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Odessa company's GPS system tracks offenders, but can't change deeds

ODESSA — Black towers buzz inside a fire-resistant concrete room.

Red dots blink on a monitor that shows a satellite image of the United States.

Each blink represents a criminal offender on a court-ordered Global Positioning System monitoring device who, at that very moment, is doing something wrong.

This is Pro Tech Monitoring, an Odessa company under contract with Florida to keep track of 2,457 offenders the courts consider a threat when not locked up. Seventy-five percent are sex offenders, including the Tampa man under Pro Tech's watch who is accused of leaving home Jan. 1 and assaulting a woman before his probation officer was alerted.

Satellite tracking seemed a novelty when Bob Martinez, Florida's governor from 1987 to 1991, helped found the company in 1996 at its first Palm Harbor headquarters. His brother Alan, also a founder, called it "the orbiting warden."

Today, Pro Tech employs 135 people, runs data centers in Odessa and Jacksonville, gets paid $7.2 million a year by the Florida Department of Corrections and monitors offenders in 42 other states and six countries.

Martinez left Pro Tech in 1999, two years after the company scored its first Florida contract. His brother bowed out, too.

Current president Steve Chapin, who joined in 2001, said he understands the weight of his company's responsibility to keep an electronic eye on offenders.

"You always hope that it doesn't end badly the way this one did," he said.

By "this one," Chapin means the New Year's Day incident involving a twice-convicted sex offender. According to police, Tommy Lee Sailor, 37, broke the terms of his probation, went to a Port Tampa bar, brought a woman home and attacked her.

Sailor's ankle monitor signaled to the Pro Tech data center that he'd left home. But the company's automated efforts to reach Sailor's on-call probation officer went unanswered until four hours later.

In its initial review, the Department of Corrections blamed delayed text message transmission by cell phone company Verizon Wireless. Pro Tech says its records show the messages were delivered to Verizon's server within 16 seconds.

Verizon Wireless spokesman Chuck Hamby said the company would investigate the matter at the state's request. The Corrections Department, meanwhile, is conducting its own investigation.

Chapin said cases like Sailor's illustrate the exception rather than the rule.

"Electronics are not absolutely perfect," Chapin said. "They're very, very, very good."

Twenty-eight staff engineers help. So do 28 backup servers and multiple power supply options. Wires enter the building on three sides to prevent any backhoe-related interruptions.

Today's ankle bracelet transmitter weighs a slight 2.5 ounces. Pro Tech gets notified when the battery dies, the strap is cut or the entire thing snaps off.

The bracelet uses wireless technology to communicate with a portable box called the SMART Active tracking unit, the instrument's brain, which uses GPS signals to locate and report an offender's every move.

The box, once a clunky 4 pounds, now weighs 15 ounces.

The lighter version includes an LCD screen that enables Pro Tech or the probation officer to send text messages directly to offenders, ordering them to return home or call the Corrections Department.

When an offender leaves home — to go to work, for instance — the box goes, too. Pro Tech is alerted if the offender nears a hot spot, like a school zone, a church or a victim's residence.

Pro Tech applies the same concept to a product sold in Spain that creates an electronic hot zone around domestic violence victims. By carrying around a cell phone-sized instrument wherever she goes, the victim can receive alerts when her attacker nears.

In the 13 years since Florida adopted GPS technology to follow offenders, the results have occasionally drawn criticism.

It didn't go without notice, for example, that Florida serial rapist Jerry Lee Williams Jr., now serving a life sentence for murder, was wearing an ankle monitor when he attacked at least two of his victims, killing one.

When asked about such stories — and what happened in Tampa on New Year's Day — Chapin points out that his company promises monitoring, not crime prevention.

Technology can do only so much. "It doesn't mean that the system failed," he said. "It means that the bad guys are being bad guys."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Odessa company's GPS system tracks offenders, but can't change deeds 01/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 11:39pm]

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