Whitmer signs bill eliminating retention mandate in third grade reading law

Teen out of jail, but stays on sex offender registry

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Niles — Locked up for 73 days, teen Zach Anderson walked out of the Berrien County Jail last month and received an ominous message from his probation officer: The tough part was just beginning.

His probation imposed 61 restrictions. No Internet access for five years. An 8 p.m. curfew. He can’t go to restaurants that serve alcohol.

Worst of all, he’s on the Indiana Sex and Violent Offender Registry for 25 years, a scarlet letter that will make it hard for the 19-year-old to find a job or a place to live.

His crime was having sex with an underage teen.

Anderson of Elkhart drove just across the Indiana-Michigan border and hooked up with a 14-year-old Niles girl who he says told him she was 17. The age of consent in Michigan is 16.

“It’s crazy,” said Anderson. “They make me out to be a monster.”

As a first-time offender younger than 21, he was eligible for a program that would have softened the punishment. But a judge rejected it.

Anderson will try to withdraw his guilty plea Wednesday in Berrien County District Court.

His quest has drawn support from around the country, including the mother of the girl, and raised questions about whether sex registries should be focused more on protecting victims than punishing offenders.

An online petition asking the judge to reconsider has received 156,000 signatures. Several newspapers have written editorials supporting Anderson. A national justice reform group is rallying behind him.

Reform Sex Offender Laws, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said sex registries have become bloated with teens like Anderson, and fail to distinguish between them and bigger threats, such as pedophiles.

Michigan has the fourth-highest number of people on its registry, 43,000, behind California, Texas and Florida, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids. Each state can set its own rules for who qualifies for the registry.

“This case is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Bill Dobbs, a member of the reform group. “This 21st century scarlet letter needs more than fixing. It needs to be abolished.”

But a lawmaker who has helped write some of Michigan’s sex registry laws has little sympathy for Anderson.

State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said Anderson was old enough to know better.

“A 19-year-old knows you have to be careful,” he said.

Before everything turned upside down, Anderson led a tranquil life.

Working as an auto shop technician, he lived with his parents along an inlet of the St. Joseph River. The second oldest of four boys, he liked to play computer games and make skateboarding videos.

Like many teen boys, he met girls through dating websites and apps like Hot or Not.

In December, he was flirting with the Niles girl on Hot or Not when he asked how old she was, he said in a recent interview. She said 17, he said.

After encouraging her to take intimate photos of herself, he suggested they get together.

Two days after they met online, Anderson drove 20 miles and picked the girl up around the corner from her home, he said.

“On the night it happened, I had a gut feeling that I shouldn’t be doing this,” he later wrote in a letter of apology to the girl. “If I would have trusted my conscience, none of this would have happened.”

The teens bought condoms at Lucky 7 Food Mart and drove down a gravel road to a small, secluded playground at Niles Westside Seventh-day Adventist Church. They were six blocks from the the girl’s home.

Meanwhile, the girl’s mother was in a panic. The Detroit News is not naming the girl or her mother because the child is a minor.

Her daughter had been gone for several hours and missed her dinnertime dosage of medicine for epilepsy, the woman said.

The girl, who didn’t have a phone, had told her older sister she was meeting Anderson, the mother said. The family tried to reach him through Skype but didn’t get a response.

She called 911. Shortly after a sheriff’s deputy arrived, so did her daughter.

And the whole saga nearly ended right there.

But the deputy had spotted Anderson’s user name, “Zach Guy,” on the girl’s computer, piquing his interest, her mother said.

The Berrien County’s Sheriff’s Office had been looking into a number of cases where someone named Zach was contacting underage girls.

Two deputies returned to the home later that night and pressed the girl for details of what happened, her mother said.

A subsequent investigation found Anderson had nothing to do with the other cases.

But his dalliance with the girl led to a misdemeanor charge of criminal sexual conduct.

The girl’s mother never wanted Anderson arrested.

She tearfully beseeched authorities to drop the charge, she said. She blamed her daughter for the tryst, saying she was acting out because of her epilepsy.

When Anderson was sentenced, she asked the judge to be lenient, citing her daughter’s mental and physical development as factors in the incident.

Under Michigan law, a person is placed on the sex offender registry for consensual teen sex if the age difference is more than four years.

But the state Holmes Youthful Trainee Act allows first-time offenders to avoid the registry and have their convictions erased after serving probation.

During the sentencing, Anderson’s attorney said his client was a victim of the culture, that dating websites and apps made it difficult to determine the age of the person you’re going to meet.

Berrien County District Judge Dennis Wiley seized upon the same culture in doling out his punishment.

“You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women to meet and have sex with,” he told Anderson. “That seems to be part of our culture now — meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.”

Wiley, 67, said meeting someone online is dangerous because it’s easy for bad people to hide their identities.

He sentenced Anderson to three months in jail, five years of probation and 25 years on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry, which, because of his residence, was transferred to the Indiana registry.

Anderson is luckier than most people on the sex offender registry.

After leaving jail on July 9, Anderson began working at his father’s print shop.

He couldn’t return home because his parents live within 1,000 feet of a public boat launch, which is prohibited by the registry.

But his parents bought a $51,000 house a block behind the shop, named Sign of the Times.

The Andersons have paid $31,000 so far in lawyer fees, court expenses and a down payment on the home.

“He has a mountain to climb,” said Anderson’s father, Les. “He’s free, but he’s not really free.”

If Zach wants to live or work somewhere else, his options are limited. He can’t live or work within 1,000 feet of a school, and will have to overcome the stigma of being on the registry to convince an employer or landlord to accept him.

Even if he found another job or home, he could lose them if others learn about his past and mount pressure to get rid of him.

“It affects everything you do,” he said.

The public registry gives his conviction, name, photo, physical description and addresses of his home and job.

What it doesn’t give are details of the crime. Little distinguishes him from pedophiles on the list.

It didn’t take long for his new reality to sink in.

Three days after Zach left jail, Les Anderson could tell something was bothering his son. When he asked what was wrong, Zach began to cry.

“I don’t know who I can talk to,” he told his dad. “I don’t know whose hands I can shake.”

To his supporters, Anderson — a pariah at 19 — has traded one jail for another.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell