By PHIL DRAKE
HELENA – For many shoppers Walmart is a mecca for good deals, variety and convenience.
For less than a handful of Montana’s 5,000 sexual or violent offenders, its parking lot is a place they call “home.”
A review by Montana Watchdog of the state’s Sexual and Violent Offender Registry (SVOR) found three sexual offenders claim one of Montana’s 13 Walmart parking lots – Bozeman, Helena and Missoula — as their place of residence.
The news came as a surprise to Walmart officials.
Walmart allows overnight camping for free at some of its locations, with recreational vehicles usually tucked away in underused portions of the parking lot. Many testimonials heralding the company’s generosity are posted online, with travelers stating they shopped at the store during their stay.
Walmart officials say their parking lot is not a place of permanent residence and said they would soon reinforce that fact with the state.
“We are going to reach out to law enforcement to ensure these individuals will not list our property as their residence again,” company spokeswoman Dianna Gee said.
She thanked Montana Watchdog for bringing it to her attention and said the company was unaware Walmart was being listed as a person’s address. “We had no way to know.”
Gee said store managers grant overnight parking based on factors such as available space on the parking lot and local laws.
“Permission is never granted for an extended period for time,” she said, adding the company monitors its parking lots.
According to the SVOR website, Rex Kistler, 32, listed his address as the rest stop and Walmart parking lot at 1500 N. Seventh Ave. in Bozeman as his place of residence. Fermin Jake Villanueva, 41, has reportedly told officials he lives in the Super Walmart parking lot at 4000 Highway 93 South in Missoula. And Jessie Anthony Garrmone, 26, reported he was living at the Walmart parking lot at 2750 Prospect Ave. in Helena.
Recently, Legislative Auditor Tori Hunthausen received a letter from Mike Batista, administrator with the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Investigations, saying resources within the Department of Justice – which oversees the SVOR – were being reallocated to help local agencies locate and prosecute sexual and violent offenders who have not verified their addresses.
The department has also started sending local law enforcement (LLE) agencies monthly notices citing all offenders who have not verified their address.
Batista updated actions taken to improve issues outlined in a state audit of the SVOR. He said one of those findings was that more than 1,400 violent and/or sexual offenders missed deadlines in returning Address Verification Letters (AVL) sent to them by the DOJ.
“The website now shows offenders who have not returned the AVLs as ‘Noncompliant/Address Verification Overdue,’” Batista wrote in the Oct. 26 letter. “Obviously any changes to an offender’s status will be coordinated between LLE and the SVOR staff and reflected on the website.”
Local law enforcement records offenders differently, one official said.
Helena police Detective Chad Lawrence said Jessie Anthony Garramone is listed on his department’s website as having transient status and no permanent address.
“If he saying he is staying there he is considered a transient, under transient status and not a permanent address,” he said. He said local agencies do the contact and act as the middleman for the state. He said the information posted on SVOR website includes information from the AVL.
The Bozeman and Missoula police departments’ websites linked to SVOR website for sex offender information.
Some states have regulations as to how to close to schools sexual offenders can live. That’s not the case in Montana. “Many states have found that increases the amount of offenders not following the registry,” Lawrence said.
He said police encourage compliance as much as possible.
“It’s tricky when you have two different agencies,” he said, adding he has never arrested a sexual offender for not turning in an AVL. He did not know how his county attorney would respond to such a request.
“It’s relatively new and something the state is working on,” Lawrence said.
But he did say Walmart did bear some blame for people staying on its property.
“I think when they allow people to live in their parking lot they are assuming that responsibility,” he said.
In June, Montana Watchdog reported that the Legislative Audit Committee learned that 26 percent of Montana’s 5,000 sexual or violent offenders had not verified their address within their deadlines.
Sean Edgar of the Legislative Audit Division noted that overdue offenders were not flagged so that law enforcement would be aware they failed to register. The SVOR allows the public and state and local law enforcement to track the whereabouts of offenders.
He told the committee that of the 4,964 offenders in the registry, 1,289 (about 26 percent) had not returned their AVL to the Department of Justice after 15 days and were not flagged by the SVOR. And 11 percent were more than six months delinquent in returning their AVLs and had not been flagged.
The audit noted that in November 2010 there were 120,000 searches and 100,000 law enforcement searches of the SVOR registry.
State Attorney General Steve Bullock told the committee in June his department relies on the cooperation of local law enforcement to “make sure the integrity” of the website is maintained.
“The buck stops here for running the registry,” Bullock said, but added all of law enforcement had to work together to gather the information. The Oct. 26 letter from Batista to Hunthausen explained improvements the DOJ had made since June.
Officials said in June said 35 percent of the people who did not respond to the letter were in jail and the other 65 percent said they never got the letter. The audit also noted seven people listed in the system had died.
Here is a listing of the men who have a Walmart address listed on the SVOR, according to the SVOR. All three have not been assigned a designated level, assessing a risk for similar crimes in the future.
Level 1 is a low risk, Level 2 is a moderate risk and Level 3 is a high risk, and the evaluator believes the offender is a sexually violent predator.
Some sexual offenders are without a tier-level designation, meaning they may have been sentenced prior to the tier-level system being enacted in Montana in 1997. It could also mean they were incarcerated prior to 1997, there were not incarcerated after 1997 or the sentencing judge did not assign them a tier level.
– Rex Kistler, 32, now listed by the SVOR as being noncompliant and address verification overdue, listed the rest stop and Walmart parking lot at 1500 N. Seventh Ave. in Bozeman as his place of residence. His information was last updated Nov. 15. He was charged for second-degree criminal sexual conduct in Michigan and sentenced Sept. 26, 1995. No further details of the offense were listed, nor were any victims listed. He was supposed to register with the Bozeman Police Department, according to the website.
— Fermin Jake Villanueva, 41, charged for third-degree sexual assault on a 12-year-old girl in Laramie, Wyo., has reportedly told officials he lives in the Super Walmart parking lot at 4000 Highway 93 South in Missoula. He was sentenced Aug. 16, 1988. His information was last updated Sept. 2, according to the SVOR.
– Jessie Anthony Garramone, 26, told the state he was living at the Walmart parking lot at 2750 Prospect Ave. in Helena. He was charged in Illinois for aggravated criminal sexual assault involving a 5-year-old boy and sentenced Dec. 1, 1999, according to the SVOR. Garramone’s information was updated Aug. 2.
Both Villanueva and Garramone were in compliance in registering with their local police departments, according to the state website.
Editor’s note: The Havre Daily Corrector blog weighs in on this story. Click here.