In role reversal, Ohio sex offender mistakenly given private information about his neighbors

Neighbors routinely get a picture and a name when a sex offender moves next door. In a turnabout, an Ohio sex offender has received private information about his neighbors, including their Social Security numbers.

The material was shown to The Associated Press by convicted rapist Pearly Wilson, who was mistakenly given the information by a prosecutor. The data also contain the names, addresses and birth dates of nine of Wilson's one-time neighbors on Columbus' east side.

There was no indication Wilson misused anything in the files. Wilson, 80, says he came forward because he recognizes the irony of it falling into the hands of someone like him.

"Someone with a criminal mind could really use that information the wrong way," he said.

The case also offers a view into a massive and controversial database designed to track criminals with the help of a raft of background information, including data on people whose only connection to a criminal is a similar address.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien took responsibility for the error, which he believes to be isolated.

Wilson's former neighbors, meanwhile, are wondering why the government has data about them at all.

"They don't need to be running my personal information," said Don Hickman, 47, who still lives on the street where Wilson once worked as a live-in church groundskeeper. "I'm not a sex offender. I've done nothing wrong here."

Neighbor information is useful to police when serving warrants, making family connections and finding fugitives, said Shannon Crowther, who heads technology services for the Franklin County Sheriff's Office.

The information was released to Wilson last summer, as prosecutors were grappling with more than 7,000 lawsuits that sex offenders had filed against Ohio's first-in-the-nation implementation of the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. The offenders' challenges contend the federal law's stricter classifications and longer reporting periods can't be applied retroactively.

Wilson spent 23 years behind bars for raping a woman in 1976. He went back for six months in 2005 for failing to report an address change to the state sex offender registry.

A voluminous litigator who acted as his own attorney, Wilson said he has an otherwise clean record. He waited almost a year to reveal what he had for fear it would jeopardize his ability to get off the registry. His obligation to stay on the registry expired in July.

O'Brien said Wilson had zealously sought records held in his county sex offender file. After Wilson threatened to take the issue to federal court, an assistant prosecutor turned over the documents.

"They feared he'd say, 'See, you're still hiding stuff,' so they released everything in the file, lock, stock and barrel, and didn't properly review it," O'Brien said. "They gave him things they shouldn't have."

According to the documents, the data on Wilson's neighbors was part of a background check on him run through Matrix, the Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange. Wilson also received a copy of another confidential report created by Central Ohio Crime Stoppers, which contained no neighbor information.

Matrix drew the ire of privacy advocates after the U.S. Department of Justice adopted it shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Dubbed the largest database on the planet, it merges private and public data sources — including criminal histories, driver's license information, sex offender listings and real estate records — and sells the information to government agencies, private investigators and debt collectors, among others.

"Even if government organizations were collecting this data for legitimate purposes, we don't know what some of these documents are being used for," said James Hardiman, legal director for the Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which led protests of Matrix. "There is this humongous database being kept of all kinds of information and the public has no idea it's being collected."

The federal government terminated funding to Matrix in 2005 amid privacy concerns, but two states — Ohio and Florida — continue to use the service, now known as dFACTS, without the interstate sharing.

Seisint Systems Inc., the Boca Raton, Fla.-based company that created Matrix, was purchased by LexisNexis in 2004. LexisNexis did not return a call seeking comment.

Social Security numbers are part of a state criminal database that feeds dFACTS, said Kim Kowalski, a spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.

Kristen Anderson, director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's case analysis division, defended the value of such information but said it is generally sanitized before release.

"From a law enforcement perspective, it's great that in this country there is so much information available about people," she said. "From a personal standpoint, there's just an awful lot out there about all of us, and with a little bit of digging you can get it, use it, post it online."

Some former neighbors said the Matrix report Wilson received was inaccurate or outdated.

Hickman's mother-in-law, Gloria Ward, said it listed an arrest for her daughter that would have had to occur when her daughter was 4.

Denise Sinkfield said she hadn't lived on the street for two years.

"I mean me and my husband, we've never bothered anybody," Sinkfield said. "So that's kind of weird, kind of scary."

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Online:

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: http://www.missingkids.com