AUGUSTA — Reports of a registered sex offender taking photographs in multiple stores and other public places in Augusta has numerous parents expressing outrage on social media and placing hundreds of calls to authorities, but police said Wednesday they’ve investigated the complaints and found that no crime occurred.
Augusta police Lt. Kevin Lully said that over the previous day and a half, police had received several calls reporting the man is taking photographs of young girls and posting them to a social media website.
The Kennebec Journal is not identifying the man because he has not been charged with a crime in connection with the reports to police. Police confirmed the man is a registered sex offender but said he is neither on probation nor restricted from taking photos in public spaces.
Word of his posts featuring mostly children in stores and other public spaces in Augusta spread across central Maine fast this week, with some parents going to a social media page and discovering photographs of their children there. None of the photographs appears to feature nudity, instead capturing images of youths shopping and taking part in other everyday public activities.
Jenette Schartier, of Gardiner, said in an interview that she was flabbergasted to find photographs of four of her five children on the page, and not even at the same location or the same day.
Schartier said she learned Tuesday over the phone from her niece while she was at work that photographs of four of her children, ages 8, 9, 13 and 19, were on the page.
“I was sick to my stomach,” she said. “I think it is sickening the law protects these predators, and not our children. For someone with his background, convictions for sexual assault, it blows my mind that it’s OK for him to do that.”
Lully said police looked into each complaint and determined no crime had occurred. Lully said police understand the incidents are concerning to parents of the girls in the photographs, and police are looking at every complaint and image to make sure no crime has been committed.
“We agree this is concerning, but it is not a crime at this point,” Lully said Wednesday. “This is why we have the (sex offender) registry, which empowers individuals to watch out for any wrongdoing; and in this case, we have received hundreds of calls for people looking out for one another. (Parents) can call us when they see anything that is suspicious, and we only ask that they understand that the Constitution protects this type of activity even if you are a sex offender without the restriction of probation. … We ask that they understand that we are doing everything we can possibly do.”
Lully said simply taking a photograph in public is not a crime, even if it is of a child. He said that would be a violation of the law only if a sex offender is on probation and has restrictions prohibiting that type of behavior.
In this case, he said, the sex offender is not on probation.
However, he said parents can call police if they see someone suspicious taking photographs of their children or behaving inappropriately, so the police can respond to the situation and evaluate whether a crime is afoot.
The man who appears to have taken and posted the photographs was convicted of three counts of gross sexual assault, involving a victim younger than 14, in 2006 in Portland Superior Court, according to the state sex offender registry. He was sentenced to five years in jail, but with all but six months of that sentence suspended, and four years of probation.
Schartier said her 19 year-old daughter was photographed by the man about two weeks ago at Target. Her 8-, 9- and 13-year-old children were photographed in September while eating with their father at Wendy’s. She said at Wendy’s, her daughter mentioned there was a creepy-seeming guy looking at them through the window, who later came inside but didn’t order any food. He seemed odd, but they didn’t think he was taking their photographs.
She said she reported the incident to Gardiner police and then Augusta police, and she is taking out a protection from harassment order against him, barring him from contact with her children. She suggested other parents do the same, in hope that if he does something similar again to the same children, he could be charged with violating the protection order.
She said she also hopes state law will be changed so sex offenders can’t photograph others’ children.
“That’s the only way we’ll stop this so-called man,” she said. “My 13 year-old is terrified, but I told her we can do one of two things. We can sit and stay home and be scared, or we can stand up and fight. And I’m going to stand up and fight, to make sure this guy can’t do this again. The laws need to be changed, and I feel like I need to make it happen. I feel, as a mom that wants to protect my kids, I’m going to stop this guy. He’s not going to scare me. He’s not going to have that power over my children, or over me.”
Lully said whether a parent could get a protection order against the man would be up to the courts, and a judge would consider multiple factors to decide whether to issue one. He said whether individual stores ban him from their premises is up to store officials to determine, because that would be private property.
Lully said police have interviewed the man callers allege took and posted the photographs, but he could not discuss any details of that conversation.
Numerous area residents have expressed anger and frustration on social media sites. Some of them say the man photographed them and their children while they were shopping in Augusta, and the photos were posted online on Flickr, a social media photo-sharing site.
Photographs on the site include many of women and young-looking girls in area shops, and at what appear to be December holiday events and fireworks in Augusta. The people in the photographs do not appear to be aware they are being photographed.
Crystal Putek, of China, said she found 101 pictures of her 14-year-old son and 13-year-old stepdaughter on the Flickr page. They were sitting on a couch in November while their father shopped at Big Lots.
“He was literally sitting there long enough to take 101 pictures,” she said. “It was disturbing. Just the fact he was sitting there taking pics is creepy.”
While Putek said she was surprised to learn the man wasn’t breaking any laws, she said she was impressed with how Augusta police are handling the incidents.
She said she had a conversation with her children Tuesday night about being more aware of their surroundings. She said it should be illegal for someone with a background of sexual offenses to photograph children.
“I have some very angry thoughts running around in my head about this guy,” Putek said. “I hope some sort of legal action can be taken against him so he stops doing it.”
As of mid-Wednesday afternoon, the Flickr account where the photos had been posted no longer had any photos, or information, on it. The man’s Facebook page, where he did not appear to have posted similar photos, also appeared to be taken down Wednesday, after being accessible to public viewing earlier in the day.
Lully said the only way parents might be able to get a photo of their child taken down would be to report the situation to the social media site, and it would be up to the site to take it down.
He said police have made social media sites aware of the situation.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647