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Waites in charge of keeping county’s 112 sex offenders in check

Aaron Lamont Lee took a trip to Louisiana, and that cost him his freedom. 

The 48-year-old convicted rapist went there without permission, and now, he’s back behind bars in the Jones County Adult Detention Center, possibly facing a federal prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Lee is the latest convicted sex offender to be locked up by Investigator Wesley Waites of the Jones County Sheriff’s Department for violating the conditions of the registry that they are required to comply with. It’s the price the felons pay for being free.

“They know I don’t play,” Waites said. “If they get out of line, I’ll drop the hammer on them.”

Sex offenders are required to register in the county they reside in every 90 days. Lee, who was convicted of rape in Louisiana in 1994, had failed to do so since last December, so Waites was questioning family members and acquaintances in an effort to find him. 

“I heard he was in Louisiana … and I believe someone got word to him that I was looking for him and the U.S. Marshals were looking for him, because he showed back up in Laurel,” Waites said.

Laurel police arrested Lee last week. When he made his initial appearance in Jones County Justice Court for failure to register as a sex offender, Waites testified that he believed Lee was a danger to the community and a flight risk. Because of that, Judge Grant Hedgepeth set Lee’s bond at $30,000. The felony carries a penalty of up to five years if convicted in the county, but since he crossed state lines, Waites is sending the file to feds. If convicted in U.S. District Court, Lee could face up to 10 years in federal prison.

That tenaciousness has helped Waites keep a tight rein on registered sex offenders in Jones County since taking over that responsibility in January 2020. At that time, there were 21 absconders — offenders who had failed to register, as required by law — on the Jones County registry. As of last Thursday, there were only four non-compliant offenders, and three of those are known to be out of state. A U.S. Marshal picked up files on two of them that morning.

“My arm ends at the county line, but they (U.S. Marshals) can go wherever they want, and they will find them,” Waites said. “When (offenders) cross state lines illegally, it’s a federal offense. The U.S. Marshals will convict them in federal court, and we won’t see them for a long time.”

Waites had 112 sex offenders to keep tabs on, in addition to a regular case load that includes burglaries, assaults and other felonies. He starts each day at 7 a.m. by logging on to a special state website to see if there have been any changes on the Jones County registry. Just last week, he was notified that one will be released from prison in early May.

“It’s daily maintenance,” said Waites, who also maintains the registry on the JCSD website. “We get rid of one, we add one. It’s a lot to keep up with.”

He doesn’t mind if his doggedness makes sex offenders feel unwelcome in Jones County. He doesn’t harass the offenders, but he does make it clear that they have to comply with all of their requirements, and he isn’t going to cut them any slack.

“I tell them to obey the stipulations, and we won’t have any problems,” Waites said.

In addition to registering every 90 days, offenders must let Waites know if they move, change phone numbers, get a new job, travel or “anything else out of the ordinary,” Waites said. They are also subject to random checks by law enforcement. As long as they stay compliant, he treats them with respect. 

“If they want to get on my bad side, let me call their cellphone and get a message ‘number no longer in service’ or go to their residence and someone tell me they’ve moved,” Waites said. “I have no mercy then. I will hunt them down and do my best to put them back in prison.”

That may sound harsh, but there’s good reason for that intensity, Waites said.

“I take this real seriously because I feel like I owe it to the good citizens of Jones County to keep my thumb on (sex offenders) to make them stay compliant,” he said. “They’re predators. If you look at the files on some of them, you’d see that some of their victims are 7, 8, 9 years old … I don’t want that to happen to someone else.”

Waites takes the burglaries and assaults he works seriously, too, but those victims usually have a chance to recover or replace property or to heal. Victims of sex crimes are “scarred for life,” he said, plus statistics have shown that the recidivism rate for perpetrators of perverse offenses is much higher than the rate for most other crimes.

“I don’t play around with them, and they know that,” Waites said. “As long as they’re compliant, I will try to help them, within the bounds of the law and what’s ethical. But if I get a report that they’re doing something wrong, I’m out the door to find them. I’ve had a lot of unpleasant conversations with them.”

Waites has had to make some offenders move from their residences because they were living too close to facilities that are frequented by children. The law requires sex offenders to live a minimum of 3,000 feet from anywhere such as a school, daycare, playground, ballpark or other establishment that’s used primarily by people under 18. Four of them moved to different counties.

“I gave them a reasonable amount of time to move, but not too much,” Waites said. 

The lone local absconder that Waites is looking for now is 30-year-old Shearea Denise Jefferson, who was captured in Hattiesburg last October after Waites placed her on the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database for being non-compliant. She had provided the address of a home that burned on Parker Drive, and then she failed to re-register after being released from jail. She was convicted of statutory rape in Hattiesburg in 2015.

“We’ll catch her again,” Waites said.

He also feels confident that the three who went out of state to avoid capture will be in handcuffs soon, too.

“The U.S. Marshals are a great asset,” he said. “We have ways of tracking people.”

The sex offender registry that is maintained by the state Department of Public Safety shows 130 sex offenders in Jones County, but several of those are deceased. The state won’t remove their names without an original death certificate being provided, Waites said. 

Even though his primary job is working other felonies, Waites said he appreciates the support of Sheriff Joe Berlin, Chief Deputy Mitch Sumrall and other colleagues when it comes to making sure the county’s sex offenders are in compliance.

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