By Ellyn Moran Santiago - The Sun Staff
WESTERLY - A local man who had been convicted of first-degree child molestation and sexual assault was not classified as a sex offender under the community notification program by the state parole board after his release from prison, The Sun has learned.
But a state parole official said that Rhode Island law tied the board's hands in the case of the man, who sparked residents' and police concerns when he was found in the area of Dunn's Corners Elementary School earlier this month.
"It's a huge problem," said Paula Kocon, state Parole Board and Sex Offender Community Notification special projects coordinator.
Since 1992, convicted sex offenders have been required to register with their local police departments upon sentencing, following relocation to a new community or when released from prison. And the case files were accessible only to the police until 1996, when Rhode Island passed its rendering of 'Megan's Law,' which requires that the community be notified of the presence of sex offenders who are classified as high-risk.
A revised version of the law was approved by the General Assembly in 2003, and that changed the Sex Offender Board of Review and the process it employs to determine an offender's risk to the community. The volunteer board categorizes an offender as high-, medium- or low-risk (Levels I, II and III) based on criteria that includes the facts of the crime, behavior while incarcerated and the offender's course of rehabilitation or treatment, if any.
But offenders convicted prior to 1996 have no community notification regulations to abide by other than checking in with local authorities and the perfunctory probation requirements.
That's the case with the man who was seen hanging around Dunn's Corners School - and whose presence drew the concern of a watchful parent, who contacted authorities.
Orrin W. Tarbox, a convicted sex offender and child molester was seen parked - before dawn - near Dunn's Corners School earlier this month. An observant parent noticed the middle-aged man in his SUV that was parked near the school and told police she'd seen him there before and found him "out of place." School principal Andrew Carrano sent an alert home to parents reminding them that Westerly is not immune to the realities elsewhere; sexual predators are everywhere.
Police investigated and warned Tarbox to stay away. Westerly Police Chief Edward A. Mello said that "as far as we know, (Tarbox) hasn't harmed any child since (his release from prison.")
But added that he has no idea what Tarbox was doing parked near an elementary school before dawn on a number of occasions.
"We don't know why," Mello said.
Mello told The Sun that the Police Department was seeking to have Tarbox "reclassified," but the 50-year-old Westerly man has not - and will not - be classified by the state board, Kocon said. State law mandates that offenders convicted before July 24, 1996 have the right to have their cases kept confidential, and community notification of their release from prison and location in the community is not required.
"These are the guys that received big time and when they get out, there's nothing over them," Kocon said.
In 1992, at age 36, Tarbox was charged and convicted the next year of three counts of raping a child under the age of 14 - first-degree child molestation. He was also convicted of three counts of second-degree child molestation and three counts of sexual assault.
But the case file, which would be public if he was found guilty after 1996, is considered private and any information on the nature of his crimes will remain unknown. And since he struck a plea bargain with prosecutors, there was never a trial. The Sun has attempted to obtain the case file through the Superior Court clerk, parole and police channels, but has been unsuccessful.
After Tarbox withdrew his not guilty plea and entered a plea of no contest to the charges, he was sentenced to 20 years in state prison by Superior Court Judge John F. Sheehan - 11 to serve and nine on probation. He was released in 2000, after giving the state the required two-thirds of the term - eight years - under state sentencing guidelines, and since has violated his parole, but for an apparent procedural infraction, some law enforcement sources said. Tarbox has not been charged with, nor been convicted of any sex crime since his release. He is supervised by probation, and must also report his address to local police, but he has done that, police said. However, since he was found to be parked near Dunn's Corners Elementary School earlier this month, police have stepped up their surveillance of Tarbox. But they have not charged him with parole violation.
Kocon, who said she remembered the case and "wish(ed)" she was able to provide the details, agreed that, since police have not violated Tarbox for being parked at an elementary school, it's likely that is not a condition of his parole.
"That's probably right. He can come and go," she said. "This is unfortunate but shows what we were (advocating). All we were asking (the courts) was for us to be able to go back to convictions before (1996) so we could classify these guys."
The Sun attempted but was unable to locate an address or phone number for Tarbox to contact him, and authorities said they could not provide contact information.
The sex offender classification system has three tiers:
( For low-risk, or Level I offenders, the police notify the victim and any witnesses who testified against the offender, if they have requested notification.
( For Level II offenders, ones considered to be at moderate risk to re-offend, in addition to victims and witnesses, the police alert appropriate community groups, schools or organizations.
( For the high-risk, or Level III, offender, police must give community-wide notice and the convicted sexual predator is listed on the state's sex registry. Police also can make community notifications via public ads, Web sites, postings and/or notices to parents whose children fall into the offender's potential target age group. In the case of offenders convicted before 1996, no notification is required.
The parole system has been criticized for having a backlog of cases to classify, but Kocon said that the backlog has been due in large part to constitutional challenges or appeals. By March, she said, "we'll be in good standing."
"At this point, that backlog is going to be met. We're working - and this is an all-volunteer board - so that by the end of the month, we'll have Level II's online - ones who do not appeal (the board's decision to classify sex offenders to one of three classifications.)
"The issue is appeals," she continued. "We have 40 cases in appeal. We have to review these cases two and three times. But that's going to change."
Offenders classified by the board as Level I or Level II can appeal the board's ruling within 10 days of the initial determination.
"Many do, so it gets bogged down," she said.
As of 2003, there were around 1,500 registered sex offenders in the state, yet only a very small handful have made the state's Web site as Level III offenders.
Of those 22 currently listed, two are from this area, though one is said to have moved out of the area, according to police.
The two Level III sex offenders are Christopher Thweatt, whose last known address was listed as the "downtown area of Westerly" and Aaron Richardson, who parole indicates lives in Exeter. Local authorities have said, however, they believe he now lives in Charlestown.
The state's sex offender registry Web site can be viewed at www.paroleboard.ri.gov.
Community Watch comments:
First of all, if Rhode Island allows convicted sex offenders to sit in their cars and stalk children at schools, they need to update their laws and make this type of predatory activity retroactive - even if they cannot get community notification.
Rhode Island currently only lists Level III sex offenders on their online sex offender registry - which lists 22 sex offenders - and yet they have over 1,500 sex offenders in the state.
Rhode Island needs to list all sex offenders including their home addresses - not approximate home addresses. The community needs to be aware of these sex offenders and the police are not equipped to keep an eye on all of them - but, parents can easily be equipped to do it - they just need information (all sex offenders and their home addresses) and emails alerts