Hot Topic: Nursing Homes for Sex Offenders & Violent Offenders

Norfolk case highlights aging sex offenders debate

3-30-2014 Virginia:

Willie Jefferson Combo Jr. arrived at Norfolk Circuit Court on a cold December morning, guilty and worried.

On his mind was a pink slip buried in his mailbox for days - maybe weeks. The small piece of paper was a receipt for a registered letter from the state. His freedom depended on it.

Combo, 68, is a convicted violent sex offender. The letter represented his remaining debt to Virginia. Every month, he is required to return it to the Virginia State Police with his fingerprints and signature.

For the past 14 years, his lawyer estimated, he met that responsibility 166 of 168 times. His failure to be perfect has earned him one thing - prison.

In 1966, Combo was convicted in Chesapeake of attempted rape and assault of a woman. The 21-year-old was sentenced to life, served more than three decades and won parole in 1999. Except for twice failing to register with the state, he has no criminal record since his release.

His case highlights what some say is a shortcoming in Virginia's approach to aging offenders. Critics say state law captures Combo and others in a life of dependency, costing public money and resources to follow men who usually pose little threat to the community.

The General Assembly continues to support the state's approach. The proposed two-year state budget calls for an increase of nearly $1 million to supervise a growing number of sex offenders.

Inside the Norfolk courtroom, Combo stood and listened as his lawyer offered a guilty plea. After the hearing, he talked again about the mailbox and the pink slip.

Combo can't remember his own phone number and often loses his glasses and keys. Nearly four decades in prison has worn hard his body and mind.

But he remembered finding the pink slip, and cursing himself.


The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates there are more than 750,000 sex offenders on registries in the country. Though the number and names change regularly, Virginia's list has almost doubled since 2005, growing to more than 20,000. About 2,400 registered offenders live in South Hampton Roads.

Virginia created its fingerprint registry in the 1990s. In 2006, the state police created the sex offender investigative unit.

State police spokeswoman Corrine Geller said the department can't search the online registry by age, offense or other identifying features, so it could not fulfill a Pilot Freedom of Information Act request. The information was not relevant to the department, she said.

Virginia spends millions of dollars each year tracking sex offenders. The responsibility falls mainly on the state police and the Department of Corrections. A Department of Corrections spokesman said the agency does not specifically budget for the task, but it has officers focused on sex offender cases in each of its 43 probation and parole offices.

Lawmakers gave state police $11.6 million in the last two fiscal years to pay for personnel in the sex offender investigative unit, which includes about 90 sworn officers and civilian employees. The unit keeps an eye on offenders' addresses and employment.

In 1966, Combo was a 20-year-old high school dropout with a criminal record of petty offenses.

The third of 10 children, he grew up in the Campostella neighborhood of Norfolk, near the Chesapeake city line. Newspaper stories from that time show a young man who collected criminal charges: break-ins in Chesapeake and Norfolk, a car theft and escape from the city prison farm.

On May 22, the wife of a Coast Guardsman and her 7-year-old daughter were picking flowers in the woods near their home on Petre Road. The 28-year-old woman told police she spotted a man walking along the railroad tracks, and later behind a tree.

She said she sensed danger and sent her daughter running for help. The man ran up to her, began hitting her with a tree limb, tore her clothes and tried to rape her, she told authorities. Without warning, he stopped the attack and fled.

The woman, described as white in the newspaper accounts, identified the suspect as a black man between 25 and 30 years old, about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighing about 175 pounds and wearing a light-colored shirt and dark pants.

Police arrested Combo, a fugitive from the Norfolk Prison Farm at St. Brides, and charged him with felonious assault and attempted rape.

Combo and his family tell a different version of what happened. It was Sunday morning, Combo said, and he had been drinking. He and the woman were walking in separate directions along the railroad tracks near Berkley. They bumped.

"She called me the N-word. I just jumped on her.... I beat her," Combo said. "I didn't try to rape her."

The woman testified that she was several months pregnant and suffered cuts and bruises from the attack. She spent several days in a hospital, according to news reports. As an alleged victim of a sexual assault, she was not identified in newspaper stories. Many of the court records have been destroyed, and the existing ones do not name her.

Combo never testified at the trial. It took less than an hour for the judge to convict him on both counts.

In October 1966, a Chesapeake judge sentenced Combo to life in prison for the attempted rape, and an additional 10 years for malicious wounding. Combo would become eligible for parole after 15 years.


Combo said he tried to steer away from trouble during his decades in prison, though not always successfully. He saw regular assaults and a murder during his incarceration.

"Hell is right here on Earth," he said.

