Are sex crimes a statewide problem? - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Are sex crimes a statewide problem?

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It's difficult to identify them, unfortunately.

Sex offenders might live next door and are often trusted members of the community. So how do people tell if someone in their family or a trusted friend could be a child predator?

Police said their biggest piece of advice would be to rely on intuition.

"Rely on your gut instincts about people," said Sgt. Michael Baylous with the West Virginia State Police.

Sexual crimes, especially against children, are not all too uncommon in West Virginia, and they usually leave area parents shocked at what could occur nearby.

Terri Swecker, state coordinator for the sex offender and child abuse registry, said in her experience the vast majority of those listed as sexual criminals had juvenile victims. It would probably be safe to assume more than 90 percent of the nearly 4,000 registered sex offenders in West Virginia had cases involving young children, she said.

However, West Virginia by no means has the highest number of offenders throughout the nation. Neighboring states see considerably more offenders in the national sex offender registry.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Kentucky has about 9,500 registered sex offenders; Ohio has about 19,000; Pennsylvania has about 13,800 and Virginia has about 20,000.

There have still been many cases throughout the Mountain State, with various types of the crime committed.

School busts

In December 2012, Amanda Jo Barker, a former freshman cheerleading coach at North Marion High School in Fairmont, was arrested by state police on three counts of sexual abuse by a person in trust of a child and one count of soliciting a minor via computer.

Barker allegedly knew all of the 16 and 17-year-old victims, with one frequently visiting her and her husband's house to play videogames.

Barker posted a $100,000 bond in magistrate court and faces a prison sentence of 10-20 years, a fine of $500 to $5,000, or both, for each count of sexual abuse.

This past September, the state police arrested a former special needs teacher's aide at Hurricane High School.

David Gibson, 59, of Hurricane, was charged with four counts of second-degree sexual assault. The 21-year-old victim, who had a mental handicap investigators said gave her the mental capacity of a 13-year-old, told investigators she went to stay at Gibson's house for a week and he tried to have sex with her. Since the girl has a mental handicap, prosecutors said his alleged actions were considered rape.

Gibson was accused of assaulting three other former students. Two of those incidents happened in the 1990s. Those victims were 15 and 16 years old at the time. Court documents showed he gave those students alcohol and marijuana in his home before having sex with them. Gibson also had pornographic collages in his home of his former students, according to police.

He was held on a $100,000 bond and later released to home confinement.

A Ravenswood man was arrested after his first day of substitute teaching at a Jackson County elementary school at the beginning of this year.

Dustin Mullins, 22, was arrested and charged with two counts of attempting to commit a felony. He allegedly sent nude pictures to a 15-year-old girl in Wood County. He posted a $150,000 bond shortly after his arraignment in Jackson County Magistrate Court and was released.

Hitting close to home

In November, a former Riverview High School teacher was arrested for soliciting a 16-year-old girl for sex while he was more than 200 miles away. He was arrested at the school he was teaching for in North Carolina.

The problem is clearly statewide, police said.

Baylous said parents have to rely on their instincts when it comes to preventing their children from being around certain adults.

"Talk to them, know what's going on and don't let them be alone with (anyone) who makes them feel uncomfortable," he said. "It sometimes seems it's a stranger (convicted of a sexual crime against a child) but in many cases it's someone they know."

According to the state sex offender registry, which can be found by visiting the state police website at www.wvsp.gov, many of the victims knew the offender. The website shows most of the relationships to be close family friends or a family member.

And it's a trend.

Kanawha County, the state's largest county, also has the highest number of registered offenders with 426 out of the total population of 193,063. The smallest number of registered offenders reside in Tucker County, with 13 offenders out of its population of 7,141.

"It shows it's all over the state," Baylous said of sexually motivated crimes against children. 

Police advice

Chief Law Enforcement Deputy Shawn Graham with the Wood County Sheriff's Office said he has experience investigating sex crimes and would tell parents to look for several red flags to keep their children safe from sexual predators.

He said if a younger child doesn't want to be around someone there's probably a reason.

Graham said abused children often will show signs of the abuse, including soiling themselves or showing abnormal behavior. If a usually shy child suddenly starts acting out and showing aggressive behavior, there may be a reason.

"Pay attention to little changes in behavior," he said. "Do your homework before leaving kids (alone with anyone)."

Predators don't have a certain career. They can be police officers, teachers, family members or clergy members, police said.

"There is no field or person you can necessarily trust," Graham said. "Every field is going to have it. 

"Just because someone has a good job or career doesn't mean you can trust them."

The Internet has predators, too, and it makes it that much easier for them to contact young children.

Police said they used to advise parents to place computers in a common area of the home, but with changes in technology and mobile devices, they now recommend monitoring your children's computers, laptops and other devices.

"If they think they need their privacy, they can have it after they're an adult," Graham said.

Cpl. Brian Humphreys with the Kanawha County Sheriff's Office said the department has several members on the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in West Virginia.

"They recommend parents continuously monitor their children's activity on the computer and cell phone," he said. "As a parent you have an obligation to know who your kids are talking to and what they are doing online."

Herb Faber, Chief Deputy with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, said often times it's the parents who are at fault when their children are abused. He said sexual predators choose their victims knowing they're weak and that usually means they won't report it.

"The sad part is a lot of the time the parents just aren't doing a good job at parenting and that puts the child at risk," Faber said.

However, even when a parent is involved in his or her child's life, there is still a chance the child can be sexually abused, he said.

"There's a chance it can still happen, but a better chance the child will reveal it right away," he added.

Faber said he recently investigated a case involving a six or seven year-old boy who was molested by his father. 

When a family member is doing the abusing, it's important for other adults in a child's life to step up and contact the police, he added.

"It doesn't matter to these people," Graham said. "If they have a sickness that is sexual abuse in their DNA, then they're going to do what they have to do.

"There are good people out there, but also horrible people."