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Many sex offenders evacuated during hurricanes remain at large

NEW ORLEANS—Michael Guirdy Allen was one of more than 400,000 people who fled the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina crippled the city's levees and flooded its streets.

The 40-year-old man from Harvey, a suburb of New Orleans, still hasn't returned.

But Allen left behind a string of warrants for charges as far back as 2000, including attempted murder, false imprisonment, three counts of child molestation and aggravated assault.

Allen is one of more than 2,000 fugitives and sex offenders whom local, state and federal authorities are trying to locate and, in cases such as Allen's, arrest. Two months after Katrina and Rita struck Louisiana and Mississippi, many sex offenders and parolees remain at large.

The hunt for some of the area's most dangerous evacuees has been hindered, some law enforcement officials said, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has waffled over the past two weeks about whether it will provide any information it has on them.

Of more than 2,234 sex offenders registered in the lower 13 parishes of Louisiana, roughly 1,340 were from New Orleans, according to the Louisiana State Police.

New Orleans residents are scattered across the lower 48 states, which has made tracking sex offenders difficult.

Capt. David Benelli, the commander of the New Orleans police sex crimes division, said many sex offenders have voluntarily reported to police precincts.

"Pre-Katrina, there were 1,340 sex offenders in Orleans Parish, and that doesn't include the surrounding parishes," Benelli said. "Of those sex offenders, some would be classified as rapists, some would be classified as child predators. We're in the process right now of attempting to figure out where they are."

James Murphy, a deputy incident commander with the U.S. Marshals in Louisiana, said that so far marshals have tracked down about 26 people in the area and have sent leads to other jurisdictions where sex offenders may have moved.

Marshals in Louisiana also have helped the state's Department of Public Safety and Corrections arrest suspected criminals with outstanding warrants—including three people with outstanding warrants for murder, Murphy said.

Law enforcement authorities in Houston, San Antonio and Baton Rouge, popular destinations for many Katrina evacuees, said they've been frustrated by FEMA's unwillingness to share information that may let authorities know if a sex offender is now in their jurisdiction.

"We've been told that it wasn't going to be provided and then it was going to be provided and then it wasn't going to be provided. We still haven't seen it," said Sgt. Nate McDuell, a public information officer with Houston Police Department. "We don't know who we have, we don't know what we have."

A spokesman for FEMA said that Houston and other jurisdictions that request the information in writing could see it soon.

Butch Kierney, a FEMA spokesman, said the agency first believed federal privacy laws barred it from turning over personal information about evacuees. But after lawyers reviewed the laws, the agency decided that for legitimate law-enforcement purposes, FEMA could examine its information and crosscheck it with sex offender lists.

In Louisiana, where the majority of the lower parishes were evacuated after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, law enforcement officers are still trying to find out how many sex offenders have been located.

In Louisiana, sex offenders who aren't on probation are required to register only once a year. Sheriff Jack Strain of St. Tammany Parish said those laws have tied his department's hands.

The department can't issue warrants for many of the sex offenders on the list because they haven't violated the law.

Although more than half the homes in the parish are uninhabitable, law enforcement officers have been able to locate 250 of the area's 350 registered sex offenders. Strain said that his department has been in contact with 50 of them by phone, but that the whereabouts of 50 remain unknown.

Areas where evacuations weren't mandatory are having more success.

In Mississippi, all but 20 of approximately 190 sex offenders in the lower six counties have been located, said Darrell Williams, a deputy U.S. Marshal in Gulfport.

Since Katrina made landfall in late August, more than 600 deputies and support staff from throughout the United States have been deployed to Louisiana and Mississippi to help local law enforcement officials track suspects with outstanding warrants for violent crimes and locate sex offenders.

In Harrison County, where Biloxi and Gulfport are located, Sheriff George Payne Jr. said that only four of approximately 64 sex offenders are still missing.

"We have reason to believe that one of those is a missing person who may be in the morgue," Payne said.

The county's automated notification system—which sends postcards to neighbors of sex offenders—is operating and issuing notifications of new locations as soon as law enforcement finds an offender at a new address, he said.

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(Musgrave reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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