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Error lets rapist avoid sex offender label

BROOKSVILLE — The woman glanced around the parking lot along U.S. 19 and froze in her tracks. There stood a man sent to prison four years ago for raping her three small children.

Wondering why Thomas Wolverton was free so soon, she went home and checked his status on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Web site. When she could not find his name on the state's list of registered sex offenders, she contacted the Hernando County Sheriff's Office this week wanting answers.

She is not alone.

On Thursday, Sheriff Richard Nugent said he was outraged to learn that a man convicted of sex offenses against children in the Shady Hills section of Pasco County had been living in Brooksville for more than a month without his office being notified.

"This is as bad as it gets," Nugent said. "It places all children at risk. This guy is a pervert. He can go anywhere he wants and not have to tell anyone his background. People need to know who he is and where he is."

Turns out that a judge's mistake four years ago, one that the prosecutor in the case did not catch, has allowed Wolverton to escape the tag of sex offender that would have required him to register with the Sheriff's Office when he moved here in May.

Wolverton was sentenced in March 2004 to six years in prison and nine years of probation for lewd and lascivious conduct on three children ages 4, 5 and 7 in 2002.

The victims' family agreed to the plea deal, Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis said Thursday. But no one noticed the judge's error.

Halkitis, who did not handle the original case, said a transcript of the hearing shows Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Daniel Diskey misspoke when he sentenced Wolverton.

As part of the deal, Wolverton was not to be declared a sexual predator. But the judge said Wolverton would not be declared a sex offender, either.

That was an error, Halkitis said, one that the prosecutor at the hearing should have caught.

"The agreement was he would not be labeled as a sexual predator,'' Halkitis said. "But we envisioned him as a sexual offender. Our lawyer never objected. I guess he missed it.

"I don't think Judge Diskey did anything out of order," Halkitis added. "It was kind of a slip-up. When the judge said we're not sentencing you as a sexual predator or a sex offender, the lawyer should have spoken up and said, 'Judge, we want him as a sex offender.' "

Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors will try to fix that mistake at a 9 a.m. emergency hearing today in front of Diskey, according to Halkitis. Four years later, the state will ask the judge to officially classify Wolverton as a sex offender.

Wolverton, now 23, was released from prison in April. He was on probation when he was arrested late Wednesday by Hernando County deputies at his residence at 16142 Sarasota St., Brooksville, for failing to register with Hernando authorities as a felon.

Wolverton was transferred from the Hernando County Jail to Pasco County jail on Thursday.

When told of today's hearing, Nugent said he would be happy once the matter is corrected.

"I'm glad that someone is trying to rectify this," Nugent said. "This guy doesn't need to be running around as he pleases."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Error lets rapist avoid sex offender label 06/19/08 [Last modified: Sunday, June 22, 2008 11:00pm]
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