DURHAM, NC (WNCN) - It takes hundreds of law enforcement agencies working together to make sure North Carolina's online sex offender registry is up-to-date.
But are taxpayers paying more than they should for the service? Some surprising things happened when WNCN went to with an officer to find out.
"If I go out to verify address, I could theoretically hit 20 or 25 houses a day," said Durham Deputy Geoffrey Middleton while driving his patrol car. "Of course, everyone is not home, so you end up doing some of the same houses over and over."
Middleton hits the streets most days – one of several keeping tabs on Durham County's roughly 300 registered sex offenders. The officers are out there no matter the weather, and the day he took a WNCN crew out on patrol, the rain fell steady.
"Our office sends me an email once someone comes in to verify their address," said Middleton. At that point, Middleton said, the officer will go out to verify them.
On this day, he checked on Anthony Phoenix. The 49-year-old first registered in October 2008 after serving time for Second-Degree Rape. He recently went to the sheriff's office to check in because that's what his letter told him to do.
Middleton's job was to verify his address.
North Carolina law requires the State Bureau of Investigation to mail out a certified letter twice a year to remind each of the some 16,000 sex offenders that they have to physically come in to report where they live and update their pictures.
At $6.74 a letter, it costs North Carolina taxpayers more than $230,000 annually.
SBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Shannon O'Toole said after his agency sends out the letters, the return address is for the host sheriff's office.
So, O'Toole said, the SBI doesn't have a way of tracking if letters go back or are returned to sender.
"It is then the sheriff's office's responsibility to try and track down that particular individual," O'Toole said.
The states neighboring North Carolina don't spend money on the written reminders. When they've got offenders in court, they give them two dates to check in and let them be responsible for remembering.
"This is legislation that was enacted," said O'Toole when asked if that method was an easier way to keep tabs on offenders. "This was not something that the SBI lobbied for; it was not something that the SBI is dead-set on providing this particular type of service."
"But the duty was placed upon us, and we are more than happy to comply with that as we go forward."
Middleton said he has had "maybe a half dozen letters" this year.
"Probably two of them ended up being investigations where I swore out warrants," he said.
"Most of the people are trying to do the right thing. It's just there are always a few that don't."
Anthony Phoenix did answer his letter. But the deputy noticed Phoenix had an outstanding warrant for stalking.
While pulling into Phoenix' housing complex, he said, "So we will verify his address, and we will also have to take him downtown and process his outstanding warrant."
Middleton left his squad car and walked through puddles to go knock on Phoenix's door and window.
Phoenix answered the door and he let Middleton and the WNCN crew into his home, out of the rain.
But before any verification can take place, Phoenix wanted to talk with the deputy about his roommate – another registered sex offender – who he said was sending him threatening letters from jail.
"One day I had my girl over, and her daughter," Phoenix said. "[My roommate] supposedly exposed himself to her 4-year-old daughter. He's in jail now, and I called the cops and let them know what was going on."
"[My roommate] has photographs; he has magazines; he has pictures of young girls and him and all this in my house," said Phoenix, gesturing around his kitchen.
Phoenix told WNCN that he knows any of those materials in his house would affect his freedom and status on the state's Sex Offender Registry.
"[My roommate] has endangered my life, my freedom," said Phoenix. "Like the police told me, if anything went down, I could go to jail for conspiracy."
"I want him gone," Phoenix said when asked if he wanted his roommate to remain in his house.
Turning to Middleton, Phoenix said, "He had people try to get evidence out of the house, and I'm like, 'Why you got seven or eight phones upstairs?'"
"He goes around filming young girls or private parts of women as he walked by," continued Phoenix to the deputy. "Me and my girlfriend, we've seen this."
Then Phoenix perked up, excusing himself around Middleton and the WNCN crew to reach into a kitchen cabinet.
"This was in his car," said Phoenix, producing a loaded handgun magazine.
"Do you have a napkin or paper towel? Sit it on that plate right there," said Middleton as he took the magazine away without touching it.
"I wondered why [my roommate] wanted the car so bad," Phoenix told the deputy. "When I searched the car, he had a 9mm clip, that means there's a gun somewhere, either in that car or somebody got it."
"Have you ever seen him with a gun?" asked Middleton.
"Yeah," said Phoenix, nodding his head.
"Well, I won't leave you until my other people get here and look at this stuff, OK?" said Middleton as he and the WNCN crew head to the door leading outside.
"He's dangerous. He's a predator for real," said Phoenix emphatically as he walked his guests to his door. "He prays on little kids, and women and girls and boys and everything."
Outside, Middleton turned to WNCN and said, "Obviously, what we just encountered is much more important than serving a misdemeanor warrant. So we will do that investigation and handle that paperwork at a more appropriate time."
Inside his squad car, Middleton called his headquarters.
"[Phoenix] says [his roommate] has stuff at his house, possibly weapons, porn, all kinds of evidence in his room," said Middleton on the phone. "[Phoenix] thinks he's been sending people by here to try and get stuff out of here before police can get a hold of it. I'll try to get a search warrant to seize this property."
Hours later, the rain is still falling as backup shows up, and WNCN's camera is rolling.
After searching the roommate's room and car, Durham County Sheriff's deputies ended up seizing a laptop, photos and cell phones – all potential evidence thanks to Middleton checking up on the certified letter.
When asked if he thought the letters were a waste of money, Middleton said: "If the cost of the letter is justified by us finding one person who is trying to escape justice or do the right thing for the community, then it might be worth it."
After the search, Middleton immediately arrested Phoenix for his outstanding warrant and took him downtown.
Regarding the roommate, WNCN checked back weeks later, and he remained in the Durham County Detention Facility under one count of Indecent Liberties with a Child (Felony) under a $50,000 secure bond. Durham County's Investigative Division is still completing its Search Warrant Inventory.
To check your neighborhood for sex offenders, you can go to North Carolina's registry here: http://sexoffender.ncsbi.gov/search.aspx