CLEVELAND - Parents hope their children can safely play on the street without sexual predators preying on them, and the U.S. Marshals help make that ideal a reality.
“We may not have the ability to solve this problem in society," said Brian Fitzgibbon of the Northern Ohio U.S. Marshals, "but we may get one and stop him before he can hurt another child.”
And sometimes, it can be a race against time.
Five years ago, in May 2009, a 3-year-old girl disappeared from the Mansfield-area town of Cresline. Authorities pieced together that the girl’s mother became acquainted with Robbi Potter, a convict who was in jail for sexual battery of a minor. He served less than three years and, within hours of being released, disappeared – as did the little girl and her mother.
The Northern Ohio Marshals were tasked with tracking him down – and saving the girl.
“We worked on that case for 21 days solid,” Fitzgibbon said. “Followed from Mid-Ohio to Utah, all the way to San Diego.”
Potter had been convicted for sexually molesting two children, ages 10 and younger, so the Marshals were worried he would soon target the little girl.
“We were doing everything we could, pulling out all the stops,” Fitzgibbon said. “We had national media attention, billboards. We tried our best with good old-fashioned police work, and driving south to the border, cause they wanted to drive into Mexico.”
Soon, the advertising paid off. Someone recognized Potter and the missing mother/daughter duo across the country, in California. They mom and the 3-year-old were recovered.
When they caught Potter, Fitzgibbon remembered, “First thing Potter said, ‘We’ve been running so long, kind of glad it’s over.’”
And that is not uncommon. Fitzgibbon noted that most non-compliant offenders might hide as long as they can, but do not put up a fight when caught.
“These guys we go after, what we find, crimes against children, they’re least likely to be cooperative,” he said. “They’re often very much cowards when they’re surrendering, because they’re predators that prey on a much weaker target. They see us as this strong unit, especially when they’re all geared up. They’d prefer to go after someone a fifth of their size.”
After a moment, he added, “They’re going to have a rough time in prison.”
Fitzgibbon explained that usually searches for sexual offenders do not require a cross-country manhunt; most offenders stay closer to home.
Fitzgibbon is Senior Inspector for the Sex Offender Investigations Branch of the Northern Ohio U.S. Marshals, part of a nationwide division responsible for apprehending sexual offenders. He regularly straps on a sidearm and a bulletproof vest with a warrant team to venture into the streets of Cuyahoga County and nab non-compliant and fugitive sex offenders.
“Majority of the targets I’ll be going after will have a prior conviction, so they went before a court and were found guilty or pleaded guilty,” Fitzgibbon said. “We’ll go after them when they re-offend or go off the radar.”
Tracking down sex offenders became part of the U.S. Marshals’ duties in 2006 with the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Ohio became the first state to enforce the law.
“The state of Ohio wanted to protect children, and that’s where my job got created,” Fitzgibbon said, who has been with the Northern Ohio Marshals since 2007.
That office works mainly with the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, since its convicted sex offenders are required to register with the Sheriff in the county that they work or reside in.
Cuyahoga County has more than 3,200 registered sex offenders. At one point, it was nearly 4,000.
“The whole state of Ohio has 22,000,” Fitzgibbon said. “To think nearly four of those thousand are in Cuyahoga County… that’s alarming to hear.”
What is more alarming is the rate of offenders who do not register with the county.
“There’s a 10 percent failure rate,” Fitzgibbon explained. “If you have 3,200 offenders, 10 percent are not going to be where they are [registered]. If you don’t do random checks, they could tell you, ‘I live here,’ and unless you check, you could never know.”
In Cuyahoga County, the Marshals might do as many as eight “hits” in a morning. “Hits” are what the warrant teams call checking out a location where a fugitive might be staying.
Each Sheriff’s office has a contact who alerts the Marshals that an offender is not where he or she should be. Ohio has 88 of those contacts; one for each county.
“The responsibility of the registry falls on the Sheriff," Fitzgibbon explained. “Having a relationship with the Sheriff helps show them we can work with you and you’re not working for us.”
