DA puts sex offenders on notice

District Attorney Bob wortham, ADA Tatiana Zelezniak and ADA Kim Pipkin

Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wortham has a message for unregistered sex offenders looking for a place to hide: Stay away from Southeast Texas.

“I really think sexual predators should find somewhere else to go,” Wortham said, adding that unregistered sex offenders in Jefferson County would be prosecuted for failing to register and for failing to change their address within seven days of moving. They face third-degree felony charges and punishment ranging from two to 10 years behind bars.

“This is not a good community for a sexual predator to move to,” Wortham continued. “If you think you are going to move here after getting convicted in another county and think you’re going to get lost in the shuffle, that’s not going to happen. We go out and we prosecute these cases. And we do not offer probation. Those are not probation cases.”

Wortham said the holidays are the perfect time to get this message out there to sex offenders who may be coming to town for Thanksgiving or Christmas and to warn parents of the potential not-a-stranger danger. According to Wortham, statistics show the majority of sexual predators who target children are actually known to the child, and are many times a family member.

“The holiday season is upon us,” said Wortham. “That can be a joyous event, but it can also be a terrible event. Over 90 percent of pedophiles are people known by the family. It’s stepfathers. It’s uncles. It’s coaches. It’s neighbors. It’s relatives. And during the holiday season, everybody’s together. So I want to just put the public on notice: Be careful. Just be watchful of what happens. And don’t feel sorry for the person who does this most horrible deed to the most valuable resource in our community, our children.”

“Of the 150 cases I’ve prosecuted, only one was a stranger,” said ADA Kim Pipkin, who works exclusively on child sexual assault cases.

Assistant District Attorney Tatiana Zelezniak, who has worked with the office in multiple departments and is joining Pipkin’s team in January, concurred and suggested that parents not encourage children to do things that make them uncomfortable, such as give Aunt Sadie a big kiss or go sit on Uncle Joe’s lap. While those acts are generally considered innocuous, they can put children in awkward and potentially hazardous situations.

Zelezniak also warned that sexual predators who target children often spend time “grooming” a child for abuse. They may use gifting, a technique in which they give children presents or money to gain trust. Or they may share a secret with the child that makes the child feel special, as though it is something shared only between the predator and child.

“We’ve all heard of good touch and bad touch, but parents should also warn children about ‘secret touch,’” said Zeleniak, who recommended that parents tell children there should never be a “secret touch” and children should always report it to them if there is.

Pipkin said Zelezniak will be a welcome addition and has been involved with several cases while assigned to Drug Court, effectively doing two jobs on some days. And Pipkin herself has been running between two courts, Judge John Stevens’ Criminal District Court and Judge Raquel West’s 252nd Court. Wortham is bringing another ADA into the office in January when Zelezniak makes the move to child sexual assault prosecutions, which should expedite scheduling trials for sex offenders.

“August is when I started to get Tatiana involved, I think,” Pipkin recalled. “She started coming to the Garth House with me. She started helping me on intake in the cases.”

With that experience, she is already seeing the impacts of sexual abuse on children and says she is “looking forward to” seeing to it that offenders are brought to justice.

To family members and others who know about sexual abuse and are not reporting it to police, Wortham says they should speak up because, according to him, these predators will never stop targeting the youngest and most defenseless in the community.

“If you don’t report it, they’re going to go do it to someone else,” Wortham warned. “They can’t help themselves. … So please report it.”

Sharon Brooks can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 241, or by e-mail at sharon [at] theexaminer [dot] com.