On a Labor Day weekend, the man took a teenage girl and her friends to his grandmother’s farm outside a small, rural town in Missouri. On the way, he bought a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice, a fruit-flavored malt liquor.
At the farm, while making out with the girl, he touched her inappropriately through her clothes. The encounter ended abruptly when the girl became scared and ran into the woods to hide. She was 15.
His actions and her age were enough to put him on the sex offender registry for life.
Five years ago, Missouri became one of 17 states with a lifetime sex offender registration requirement. Not all offenders on Missouri’s register are the same. Offenders’ crimes cover a wide range — from an adult fondling a teenager to a pedophile molesting a toddler.
Unlike neighboring states Kansas and Arkansas, Missouri does not classify offenders into tiers based on the gravity of crimes. It is one size fits all. A bill to change that has passed the Missouri House and is headed for the Senate as the legislative session nears an end.
Back at his grandmother's farm, the frustrated young man climbed into his car and drove away, leaving the girls to walk through the night on a gravel road until someone gave them a ride to the local police station.
The girl’s father reported the incident, prompting a police investigation. Convicted of sexual misconduct in the first degree, the man received two years of probation and a lifetime on the Missouri sex offender registry.
Several years later, when the man ran into the girl at a hometown bar, he said, she apologized. "I didn’t want that to happen," he recalls her saying of her father’s pursuit of the prosecution.
Now in his late 20s, the man has spent almost a fourth of his life on the registry. Skinny and soft-spoken, he admitted that talking about his crime and his status still makes him "really nervous." He choked up a few times during a half-hour conversation on the front porch of his rental duplex in the north side of town.
Afraid to lose his job and his lease, he agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity. In this story, he’s referred to as Matt, which is not his real name.
His house is one of the eight homes of registered offenders the Missourian visited in the course of a project examining residence requirements for sex offenders. He stepped out onto the front porch to talk privately, away from his newlywed wife, who stayed inside with a dog still barking in the living room.
"Probably one of the hardest things I had to do was break that to her" while they were dating, he said of his past. "She understood, and she stayed by my side. I am truly, truly blessed."
Matt is grateful he has a job, a wife and a mostly normal life. But he’s haunted by the fact that he’s on the registry forever.
Marked for life
Scott O’Kelley works with sex offenders who have been convicted of felonies and locked up in prison for a year or longer. As assistant division director of mental health services at the Missouri Department of Corrections, O'Kelley oversees mental health and sex offender treatment in the state’s 21 prisons. His professional expertise comes from years of experience in counseling.
According to O’Kelley, many sex offender laws are "a little broad" in their attempts to protect society, primarily targeting "the evil stranger, sort of pedophile-type population."
"We overtreat" in the community after offenders serve their sentences, O’Kelley said. "But that is not just in Missouri — it’s a nationwide trend."
High-risk offenders amount to 20 to 30 percent of all sexual offenders, he said. "For some high-risk offenders, it’s almost like a sexual orientation; that’s just sort of how they are wired. The vast majority, though, it’s going to be in the medium to low-risk range."
Matt said he’s not a dangerous sex offender. "You can even look at my record. I didn't force anything," he said.
For sexually touching an underage girl, Matt was first charged with a second-degree statutory sodomy, a felony.
Missouri statutes define sodomy as "deviate sexual intercourse."
"People think that it only refers to anal sex, but it’s so many other things," O’Kelley said. "Sodomy could be forced kissing. It could be just touching."
By accepting a plea bargain, Matt’s crime was lowered to sexual misconduct, a misdemeanor. Otherwise, he could have spent up to seven years in prison.
He continues to pay for his mistake. He must check in with the police department every 90 days and have his mug shot retaken every year. His registration requirements are the most stringent because his crime involved an underage victim.
Matt was convicted within the last 10 years, after the legislature took multiple rounds to tighten its sex offender laws — from introducing new registration rules to broadening old supervision restrictions.
A 2013 Supreme Court decision in State of Missouri v. Wade extended loitering and residency restrictions to almost all offenders with no regard to a conviction date. Now, almost every offender is under lifetime restrictions on residency and loitering around schools, day cares and public places where children congregate.
In 2017, Missouri extended a list of places qualifying for 500-foot loitering restrictions, adding in children museums to public parks, playgrounds and swimming pools.
Matt knows he will miss out on being around his family for important social occasions held inside day care centers and schools. A few years ago, he missed his younger brother’s high school graduation.
Any access to a child care facility by a parent who is a registered sex offender requires prior permission from the superintendent or the school board. Any unauthorized presence could be considered loitering and result in a felony charge.
Because Matt can’t afford to be charged with another crime, he said, he will not be there even for his own kids.
"There are a lot of things that I will not be able to see," Matt said, swallowing a lump in his throat. "I will never be able to take my own kids for trick-or-treating. I will have to just stay in my house. Just better safe than sorry."
In 2008, Missouri was one of the very few states to pass blanket Halloween restrictions, requiring all registered sex offenders to maintain an evening curfew with porch lights turned off and a sign attached to the front door saying, "No candy or treats at this residence."
Two years later, the Missouri Supreme Court lifted those restrictions for offenders convicted prior to Aug. 28, 2008, the effective date of the statute.
That change didn’t affect Matt. He must live with the curfew even though his crime had nothing to do with small children. "It makes my wife extremely depressed," he said.
Unless Matt decides to move out of Missouri to a state without residency restrictions, his life will continue to hinge on the location of schools and day cares.
In O’Kelley’s mind, it is "an arbitrary notion of figuring out dangerousness." When a 20-something guy is attracted to a teenager, who might have looked older, it’s more about "a poor judgment" than "being a sexual predator," he said.
"That’s a lot different than someone who is preying on kids," O’Kelley said. "Not to excuse behavior, but you have to be realistic about it."
The Missouri sex offender registry currently contains nearly 20,000 people. The nationwide total is somewhere close to a million.
"It’s an epidemic. It really is," Matt said. "The importance of the list is to notify people that these are truly dangerous people. And I am not like that."
Once Matt declares his status as a registered sex offender, landlords immediately require him to pay for criminal background checks.
"It's usually 40-50 bucks," Matt said. "I feel like it’s a lot, especially if you have to continuously do that. The next thing you know you spend 100–200 bucks, and you still might not have a place."
Matt has been lucky to live in the same house for more than three years without issue. He is always worried a neighbor may complain to his landlord.
"It's as simple as one person getting really upset about it — just having that look online and seeing it, getting upset and throwing a huge fit about it," he said.
"There’s no way of telling what might happen. I might have to just pick up and go."