- UNLISTED: Daniel Utter.
This started the way a lot of our stories do: with an e-mail. Back before Christmas, a man dropped us a line. He is friends with a young woman who'd been victimized as a young teen-ager by a man named Daniel Ernest Utter.
Back in 2008, Utter — a history teacher and basketball coach who was then working at Paris High School — was arrested after the young woman, then 17, came forward and said that she and Utter had sex on several occasions in Jacksonville hotel rooms from 2002 to 2005, when Utter worked at Cabot Junior High. Utter eventually pled guilty to second-degree sexual assault, and was placed on five years probation, with 36 months supervised.
Since then, the woman had checked the online website of the Arkansas Crime Information Center's sex offender database from time to time, waiting for Utter's name to pop up there. It never did. A little phone tag with the Lonoke County prosecuting attorney's office and other agencies found that Daniel Utter moved to Grisham, Ore., in 2008. In March 2010, his probation officer there sent along a letter requesting that Utter's parole be terminated early — a request that Lonoke County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bart Dickinson said he recommended shouldn't happen. As for whether Utter was eventually released from probation early, however, both Dickinson and a spokesperson for the Cabot Police said they just didn't know.
Just as interesting as finding out the whereabouts of Daniel Utter was something else we learned during the course of our phone calls. In addition to the publicly available list of sex-offenders maintained by the ACIC, there is a second, confidential list of those considered to be at a low risk to re-offend.
Sex offenders are graded level 1 through 4, with level 1 being the lowest risk, and level 4 being the highest. Levels 3 and 4 are always on the public list, as are all level 2 offenders whose crime was against a victim under the age of 14. While Utter's name has never appeared on the public list, a law enforcement source says that Utter's name is on the police-only list — which probably means he was originally classified as a level 1 or level 2 offender (both the Cabot Police and the Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney's office said they don't know Utter's level, and officials with ACIC said they couldn't release that information). Whatever the case, his victim was not informed when he pulled up stakes for Oregon.
There are currently 8,987 people registered as sex offenders in Arkansas, with the numbers sketching a classic bell curve from 1 to 4. At one end are 908 level 1 offenders. At the other end of the curve are the level fours — 325 total. Many of the level 4 offenders are the stuff of nightmares: sociopaths for whom rape and molestation goes beyond the opportunistic and into a predatory compulsion.
Sheri Flynn is the director of SOSRA (Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment), the state agency based in Pine Bluff that determines whether those convicted of sex offenses are classified as level 1, 2, 3 or 4. Flynn said that Arkansas is nearly unique in the way it assesses sex offenders for their danger to re-offend, which in turn determines the level of community notification about their movements. In the case of level 1 offenders, only those in their household are informed of their whereabouts. While other states use actuarial tables, past criminal history or the crime the person was eventually convicted of as a guide for grading, Flynn said those things can paint a misleading picture if considered alone. Instead, SOSRA relies on a series of interviews, psychological reviews and lie-detector tests designed to ferret out a buried life that offenders may have hidden from everyone but their victims. The process can take months (much to the consternation of victims), but by the time that process is over, Flynn said, she feels very confident that the number assigned to an offender is the correct one.
As an example, Flynn points to the case of a 41-year-old man with a clean criminal record who was convicted of molesting the 5-year-old daughter of a friend.
"In any other state in the United States, he would have likely been a level 1," Flynn said. "When we finished with our interview process, he had admitted to 50 other victims. He knew that because he kept a list, and he wrote down every child's name. He admitted that he could spot children in public on playgrounds and know which ones he could abuse. He admitted that he'd married women to gain access. He admitted that he befriended families and gained their trust to offend on their children. So when we finished our assessment, he's a level 4 in Arkansas."
While keeping the name of an offender like that in the ears of the public is a no-brainer, Flynn said that there's good reason to keep the names of those at the other end of the spectrum — the level 1 and some level 2 offenders, most of whom never commit another sex crime after they're caught — private. Flynn asked us to consider a 19-or 20-year-old who got caught having consensual sex with a 13-year-old girl. Is it worth ruining his life, not to mention blackballing him from society, work, and housing so the name of every offender on the list can be public? Too, Flynn points out, while most people think of child molesters when they hear the words "sex offender," Arkansas requires registration as a sex offender for a number of other crimes, including the false imprisonment or kidnapping of a minor by someone other than their parent, or exposing a partner to HIV.
"The worst problem that I see in this country is that there is a move to put [the name of] every sex offender out there, and people no longer know who they need to be worried about and who they don't," Flynn said.
If all low-level offenders were put on the public list, she said, the effect could wind up being counterproductive.
"You keep them from getting a job. You keep them from having someplace to live. You isolate them from society. You keep them away from supervision," Flynn said. "You move them out into the country where they have no family, no friends, no support system. And guess what? All of the research is showing that makes a worse sex offender. ... I am certainly no proponent of being easy on sex offenders, but we have to use common sense, and we have to do it on an individualized basis or it dilutes the system to the point that it's not doing any good."
The weak link in all this, of course, is the weak link in any human system: it's based on people, who must make choices. To counteract that, Flynn said, the system is multi-layered, with tiers of redundancy built into the review process. Flynn said she believes it to be the best assessment process in the country, adding that it has been copied by law enforcement agencies around the nation. She's confident that if her team puts an offender at level 1 or 2, that's where the person should be.
"We take very, very seriously assigning a level 1, because we know that no community notification will be done," she said, "We don't take that lightly."