Abduction Sparks Effort To Tighten Sex Offender Laws

BERLIN – The tragedy that claimed the life of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell, whose body was found near Delmar on Christmas day, has sparked a renewed effort to strengthen Maryland’s sexual predator laws, with local lawmakers and would-be lawmakers already doing their homework in advance of the upcoming legislative session.

Foxwell’s body was found last Friday after a massive search including thousands of volunteers from across the lower shore spread out from her Parsonsburg residence. A known repeat sex offender, registered in both Maryland and Delaware, who had dated the child’s legal guardian, her aunt, allegedly abducted her. Thus far, the suspect, Thomas James Leggs, Jr., 30, of Salisbury, who has ties to Ocean City, has been charged with kidnapping and burglary, but her death has been ruled a homicide and prosecutors in Wicomico County have already said murder charges are likely forthcoming.

Already, child advocacy groups in Maryland, as well as a public outcry from across the state and beyond, has called for revisiting the state’s child sex offender laws with calls for stringent sentencing and increased monitoring of known offenders. Maryland lawmakers in 2006 passed their own version of Jessica’s Law, named for a Florida 9-year old abducted, sexually abused and killed by a previously convicted child sex offender, which tightened sentencing guidelines among other things, but the tragic incident in Wicomico County last week has area lawmakers wondering if the law goes far enough.

Delegate James Mathias (D-38B), in whose district the tragic incident occurred, said this week he is already moving forward with an effort to revisit the Maryland’s law in the upcoming General Assembly session.

“As a parent, I’m aggrieved,” he said. “This whole thing is beyond belief.”

Mathias said in the hours after the story unfolded, he received countless messages from constituents in his district calling for stronger assurances known child sex offenders, such as Leggs, are more closely monitored to ensure they aren’t allowed to repeat their heinous actions. Mathias said he spent a good part of the last few days trying to obtain all of the information about the case specifically and the state laws in general in advance of an effort to take up the debate in Annapolis.

“Since Saturday, I’ve received a number of calls and emails from across the district urging me to do something about this,” he said. “I’m doing my research and collecting all of the information I can find on Maryland’s sex offender law. I’ve asked Legislative Services to do the research and compare Maryland’s laws to the laws of other states. I’m looking at all of that.”

Mathias, who was thrust into the debate on Jessica’s Law as a freshman delegate appointed to serve out the term of the late Bennett Bozman in 2006, said careful research will allow him to advance the cause when the session opens next month.

“I’m trying to get all of the facts from Wicomico County to see exactly what we’re dealing with,” he said. “I’m looking at what we have and what other states have. We need to protect our citizens and our children and I’m ready to do that, but we have to do it intelligently.”

Mathias said he has already had a cursory conversation with Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler about the situation and has a meeting with Gansler set up for Jan. 13, the first official day of the 2010 General Assembly Session. The intent of meeting, which will include the chairpersons of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, was to discuss Mathias’ planned bill on a statewide ban of Salvia, but the focus could shift to strengthening the state’s sexual predator laws.

“We’re hoping to have our research done by then, and depending on what we find, we’ll likely ask to discuss this during that meeting,” he said. “Anything we come up with will have to go through those two committees, so if we’re ready with some remedy, it will be appropriate to discuss it at that time.”

Mathias said preparation and research could prevent the issue from getting lost in a whirlwind of other activity during the session.

“Ninety days seems like a long time, but it goes by in the blink of an eye,” he said. “If you aren’t prepared when you get to the table, things can get buried in an avalanche of other bills pretty quickly. If there is a remedy, some improvement or strengthening of our state law, we’ll hopefully be ready to move forward with something. I can only speak for myself, but I’m certain other elected officials are doing the same thing.”

Meanwhile, Pocomoke Mayor Mike McDermott, commander of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Investigative Division, is calling for electronic monitoring for most offenders on the registry. McDermott, who ran the county’s sex offender registry program for several years, will seek one of two District 38B House of Delegate seats in next year’s election.

“I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and what I would like to see, what I would advocate for, is some kind of electronic monitoring or chipping for the worst offenders,” he said. “The system, as it stands right now, is basically an honor system, but there is no honor among the worst of these offenders. These are not honorable people, so the honor system does not work.”

McDermott said the current system of monitoring offenders is flawed in that the offenders can’t always be tracked as they move from one area to another, or from job to job.

“They’re checked for compliance, but we don’t know where they are all the time,” he said. “We can’t physically go by and check them 24 hours a day. There is no way to know where they are 24-7.”

McDermott said about 15 years ago, there was a registered offender who absconded in Delaware and made his way to West Ocean City where he was working as a maintenance man. He was wanted on a warrant in Delaware for violating parole, but at some point, he grabbed a 15-year-old boy and was holding him against his will. The known offender had the child taped up, but when he got intoxicated, the child was able to escape and called police.

“That is a classic example of a guy the system lost,” he said. “There was nothing in place that could have warned us he was in our area at the time. That guy should have been reported as an absconder and we could have been on the lookout for him, but there was a big delay.”

McDermott said if a stronger monitoring system had been in place already, the tragic incident in Salisbury last week could have been avoided.

“If this guy Leggs had been on some kind of tracking device, he would have been in the system,” he said. “He would have been in the data base and we could have known where he was and what he was doing. He knew where the victim lived. This could have been avoided.”

McDermott said he realizes a rather stringent electronic monitoring or tracking system for known offenders could meet with some resistance in the General Assembly, although he suspects there would be considerable public support for it.

“Until we get the gumption to fight this, things won’t change,” he said. “There are a lot of liberal lawyers in the General Assembly and I’m sure there are some that would say tagging or chipping these offenders would be a civil rights violation, but guess what, if you’re on this list and you have shown a propensity to do this over and over, when you abuse a child, you forfeit your civil rights to some degree.”