‘You still have the chance’


Taylor Hughes takes a drag of a cigarette while discussing his past on the sex offender registry, on which he is no longer listed, on Saturday, March 26, 2022, in the kitchen of his home in Parkston.

Taylor Hughes takes a drag of a cigarette while discussing his past on the sex offender registry, on which he is no longer listed, on Saturday, March 26, 2022, in the kitchen of his home in Parkston.

Taylor Hughes was stuck in Mitchell because the roads to Plankinton were closed. A spring snowstorm had blown in and the convicted sex offender had no way to get back to his home.

It was 2018, and Hughes had three years left before he could petition to be removed from the sex offender registry. His mom had suggested he stay at her apartment for a day or two.

If it was longer than three days though, Hughes was risking his chance to start over, since sex offenders are required to register new living addresses within three days of moving, according to state law. And if they fail to do so, it’s a class six felony.

But what Hughes didn’t expect was the storm to last four days, leaving the former dishwasher at Blarney’s Sportsbar & Grill to stay with his mom while completing his weekend evening shifts.

“Someone called me in, saying I was living there,” he said. “Seeing that I didn’t register that address — I was only there for four days, because of the snowstorm over a weekend — they [the police] decided to charge me.”

That charge, failing to register, meant the difference between Hughes’s name staying on the sex registry list or being struck from it.

Argus Leader series: South Dakota has strict living requirements for sex offenders. Here’s what that means for Sioux Falls.

In an Argus Leader series exploring how South Dakota handles sex crimes, victims and offenders, Hughes is one of thousands of sex offenders living their lives tied to the sex offender registry. That means they’re required to register addresses every time they move, as well as their jobs. They cannot live within 500 feet of schools, pools and public parks, known as community safety zones. Even if they don’t move often, offenders are still required to register twice a year.

The 31-year-old was convicted of fourth-degree rape in 2010, serving six months in jail, and subsequently required to register as a sex offender. Though he spent the next 10 years trying to move on, his life was dictated by an opaque system of trying to live life on the right side of the law.

And community safety zones, those areas meant to protect potential victims, made the life Hughes was trying to build with his family much more difficult.

“You’re just pushing all the criminals into a smaller spot, or if a spot at all.” Hughes said. “How is that helping me? If this jail time and sex offender therapy was supposed to help me, how am I supposed to be helped if I don’t have a place to live? Because you as a state, put up all these community safe zones, so there’s nowhere to live. Now you’re just sending me out to come back in.”

‘You still have a chance to make something of your life’

Hughes says he is no longer the 18-year-old man he was the day he was hiding in a closet before he was arrested.

When thinking about the second chance that being removed from the registry would give him, Hughes also considers all the other second chances he’s had since he was released: from jobs, to completing sex offender treatment and more.

“Everyone deserves a chance. But a second chance, you also have to make worth it,” Hughes said.

Taylor Hughes feeds the plants and animals in his salt water tank on Saturday, March 26, 2022, in his home in Parkston. Hughes takes great pride in both his garden, which he grows indoors during winter weather, and his fish.

Taylor Hughes feeds the plants and animals in his salt water tank on Saturday, March 26, 2022, in his home in Parkston. Hughes takes great pride in both his garden, which he grows indoors during winter weather, and his fish.

Just weeks after turning 18 in 2009, Hughes was on summer break ahead of his senior year at Mitchell High School. He went to Sioux Falls to meet the girl he’d been hanging out with since a friend introduced them.

The two were at her house watching a movie. That afternoon, the two had sex, according to court documents.

In police reports, the victim indicated she didn’t want to have sex with Hughes and “never said ‘no’,” even though she said she tried to push Hughes off of her.

It wasn’t until the victim’s mother came home and caught the two that Hughes said he found out the victim was 14, not 16 like she told him.

The victim involved in Hughes’ case did not wish to comment on the case when the Argus Leader reached out. The Argus Leader does not typically name the survivors of sexual assault, because of the potential for ongoing safety concerns and out of respect.

“I regret not knowing she was actually 14,” Hughes said.

The girl’s mother called police immediately, and Hughes admitted to what happened, according to court documents. He was charged with statutory rape.

“This is one of those things where they’re all, ‘It was legal one day, illegal the next day,’” Hughes explained, saying that if he’d not turned 18 four weeks before, he might have never been charged.

Hughes pleaded guilty in December 2009, according to court documents. He was allowed to finish his senior year of high school, and on June 22, 2010, nearly a year from when he was arrested, Hughes was sentenced to six months at the Minnehaha County Jail. He would have to register as a sex offender as soon as he was released.

“You can thank your lucky stars, Mr. Hughes, that you are 18 and that you come to this court with no other criminal record,” Judge Peter Lieberman said during sentencing. “You still have the chance to make something of your life.”

Six months later, Hughes left jail, his jeans pinned at the waist because of the weight he’d lost, his T-shirt barely protecting him from brutal December winter weather.

He had one goal on his mind: Make it 10 years – the time needed to be allowed off the registry – without anything on his record, from DUIs to infractions as serious as failing to register, so that he might be able to get off the sex offender registry.

No strikes allowed.

The legal side of statutory rape in South Dakota

The definition of statutory rape in South Dakota, commonly referred to as “Romeo and Juliet” cases because of the age difference, is “committing an act of sexual penetration with a person 13-16 while being at least three years older than the victim.”

According to South Dakota law, fourth-degree rape can come with a punishment of up to 15 years in prison and a fine up to $30,000. In Hughes’s case, the state wanted him to have the max penalty of 15 years, while his public defender Ryan Kolbeck argued Hughes be given up to 90 days in jail.

Prosecutors say statutory rape cases tend to be the easiest to prosecute.

