New California parole team targets sex offenders

Michael Harden's problems were just beginning when agents rolled up to his cluttered trailer to arrest him for letting the battery in his GPS ankle bracelet run low, making it difficult to track the movements of the paroled child molester.

Then the agents found something even more disturbing: graphically sexual photographs on his cell phone. Seven months after he left prison, the 44-year-old Sacramento man was on his way back.

He was one of more than 397 paroled sex offenders swept up throughout California this week by recently formed law enforcement teams, which were created partly as a response to agents fumbling their attempt to monitor paroled sex offender Phillip Garrido.

Garrido is charged with kidnapping an 11-year-old girl, Jaycee Lee Dugard, and hiding her from parole agents for 18 years in a fenced-off area in the backyard of his Antioch home, where she bore two of his children.

The teams are designed to apprehend parolees who have become fugitives or are otherwise violating terms of their release.

"We're going to look over the fences. We don't want another Garrido," Greg Shuman, who supervises a Sacramento-based California Parole Apprehension Team, told agents heading out for one sweep. "It's no-tolerance. Anything, any violation, they're going to jail."

Five teams were created this year in different parts of California, while five more will start in January.

Money to fund them comes from savings created by a law that took effect this year. That law eliminated parole supervision for thousands of ex-convicts, some of whom served time for serious crimes.

It allows agents to focus on the parolees that state corrections officials consider the greatest risk to the public. Supervising fewer people lets agents concentrate their attention on sex offenders, gang members and violent criminals, said Robert Ambroselli, who heads the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's adult parole division.

The specially trained apprehension teams also have their own intelligence units armed with $300,000 worth of computer software. Their job is to scan the Internet and electronic databases for clues to the whereabouts of some of the more than 13,000 California ex-convicts who have broken off contact with their parole agents.

"We've specialized our work with these apprehension teams, intel units," Ambroselli said. "They are really new for us and extremely groundbreaking."

Parole agents also search social networking sites for sex offenders trolling the Internet in search of potential victims.

Since the teams were created in January, they have arrested more than 900 people for violating the terms of their parole, including about 480 sex offenders. They cleared another 600 cases in which parolees were found to have died or been deported.

An effort of the new parole teams that started in July, called "Operation Safe Playgrounds," brings together local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to target sex offenders. An Associated Press reporter and photographer were invited to accompany that operation for a daylong series of raids earlier this week.

When the crackdown began this year, 960 paroled sex offenders had lost contact with their parole agents and were considered fugitives. Agents have since brought 233 of them into custody.