In 1999, he was granted parole. It was his 16th try. He had served 33 years.

Virginia distinguishes between sex offenders and violent sex offenders. Violent offenders, including those convicted of rape and attempted rape, remain on the registry for life.

A comprehensive federal report published in 2003 found that 5 percent of offenders were rearrested for sex crimes within three years of their release from prison. A report three years later by the Virginia State Crime Commission asserted that recidivism for sexual offenders is higher than reflected in crime statistics. A state study estimated that as many as 1 in 4 offenders released from Virginia prisons were arrested for other sex crimes or crimes against another person.

For state troopers, tracking hundreds of ex-convicts at home and work is a demanding job, state police spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Anaya said. She oversaw offenders in Hampton, Newport News and other Peninsula communities for two years.

If an offender loses his job or moves, he has to register again, Anaya said. Almost all of the offenders are men.

Anaya said troopers stress that registration is the offender's most important responsibility.

"Once they're convicted," she said, "it's part of the rest of their life."

Anaya said the troopers get strong support and tips from the community, particularly from mothers concerned about the safety of their children.

The Norfolk Public Defender Office typically represents several defendants in failure-to-register cases each year, said Sherri Carr, who leads the office. Troopers often try to work with offenders, she said.

Carr, who represents Combo, estimated that between 10 and 25 percent of her clients are older and no longer a serious risk for committing new crimes.

Advocates of changing sex offender laws say the system is too rigid and can fail to accurately assess risks.

Brenda Jones, executive director of Reform Sex Offender Laws Inc., said Virginia, like most states, has no mechanism for removing certain offenders - particularly older ones - from the list.

"The risk goes down noticeably over time," Jones said. "People just age out of it."


After prison, Combo moved into a halfway house run by a Christian organization in Richmond. He started a job for the first time in his life, as a hospital housekeeper. He earned money, started dating and kept out of trouble.

Jackie Epps and her family got to know him then. They brought him to family parties, drove him to work and looked out for him. They never saw him as a threat.

Combo moved back to Norfolk in 2007 to be closer to his family. He said he told his probation officer about the move and thought he was cleared to relocate.

He was not. In April 2008, Combo was arrested for failing to register in Norfolk. He received another two years in prison.

Epps wrote a letter to the governor on Combo's behalf in December 2010. She questioned the fairness of a life sentence for a conviction of attempted rape. If the crime were committed today, it would merit a punishment of between two and 10 years.

"Combo doesn't seem to have a court-appointed attorney - or anyone else working on these issues on his behalf," Epps wrote. "I know the court systems are backed up with appeals, but I would appreciate any guidance on how to have a fair review of Mr. Combo's situation."

The parole board granted Combo's release on Feb. 17, 2011. He was 65. Older, sicker prisoners like Combo are often placed in a prison dedicated to elderly inmates. The service-intensive facility costs $31,700 per inmate annually, about two-thirds more than the cost for a younger prisoner.

After his release, Combo moved into an apartment in Norfolk's Campostella neighborhood. His work days were behind him. He lived each month on a $721 disability check and $124 in food stamps, he said. He paid $450 a month to share a two-bedroom apartment in one of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

He also went to churches for food and clothing. His youngest sister, Phillis, a few miles away, sometimes checked on him.

Combo had lived in the same apartment for several months when he missed re-registering for the month of July. He did not check in with the police or go to the post office to collect the letter.

"My mind just wanders," he said. "Maybe I'm just getting old-time."

State police arrested him in September, and he pleaded guilty a few months later.

In January, he returned to court before Judge Charles E. Poston for sentencing. State guidelines recommended a punishment of between seven and 17 months behind bars.

Carr, the public defender, argued that Combo had not moved and had kept a nearly perfect record for staying in touch with authorities.

"He forgot," Carr told the court.

Poston sentenced Combo to "time served," but he remains in jail. The state parole board is considering further punishment because Combo violated terms of his parole by failing to re-register.

In a final note in Combo's court record, Poston wrote: "Defendant has registered as required since 1999. He has missed 2 months in this period. He served 33 years for this charge. He is no danger to the public. Incarceration of this defendant is a waste of the taxpayers' money."

During a recent interview at the city jail, Combo wore a Norfolk City Jail jumper with gray and black stripes. The fabric hung and bunched past his arms and collected in wrinkles around his feet. His dentures are uncomfortable, so he doesn't wear them. He stays in his cell as much as he can.

He wants to get back to his Campostella apartment and his life.

At home, he has a small television. He watches sports and guesses along with the contestants on "The Price is Right."

He blames no one but himself. "I just keep forgetting things. Important things." ..Source.. by Louis Hansen

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