A failed system enables convicted military sex offenders to evade detection and prey on civilians

Big gaps between military and civilian conditions

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Matthew S. Carr is the type of serial sex offender public registries were designed to track.

While serving in the U.S. Air Force, Carr approached women by posing as a doctor training in gynecology. He persuaded them to submit to pelvic exams as he inserted medical instruments, drew blood samples and even administered an injection near one victim’s genitals.

A military court at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota convicted the airman in 2003 of indecent assault against seven women and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

Exactly how Carr avoided registering as a sex offender when he got out is unclear, but a critical error occurred. The military records that were forwarded to civilian authorities mistakenly described lesser assault charges, according to a federal probation officer.

When the mother of a Reedsburg, Wisconsin woman typed “Matthew Carr” -- the name of her daughter’s new boyfriend -- into sex offender registries in the summer of 2010, nothing turned up.

Under the Radar: Extended interview with Wisconsin mom from Scripps Washington on Vimeo.

The day she found out about Carr’s military crimes, she raced the 45-minutes to Reedsburg to confront him. By then her daughter had already submitted to multiple “exams” by the convicted sex offender.

“My blood turned absolutely cold,” said the mother, who Scripps is not identifying to protect her daughter’s privacy.  “I’ve never felt such danger, such helplessness as a mom before.”

Charges were brought against Carr, he was convicted and sent to prison.

An investigation by local police uncovered similar allegations involving a woman 1,000 miles away in New York, where Carr lived after leaving military prison. She didn’t press charges.

In military paperwork sent to New York, Carr’s Air Force crimes were incorrectly described as “assault consummated by battery,” according to a federal probation official. That offense is equivalent to a civilian misdemeanor, which would not qualify someone for the sex offender registry, said a spokeswoman for New York’s Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders. State law bars her from discussing specific cases, she said.

For Reedsburg Police Chief Tim Becker, whatever breakdown kept Carr off sex offender registries was profound.

“It’s reckless,” he said. “They’ve cleaned up what he’s done in the military and now he’s revictimized people outside in the civilian world. We could have stopped all that from happening.” 

A nine-month Scripps News investigation found that Carr is among hundreds of convicted military sex offenders who do not appear on the registries created to alert the public and prevent repeat crimes. Of 1,312 cases, at least 242 are not on any public U.S. sex offender registries.

The reasons vary. Unlike the civilian system, where federal law requires offenders to register before leaving prison, the military instructs them to self-register after being released -- but many don’t. Records get garbled during transmission to civilian authorities. And in many places confusion reigns over how to match up a military crime to its civilian equivalent.

Without a good match, an offender convicted in the military might be able to avoid registering. Military policies that withhold details from the public about these offenders, including their photos, also help them stay under the radar once they get out.

The military says it notifies civilian authorities about the initial release of an offender. At that point, it is up to the state to make sure registration happens, they say.

“Once a member separates from the military, the Department loses jurisdiction over individuals and the legal authority to either track or enforce sex offender registration,” said Lt. Commander Nate Christensen, a Department of Defense spokesman.

He said the Pentagon will continue a partnership with the United States Marshals Service that began in 2010 to ensure military sex-offenders register. A senior defense official later told Scripps that one focus will be to work with an FBI database to improve notification to civilian authorities across the country.

But better notification may not help get someone like Derrick Coston on the registry.

On separate occasions while serving as a chief warrant officer in the Marines, he engaged in bizarre activity with three 12-year-old babysitters. He instructed them to wear his wife’s shoes and walk on his nude or partially nude body, then he rubbed their feet against his genitals. When the Marines sentenced him to five years in prison, it was on charges of conduct unbecoming an officer -- a military offense that doesn’t easily translate to civilian crimes or require registration in most states, including Arizona, according to officials with the U.S. Marshals Service.

Coston currently lives in New River, Arizona, just 15 doors from a school. He is not on the state sex offender registry.

Under the Radar: Extended interview with Congresswoman Jackie Speier from Scripps Washington on Vimeo.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a California Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, says the military’s reliance on others to ensure that offenders get registered “shows a gross lack of responsibility.”

“Convicted sex offenders...should be identified to the civilian world and should be identified to local law enforcement,” she said. “That’s not happening and we have got to fix that in Congress.”

Speier says she will introduce a bill to create a Department of Defense sex offender registry, accessible by civilian authorities. It would require the military to register its own sex offenders in the database before being released.

She will also request the Department of Defense Inspector General to investigate past releases of military sex offenders to see if they are complying with registration laws.  

While some discharged military sex offenders don’t appear on public registries, they may be on confidential ones used by law enforcement only.

When Senior Airman Curtis Austin was discharged from the military following his conviction for brandishing a knife and threatening to cut the throat of a woman whom he then sexually assaulted, he didn’t make it onto a public registry.  Air Force officials insist he is registered in California, but he does not appear on the state’s public website. The California Department of Justice wouldn’t comment, but it confirms the existence of a “non public” section of its sex offender registry for those convicted of sex offenses not listed explicitly in California law.

Austin acknowledged what he calls a "severe" sex offense from during his time in the Air Force. He calls what he did to his victim an "error." Austin says he should not have to register publicly as a sex offender after serving his sentence in the Air Force and staying out of trouble. When asked why a military sex offender who used a weapon during a sexual assault should be treated differently than a civilian sex offender, he declined to answer, other than to suggest Scripps focus its reporting on repeat offenders.

Questions dog the Carr case too as officials try to make sense of two confusing and contradictory paper trails. Air Force court opinions reviewed by Scripps accurately document Carr’s crimes. But federal probation officials say they received documents describing lesser assault offenses -- and those incorrect records were the ones they forwarded to New York, where Carr was living after he got out of prison.

Probation officials insist the military dropped the ball.

“Our office has an expectation that the military will provide us with all pertinent information necessary to supervise a case effectively,” said Matthew L. Brown, chief U.S. Probation Officer.  “Why the documents (Scripps) found were not provided to us is a mystery.”

A spokesperson for the Secretary of the Air Force confirmed an investigation is underway to find out what went wrong in the Carr case.

Back in Wisconsin, chief Becker agrees with a recent suggestion by the DOD Inspector General, encouraging the military to develop its own offender registry to streamline reporting.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin authorities aren’t taking chances. The state’s Attorney General is suing to get Carr declared a “sexually violent person,” which would require intensive treatment even after his current 30-month sentence expires.

If you have a tip or an update about a military sex offender, email mark.greenblatt@scripps.com. You can also  follow updates to this story on Twitter @greenblattmark

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