Pentagon press briefing about sexual assault in the military, we asked about the hundreds of convicted sexual offenders who leave the military and go under the radar.

This is something that has not come to your attention yet?

MAJ. GEN. JEFFREY SNOW, Director, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office: No, it has not.

I knew — I knew — I have seen an extract of what you are describing, but I will tell you that is not one that I am well-versed in.

MARK GREENBLATT: Major General Jeffrey Snow leads the military’s office in charge of preventing and responding to sexual assaults inside the military.

Should be there an aspect of prevention and response of further sexual assaults in the civilian community as well that comes under your leadership?

MAJ. GEN. JEFFREY SNOW: In light of your question, we will obviously take a hard look at that. So, thank you.

REP. JACKIE SPEIER, (D) California: This has to be fixed. This is a gaping loophole.

MARK GREENBLATT: Congresswoman Jackie Speier is a California Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

REP. JACKIE SPEIER: It’s a damnation of the military justice system, and it’s a damnation of the military and their responsibility in protecting civil society, because, in fact, they are not.

MARK GREENBLATT: Four years ago, Speier pushed legislation that would have required a military database tracking sexual assaults.

REP. JACKIE SPEIER: Today, I’m announcing that I have introduced HR-3435, with 44 co-sponsors.

MARK GREENBLATT: But her office told us she backed off when the military told them this wasn’t an issue, claiming they were vigilant about ensuring offenders were being put on registers upon release.

What’s your take now?

REP. JACKIE SPEIER: I’m sick to my stomach.

MARK GREENBLATT: What would your message, Director, be to the Department of Defense if they don’t embrace change on this issue?

VERNON KEENAN: I can’t imagine they’re not going to embrace change. This is too serious of a matter.

MARK GREENBLATT: Separately, a DOD official e-mailed us to say that, if Congress required it, the DOD could register an offender officially, but the onus would remain on offenders to re-register as they move from state to state. And he concluded it would have no practical effect upon the problem.

But the mother from Wisconsin is not convinced.

WOMAN: I would ask him if he has a daughter and how he would feel if this had happened to his own daughter.

MARK GREENBLATT: Mark Greenblatt with Scripps News for the “PBS NewsHour” in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Scripps reporter Mark Greenblatt followed up with the Pentagon for additional comment after Major General Snow’s news conference.

A spokesman responded via e-mail, saying: “The department takes this issue very seriously. And that is why we have been, and remain in the process of developing department-wide policy and a partnership with the United States Marshals Service, which will ensure that convicted sex offenders fully comply with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, as the law intends.”

He added that the policy is expected to be finalized in early spring.