GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Sitting in a corner at the Kava House, Rachel Moran clicked on convicted sex offender Thomas Platt.
"What did he actually do?" she asked, reading from a list of his convictions on the Michigan State Police Sex Offender Registry.
"Oh, yuck. Sexually abusive material and possession. So he was in possession of child pornography?"
Platt, 59, is a Tier 1 offender on the registry, convicted of 4 counts of possessing child porn in 2004 in Washtenaw County.
"So would that be the worst thing you could be on this list for?" Moran asked.
In fact, Platt would be considered among the lowest-level offenders.
A Target 8 investigation last year exposed a sex registry that lumped together all the state's 47,000 offenders -- from serial rapists to teens who had consensual sex.
It helped lead to a new law, signed last April by Gov. Snyder, that was supposed to make it easier to find predators in your neighborhood.
Interactive: Michigan Sex Offender Registry Tiers
The law, which follows federal guidelines, split sex offenders into three tiers:
- Tier 1 (Lowest level offenders. On list for 15 years) -- Includes possession of child porn, inappropriate touching of adult victims.
- Tier 2 (Mid-level offenders. On list for 25 years) -- Generally involves victims age 13 to 17, including inappropriate touching and gross indecency; does not include sexual penetration. Also includes producing child porn and soliciting prostitutes under 18 years old.
- Tier 3 (Highest-level offenders. On list for life) -- Generally involves inappropriate touching of victims under age 13, as well as any sexual penetration or attempts (first- and third-degree sexual assault) with victims of any age.
But Target 8 recently put the new list to the test -- with help from some computer-savvy customers at the Kava House in Grand Rapids -- and found only confusion.
The big question: On which of the three tiers can you find so-called predators?
Anya Nyson and Dana Boyer have used the list before -- Nyson to protect her kids; Boyer as a social worker.
They clicked on the first face that popped up in 49503, a zip code covering downtown Grand Rapids. Jason Abish, 27, a Tier 3 offender, was convicted of attempted criminal sexual conduct 2nd degree with a person under 13. That's inappropriate touching.
So, Nyson figured, Tier 3 must not be the worst.
"It says 'attempted,' so maybe that's the lower?" she guessed.
And, Target 8 tested a local crime prevention organizer, who also failed to pick out the predators.
"It seems to be vague," said Claire Fisher, of the East Hills Neighborhood Association in Grand Rapids, who was trained on the registry before last year's changes.
As it turns out, the worst of the worst are supposed to be on Tier 3.
"Tier 3 will be the dangerous predators," state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said when he helped re-write the sex offender law.
Tier 3 includes men like Phillip Sanders, 62, who raped at least three young women in 1987 -- two of them in separate attacks in the attic of the home where he was living, each of those attacks involving an accomplice and a knife.
That was four years after being paroled for killing a door-to-door salesman in a robbery in Grand Rapids. He and an accomplice got away with $400.
He served 9 years in prison for the murder, and got 15 to 30 years for the rapes.
Target 8 recently found Sanders outside his southwest Grand Rapids home, raking his yard. "I don't want to be on your camera," he said. "I ain't got nothing to say to you at all."
One of Sanders' rape victims says he's dangerous and belongs on the list as a predator, though she'd rather see his name in an obituary.
But there is nothing on the registry that actually says Tier 3 is the most dangerous. That's something you have to figure out for yourself.
"I shouldn't have to search for who is a predator," said Kava House customer Rachel Moran. "I should be able to just look and know."
"The problem with this system is it's a state Web site, so it's efficient for them; it's not efficient for us."
She'd prefer a way to sort offenders by tiers, and an easy-to-find definition of the tiers.
Picking out predators is a lot easier in states like Florida, Illinois and Indiana, all with top-rated lists. They label predators or the "sexually dangerous."
"It would be nice if there was a description on this site, and maybe there is,
I don't know, but a description of Tier 1 equals this, Tier 2 equals this, you know," Anya Nyson said.
Turns out there is, but good luck finding it.
Even Sen. Rick Jones, who helped re-write the sex offender law, had trouble finding the definitions.
"Hmmm. I don't see anything here, right off the top," he said while searching the site in his Lansing office at Target 8's request. "I don't see anything there, clearly. There may be something."
The trooper who oversees sex offender enforcement admits the list could use some tweaks.
He points out the "Frequently Asked Questions" page on the sex offender list, but admits "the word 'tier'
isn't in any of the questions."
"I believe it's answer No. 16 that will explain the tier levels."
The list, he said, might not be user-friendly enough.
"If they (users) have suggestions, we're willing to take those suggestions and make changes so it is useful for the public."
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