OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) recently took part in Operation Predator 16 — a statewide initiative to make sure all sexual offenders and predators are registered.
The two-week long program also makes sure the offenders and predators are living where they are supposed to be.
Michele Bell, who heads up the OCSO sex offender unit, said the initiative was held during the weeks of Feb. 21 through Feb. 26 and Feb. 28 through March 4 in conjunction with the Florida Sheriff’s Association (FSA) and the Florida Sheriff’s Task Force.
Mrs. Bell explained that all of the offenders and predators registered through the OCSO were all accounted for and living at the proper addresses.
“We do all of ours every three months. Depending on the circumstances, we may check a little more often,” she said.
David Brand, FSA law enforcement coordinator, said his organization normally conducts two formal task force operations each year. Other operations, he offered, are done on a need basis.
“I’d like to point out that no other entity is able to reach across jurisdictional lines on a moment’s notice and accomplish this,” he said.
Thirty-two of Florida’s 67 counties took part in Operation Predator 16. During the sweep 1,409 predator addresses and 9,119 offender addresses were verified. Nineteen predators and 112 offenders were arrested for registration violations, while 61 were arrested on warrants and another 62 were arrested on some other charge.
“Not all counties may have the resources to participate at the particular time of the operation. That explains why you see less than 67 counties involved,” pointed out Mr. Brand. “Another reason may be that the target issue is not a problem within their county — such as, alcohol abuse on the beach during spring break. Most land-locked counties are not a destination for spring break.”
In Okeechobee, the addresses of seven predators and 85 sexual offenders were verified. No arrests were made by OCSO road patrol deputies and detectives, who handled the verifications.
Mrs. Bell said she has seven sexual offenders who are currently being held in the Okeechobee County Jail on various charges. None of them, she added, are being held on new sex charges. Because they were in the jail at the time of the sweep, their addresses and registrations did not have to be verified.
One of those offenders was arrested for driving while his license was suspended and trespassing. He was sentenced to four months in jail on the trespassing conviction and 45 days on the DWLS conviction.
Another offender is in the county jail awaiting transport to a state prison. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced on new drug charges. He was sentenced to one year and a day.
Five other offenders are being held on violation of probation charges.
Mrs. Bell explained that juveniles and predators have to register with the sheriff’s office every quarter, while offenders can register quarterly or biannually.
“It’s based on the offense they were convicted on and/or victim information.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) determines which offenders register quarterly, and which ones register biannually,” she said.
Both offenders and predators are required to maintain a valid Florida driver’s license or ID card. Those cards cannot be expired and they must have the offender’s or predator’s current address.
“If they move and have not updated their driver’s license, it is a third-degree felony,” Mrs. Bell pointed out.
Mr. Brand said the FSA has committees for different areas and that the task force committee is chaired by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Sheriff Gualtieri selects an issue then checks with other sheriff’s across the state to ensure the enforcement is timely and pertinent.
“Since the protection of youth is the foremost goal of the FSA, operations that involve child safety are always considered first,” added Mr. Brand.
As for the number of predators and offenders locally, Mrs. Bell said she averages right around 100. She went on to say she’s come to know the majority of these men and women quite well.
“I’ve been dealing with some of these guys for 14 years,” she said.
There are currently three women living in Okeechobee County who are registered sexual offenders.
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News