This started the way a lot of our stories do: with an e-mail. Back before Christmas, a man dropped us a line. He is friends with a young woman who'd been victimized as a young teen-ager by a man named Daniel Ernest Utter.
Back in 2008, Utter — a history teacher and basketball coach who was then working at Paris High School — was arrested after the young woman, then 17, came forward and said that she and Utter had sex on several occasions in Jacksonville hotel rooms from 2002 to 2005, when Utter worked at Cabot Junior High. Utter eventually pled guilty to second-degree sexual assault, and was placed on five years probation, with 36 months supervised.
Since then, the woman had checked the online website of the Arkansas Crime Information Center's sex offender database from time to time, waiting for Utter's name to pop up there. It never did. A little phone tag with the Lonoke County prosecuting attorney's office and other agencies found that Daniel Utter moved to Grisham, Ore., in 2008. In March 2010, his probation officer there sent along a letter requesting that Utter's parole be terminated early — a request that Lonoke County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bart Dickinson said he recommended shouldn't happen. As for whether Utter was eventually released from probation early, however, both Dickinson and a spokesperson for the Cabot Police said they just didn't know.
Just as interesting as finding out the whereabouts of Daniel Utter was something else we learned during the course of our phone calls. In addition to the publicly available list of sex-offenders maintained by the ACIC, there is a second, confidential list of those considered to be at a low risk to re-offend.
Sex offenders are graded level 1 through 4, with level 1 being the lowest risk, and level 4 being the highest. Levels 3 and 4 are always on the public list, as are all level 2 offenders whose crime was against a victim under the age of 14. While Utter's name has never appeared on the public list, a law enforcement source says that Utter's name is on the police-only list — which probably means he was originally classified as a level 1 or level 2 offender (both the Cabot Police and the Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney's office said they don't know Utter's level, and officials with ACIC said they couldn't release that information). Whatever the case, his victim was not informed when he pulled up stakes for Oregon.
There are currently 8,987 people registered as sex offenders in Arkansas, with the numbers sketching a classic bell curve from 1 to 4. At one end are 908 level 1 offenders. At the other end of the curve are the level fours — 325 total. Many of the level 4 offenders are the stuff of nightmares: sociopaths for whom rape and molestation goes beyond the opportunistic and into a predatory compulsion.
Sheri Flynn is the director of SOSRA (Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment), the state agency based in Pine Bluff that determines whether those convicted of sex offenses are classified as level 1, 2, 3 or 4. Flynn said that Arkansas is nearly unique in the way it assesses sex offenders for their danger to re-offend, which in turn determines the level of community notification about their movements. In the case of level 1 offenders, only those in their household are informed of their whereabouts. While other states use actuarial tables, past criminal history or the crime the person was eventually convicted of as a guide for grading, Flynn said those things can paint a misleading picture if considered alone. Instead, SOSRA relies on a series of interviews, psychological reviews and lie-detector tests designed to ferret out a buried life that offenders may have hidden from everyone but their victims. The process can take months (much to the consternation of victims), but by the time that process is over, Flynn said, she feels very confident that the number assigned to an offender is the correct one.
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