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Fargo police to update offender info on Web site

Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus said his department already does more than most agencies in the nation to track sex offenders. On Tuesday, in the wake of national attention from the Joseph Duncan case, Magnus unveiled plans to keep the public eve...

Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus said his department already does more than most agencies in the nation to track sex offenders.

On Tuesday, in the wake of national attention from the Joseph Duncan case, Magnus unveiled plans to keep the public even more informed. At the same time, he cautioned about getting "caught up in the hysteria of all this."

Beginning July 12, the Fargo police Web site will feature a city map that can be searched by neighborhood for Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders. The site now lists only photos, addresses and criminal histories for Level 3 offenders, those considered the most likely to re-offend.

Magnus and Lt. Tod Dahle also spoke briefly Tuesday about their department's help in the Duncan case and the flaws the case exposed in the criminal justice system.

Duncan, a Level 3 offender, had been missing since April from his Fargo address until Idaho police found him Saturday with 8-year-old Shasta Groene. Some of her family was murdered in May. Duncan fled Fargo after posting $15,000 cash to get out of jail in Becker County, Minn., where he was charged with molesting a 6-year-old boy on a playground.


Magnus said Duncan's writings on his blog, "fifthnail.blogspot. com," show he was well aware of the attention Fargo police were paying him.

Duncan, who moved to Fargo in 2000, was reported once by a woman who thought she saw him peering at her son, Sgt. Jeff Skuza said. The call prompted an officer to talk with Duncan at his home.

"He didn't commit a crime, but we did pay him a little visit," Skuza said.

Magnus said the attention might have kept Duncan from committing crimes in Fargo. He was charged Tuesday in Idaho with kidnapping Groene and her 9-year-old brother, Dylan.

"I think he realized he was under scrutiny here," Magnus said.

Magnus urged people to channel their anger, fear and frustration into pushing for changes in the way sex offenders are treated. Among the priorities should be a national sex offender registry, more probation time after sex offenses and a uniform system for assessing risk levels among the states, he said.

Residents should also hold public officials accountable for poor decisions, Magnus said. He directed his comments toward prosecutors and judges in general and said people can make changes at election time.

Judge Thomas Schroeder has told reporters he wasn't sure if he knew Duncan was considered a Level 3 offender when he set his bail at $15,000 on the Becker County charges. County Attorney Joe Evans said he requested bail at $25,000.


Magnus said it remains to be seen who, if anybody, should be held accountable in Duncan's case.

But for someone with Duncan's history, Magnus said, "My sense is that both of those (bail) figures are way too low."

The Fargo police Web site update has been in the works for months and wasn't in response to Duncan's arrest, Magnus said. It was planned to be ready for next Tuesday's annual police picnic, he said.

In addition to the mapping feature, Fargo police officials plan to assign an investigator to sex offender cases, and add vehicle descriptions and photos to the information available on the Web.

Beat officers now check the accuracy of offender addresses three times a year, even though the law doesn't require any checks, Dahle said. The first nonreporting violation in North Dakota is a misdemeanor; the second a felony.

The Cass County Sheriff's Department checks addresses every four to five months, said Lt. Mike Argall. In West Fargo, police try to check offenders at least four times a year, Capt. Mike Reitan said.

About 150 offenders are registered in Fargo, with the majority considered Level 1, or low risks, Magnus said.

Serious offenders could be living in Moorhead and in Clay County right now, but police can't tell the public about them, said Moorhead Lt. Bob Larson.


But a law passed during the 2005 Legislature will change that for offenders who now move to the area, he said.

Of the 81 registered sex offenders in Moorhead, 18 are considered low risk, five are rated moderate risk and none is rated high risk.

The rest have no designation because they never went through the state's prison system.

Clay County has 34 registered sex offenders outside of Moorhead. Of those with a risk level, five are low risk and one is moderate. The rest have no risk rating.

Most offenders who do not have a risk rating moved to Minnesota from another state or were convicted in Minnesota before the days of risk assessments, Larson said.

Previous law did not allow Minnesota authorities to talk about a high-risk offender who had no official designation as a high-risk offender.

Under the new law, all sex offenders moving to the state will be assigned an official risk level, Larson said.

Moorhead police will tell residents who ask whether there is a registered sex offender living within three blocks of the person's address, regardless of the offender's risk level.


Known Level 3 offenders also prompt community notifications in Minnesota. Level 2 offenders prompt notification of schools and other at-risk agencies.

In Fargo, the police went back and forth on the decision to publicize Level 2 offenders, Magnus said. The move was a difficult one because the medium-risk label covers people who present varying degrees of risk to the community, he said.

In the end, the police chose more transparency over concerns for a community backlash against the offenders. He said he didn't worry about the possibility of alienating a "sick" individual such as Duncan.

"We're going to err on the side of caution," Magnus said.

Magnus said he hopes citizens research offenders in their neighborhood and take rational steps to ensure safety. Measures might include frank discussions with children and a plan for uncomfortable or dangerous situations, he said.

He also said people should be less hesitant to call police when they think they've spotted suspicious behavior.

For more insight into the risk from sex offenders, Magnus directed the public to a "myths and facts" page on the department's Web site: www.cityoffargo.com/police/ .

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538. Reporter Dave Olson contributed to this article.

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