When 13-year-old Alycia “Licy” Nipp was stabbed to death in 2009 by a registered sex offender near Vancouver, Washington, authorities had a treasure trove of evidence.
A global positioning system (GPS) tracking device on the ankle of Darrin Sanford pinpointed that he was at the murder scene at the time of the killing. It even showed that Sanford returned a few hours later to move her body. Authorities hailed the GPS technology for helping to crack the case.
That was five years ago.
But documents that were not made public in the months following the crime raise questions about whether that same GPS monitoring system was sending out clues that could have saved the young girl’s life – and whether that same valuable information is being missed in present day monitoring of 200 of the state’s highest risk ex-cons.
The case was examined by KREM 2's sister station KING 5 as part of a series of investigations into flaws and weaknesses in programs providing electronic monitoring of criminals in Washington State.
The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) attached the GPS tracking device to Sanford’s leg after the “High Violent,” “Dangerous Mentally Ill Offender” was jailed for 90 days in 2008 for visiting his sister’s apartment in Hazel Dell. Sanford’s young nephew and his friends were often present at his sister’s home, so Sanford was violating previous court orders requiring him to avoid contact with minors.
The records reviewed by KING 5 reveal that Sanford’s DOC parole officers did not appear to realize that GPS data showed Sanford continued to visit his sister’s apartment after his jail sentence.
One of the kids he met there during these visits was Licy Nipp: “Mr. Sanford became acquainted with and identified the victim, Alycia Nipp, through his nephew and visits to his sister’s home,” according to the March 19, 2009, “Incident Review Report” prepared by a DOC investigative team.
“I’ve always assumed it was kind of a random thing,” said Licy’s aunt, Amber Neff, when KING 5 showed her records revealing that her niece not only knew her killer but had also met with him at the one place he was specifically barred from visiting.
The records do not explain why Licy walked into the wooded area on February 21, 2009, where Sanford and other homeless people lived – did she take the path to specifically meet Sanford?
“Maybe he wore a mask that day and she had no idea the monster she was dealing with,” said Neff, who described her niece as a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky teen.
Records show that Sanford admitted that he tried to have sex with Licy. He said he beat and stabbed her to death after she giggled at him.
It appears that only after the murder did Sanford’s parole officers determine that GPS data showed he “…had been visiting his sister’s apartment over the last few days including (the weekend of the killing).”
That leaves Amber Neff to wonder if her niece would be alive today if Sanford had been caught and punished.
“It makes me very angry that if it didn’t have to happen, that it happened,” Neff said.
DOC Assistant Secretary Anmarie Aylward said she cannot speculate on whether clues in the 5-year-old case were missed. But she said the most troubling aspect is that an offender chose to commit a crime knowing that GPS would help catch him.
“I really focus on the fact that with all the tools that we had in place, this person made the decision to do a heinous act,” said Aylward.
Aylward said that GPS technology is not a “preventive” tool. DOC uses it in a passive system, in which alerts sent to community corrections officers are reviewed the next day or on Monday if the alert is generated over the weekend. Aylward said responding to alerts 24 hours a day is far too costly for DOC’s budget.
“It’s not an active system. It’s not going to be as responsive as what people would see in the movies or television or somebody in an active system,” said Aylward. She said most offenders on GPS monitoring are more inclined to follow the rules because they know they’ll get caught if they don’t. And she said DOC has improved its GPS program since Licy’s death.
But the people who actually have the job of responding to GPS violations don’t agree.
“It can be quite time consuming to boil down all this information and then react to it,” said DOC Community Corrections Specialist Alice Rogers.
Rogers, and Community Corrections Specialist Bill Copeland, are leaders in the Washington Federation of State Employees – the union representing community corrections officers.
“It’s the responsibility of the community corrections officer to follow up on those alerts regardless of how minor they may be,” said Copeland.
Since a single GPS unit can send out hundreds of alerts in a month – often triggered by things like satellite signal problems or low batteries – parole officers complain that they can be overwhelmed by the stream of data.
That was the same problem identified in the 2009 Critical Incident Review Corrective Action Plan that followed Licy’s death.
Community corrections officers say they aren’t able to use the technology to its fullest advantage as they monitor approximately 200 of the State’s highest risk ex-cons – most of whom are sex offenders like Sanford.
“It’s not a situation where we really have the manpower to really go after some of the information like we could,” said Rogers.
And that means parole officers could be missing valuable leads.
After KING 5’s series of Home Free reports about offenders committing crimes or being ineffectively monitored while on home detention, the state House of Representatives’ Public Safety Committee has called a work session to study the issue later this month and discuss possible changes to upgrade state law.