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Rape case shows challenge of tracking sex offenders

Police unsure of address of Arlington rape suspect

On paper it appeared that Essie Billingslea, a 45-year-old convicted rapist, had been following state laws, registering with Boston police every 30 days and listing as his address a homeless shelter on Blackstone Road.

But Arlington police are trying to find out if he had actually been staying with a relative in Arlington, where on Sunday he allegedly broke into a woman’s home and beat and raped her at knifepoint.

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The case of Billingslea, who was freed by a jury in March 2013 that determined he was no longer dangerous, has focused attention on the civil commitment hearing process that freed him.

But it also has served as a reminder of the challenges of keeping track of sex offenders who list one address, but can be found living at another, a problem that police say is prevalent among homeless sex offenders.

“There is no set address that you can hold them to,” said Detective Lieutenant Michael Farley, head of the State Police Violent Fugitive Apprehension section, which tracks down sex offenders believed to be violating the registry laws. “It is really tough to monitor. You just say ‘I’m homeless,’ and as long as they’ve registered as that, they’re fine.”

In 2013, State Police arrested a total of 116 Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders, who are considered to be most at risk of committing another crime. So far this year, they have arrested more than 40 offenders, mostly for violating the sex offender registry laws.

In Boston, where there are about 300 sex offenders registered as homeless, police are searching for about 50 who have violated the registry laws, said Boston police Sergeant Rick Johnson, who works with the US Marshals Service to track down wanted sex offenders.

Homeless sex offenders are required to register their address with the police every 30 days. Sex offenders living at a permanent address must do so once a year.

Billingslea had regularly updated police on where he was and was scheduled to come in to register again the same week he was arrested for the charges out of Arlington, Johnson said.

On Friday, at a hearing in Cambridge District Court, Billingslea waived his right to seek bail. He has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges including aggravated rape, an assault that stopped only when police arrived at the woman’s home, where a friend of the victim had asked them to go to check on her.

Arlington police have not said whether they are considering charges against Billingslea’s relative. Billingslea is due back in court July 2.

If sex offenders spend 14 nights in a year or four or more nights in a row at another address they must register that location with police, according to state laws.

But most family members and friends of sex offenders do not want their home listed as the address of a sex offenders so they will often let offenders stay and lie to police.

“Family members not being truthful” is a big challenge for police, Johnson said. “It’s part of the game that [offenders] play. They definitely play the system. They’ll play the system to live where they want.”

Offenders’ motivation for violating the law is usually simple: They want anonymity, Farley said.

“They don’t want the people living next to them to know what their history is,” he said.

In Boston, each district has detectives whose job it is to conduct periodic checks on sex offenders to make sure they are living at the address they registered. Police also rely on tips from neighbors.

The vast majority of the thousands of sex offenders registered in Massachusetts comply with the law, police note.

A huge number of them are homeless because their families or friends do not want the stigma of having their homes registered with the Sex Offender Registry Board, said Eric Tennen, a Boston lawyer who represents sex offenders. Offenders who can find work usually cannot find a landlord willing to rent them an apartment, he said.

Offenders “are all cognizant of having to register, and that’s often why they can’t find places to live,” Tennen said. “Some guys go underground because they feel hopeless. . . . When you have that label sex offender, you are just totally shunned.”

Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan said his detectives try to get to know the offenders registered in town and get contact information for their relatives and mental health providers.

One offender they know will call when he feels the urge to commit a sex crime, Ryan said. “He doesn’t want to reoffend.’

Detectives then know which family member or counselor to call.

“We’ve got to manage these people,’’ Ryan said. “We have to do some problem solving.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMCramer. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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