There are different levels of sexual offenders: sexual predator, habitual offender or sexually-oriented offender. Based on each state’s individual laws, offenders could be required to register up to four times a year.
Typically, the Northern Ohio Marshals rely on information from Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, Cleveland Police or Ohio Adult
Parole for Cuyahoga to help locate offenders who do not register. Lead investigative agencies include the FBI, Interpol, ICE, Secret Service, and even the Postal Service, with help from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“A lot of other law enforcement agencies put a case together,” Fitzgibbon said. “When we go after someone, there’s a warrant that exists. Our specialty is just finding people. We’re like the bloodhounds.”
Because children are most at risk, the Marshals want to make sure the residents of Cuyahoga County know they are there to help. Most often, the Marshals do “knock and talks” – where they simply knock on the door of a home and ask if the residents know the whereabouts of the offender in question.
In areas that see lots of crime, the Marshals will sometimes conduct saturation operations. Fitzgibbon cited Cleveland’s fourth district, which has a high number of unsolved crimes against women. He said the Marshals will saturate the area by doing compliance checks, knocking on doors and introducing themselves to people. Fitzgibbon said those operations help to build trust in the community.
“People come up to us and talk to us when we’re executing warrants,” he said.
But, when it comes to being safe from offenders, Fitzgibbon believes people need to educate themselves.
“What I always tell people is, knowledge is power,” he said. He always urges people to look up the sex offenders in their neighborhood the next time they surf the net.
“I would educate my children to be familiar with faces,” Fitzgibbon said. “Children should know who to speak to, who to trust, people in authority, bring it to their attention… Educating your children will only help make them safer.”
Be it with residents or other agencies, communication is key. Before the Adam Walsh Act passed in 2006, not every law enforcement agency had been in the habit of communicating with each other about sexual offenders. Fitzgibbon said those bridges were not built overnight, but now that they are in place, they are sturdy and reliable.
“Prior to Task Force, you just had to pick up the phone, [but] they don’t know you, they may have to confirm who you are,” he said. “But when you have the Task Force, they know who you are, they know who you’re looking for. You’re only as good as your weakest link and, honestly, we don’t have one here.”
Fitzgibbon has seen the effectiveness of the Sex Offender Investigations Branch grow over the years.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like work,” Fitzgibbon said. “I could pick up that phone and ask them about a case, or ask if they saw the game on Sunday. There’s definitely a level of respect that we have for each other’s position and know each other well to know what the other is looking for and how the other can help.”
U.S. Marshal for Northern Ohio Pete Elliott agrees.
“They do an outstanding job. It’s one of our highest priorities in the district. We’ve done a number of sexual offender sweeps in many counties. It’s absolutely necessary,” Elliott said. “People out there who aren’t registering are trying to abduct our children. We’re working with Sheriffs and police to apprehend those individuals and take them off the streets permanently.”
“We got a great boss; not everybody is as gung ho as him,” Fitzgibbon said of Elliott. “The Marshal is a hundred percent. When I first got here, he said, ‘The type of office I want to run is one where everybody is respectful to everyone, including the cleaning person that comes in.’”
Fitzgibbon said that attitude is infectious in everyone he works with on the streets.
“We have fun doing our job, we enjoy it,” he said. “No matter how much we joke around, when it’s time to put our game face on, everyone is professional. Sometimes we deal with the lowest of the low, but we have a job to do, and we will be professional.”
When asked if hunting for offenders daily is rewarding, Fitzgibbon said, “Without a doubt, it’s putting away some of the predators that prey on children and, for whatever time he or she is going to jail, we could be preventing another victim.”
He said, sometimes the deputies get calls or letters from victims or their family members.
“To get a letter from a child, saying, ‘Thank you for catching the person who killed my mommy or hurt my brother…’”
Fitzgibbon did not have to finish the thought. It spoke for itself.
[Look for Colin McDermott’s weekly series about the U.S. Marshals of the Northern District of Ohio.]