“It’s literally strict liability,” said Lori Ehlers, a senior trial attorney focusing on crimes against persons in the Minnehaha State’s Attorney office. “They’re under a certain age. It doesn’t matter if you claim you didn’t know it. Doesn’t matter if they were willing. They’re under 16 and they cannot consent.”

After an offender pleads guilty to fourth-degree rape, they’re registered as one of three tiers. Only tier 1 offenders are allowed to petition to be removed from the sex offender registry at least five years after they finished their sentence, according to South Dakota law. Previously it was 10 years before being changed by the legislature. Tier II offenders, those convicted of incest, have a chance to be removed after 25 years.

More: Here’s how South Dakota law defines sex crimes and categorizes offenders

Those classified as tier III offenders, those who have raped children and distributed child porn, are on the registry for life, without a chance of removal.

“In all reality, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to the sex offender registry list,” Hughes said.

He said there needs to be better definitions when it comes to the classification of the crime and where it lands a person on that tiered list

“I think the state could probably do a lot better job helping those out who need help, because they’re not willing to tell you the laws,” he said.

It’s not easy to be removed from the registry, because of South Dakota’s “no-strike” requirements, Kolbeck said, who has his own private practice, frequently helping sex offenders petition to be removed from the registry.

Kolbeck normally gives his clients a packet to fill out if they want to petition to get off the registry, filled with questions about the person’s criminal history and going through the various subcategories.

“There’s a lot of little things,” he said. “Frankly, I just knock out every single one of those.”

Kolbeck said his office typically turns away two-thirds of all potential applicants, “because of the tough requirements.”

Petitioners must show they do not pose a risk to the community.

Kolbeck used the example that if an offender comes to him with a careless driving ticket, it’s possible the AG’s office could deny that offender’s petition.

“They’ll [the Attorney General’s office] just notice whatever it is to object, because they’ll never be on the side of, ‘We want to agree, this person comes off the registry,’” he said. “That’s never gonna happen.”

The clock is ticking

When Hughes was released from jail, he had several things he needed to figure out before he could settle into life back on the outside:

  1. Report to his parole officer;

  2. Start sex offender treatment;

  3. Register as a sex offender in Mitchell where he lived with his dad and two brothers.

“I grew up pretty fast,” Hughes said. “The biggest thing for me was getting off (the registry), and that required me to always be attentive of when I needed to register, when I needed to see my probation officer. So I kind of made mental notes of all those times and they stuck inside my head.”

Hughes memorized the map of Mitchell, drawing it out in the air.

Where were the schools? The middle school on Eighth Avenue, the high school on Capital Street, Gertie Bell Rogers Elementary School right in the middle of town.

Where were the parks? Within blocks of the schools.

Each one he marked off and then drew an x in the air of where he might be able to find housing.

Hughes searched for a job for a few months while attending sex offender treatment and living with his dad. The group therapy wasn’t free, so his probation officer paid the first three months until Hughes started working at South Dakota Industries as a welder.

He was laid off sometime later and then got a job with McDonalds, where he worked flipping burgers for four months before getting a job with POET in their ethanol production.

“I ended up working there for two-and-a-half years. So then that was some decent money coming in and finally, [I was able to] kind of get back on track,” he said.

Each time he applied for a job, Hughes had to tell his employer he was a registered sex offender. While he accepted responsibility for what happened, he still worried he wouldn’t get the job because of his sex offender status.

“They’re going to see that and automatically say ‘no,'” Hughes said. “Of course, I’m going to be a little skeptical of telling them.”

Finding housing can be biggest challenge for registered sex offenders

While Hughes could find employment, that didn’t mean he didn’t face “roadblocks.” Those hurdles, if not overcome, are one of the main reasons sex offenders reoffend, experts say.

“It can be really challenging for somebody who’s committed a sexual offense to re-enter back into the community,” Cynthia Calkins, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who specializes in sex offender policy. “Nobody wants a sex offender living next to them. Some are prohibited from using the internet, which that’s really a challenge if you’re trying to get a job or basically do anything in today’s day and age.”

For Hughes, the residency restrictions were a major road block. Anytime he wanted to live somewhere new, he had to first go to the police department to make sure their sex offender officer approved of the new location. Then he was allowed to apply to rent the place. Hughes typically chose to live in either Mitchell or Parkston, close to his family as well as his girlfriend, Billie Schoon.

“I tried to help him out as best as I could,” Schoon, 32, said. “I even talked to my mom about seeing if she would take him in and kind of help him get on his feet a little bit. She did that a couple of times, which helped out. Took a little bit of the stress off.”

The two met in 2016 while bowling with mutual friends. Schoon told Hughes that she had two children from a previous relationship that night. When they hung out a few days later, Hughes told her that he was a registered sex offender.

“I’m the kind of person that thinks, ‘Well everyone does screw up in their own life and they try to make it better,'” she said. “He ended up screwing up, and I wasn’t going to hold that against him. He’s only human.”

They now have a 4-year-old daughter together.

Taylor Hughes discusses his past on the sex offender registry, on which he is no longer listed, on Saturday, March 26, 2022, in the kitchen of his home in Parkston.

Taylor Hughes discusses his past on the sex offender registry, on which he is no longer listed, on Saturday, March 26, 2022, in the kitchen of his home in Parkston.

He’d nearly gone to jail in 2019 when he was trying to find new housing in Mitchell. Hughes had two weeks to find housing, saying he couldn’t remember why he needed to be out so quickly.

He spent 13 days driving around town looking for rent signs and reading the newspapers for apartments. He was constantly calling the police to check if he could live at any of the locations.

“I was finally able to find that apartment and verify it with the police,” he said. “It was one of those last-minute things, where you only have so much time and if I don’t, I go to jail.

“That would have put my whole future on the line, and that was toward the end of my whole ordeal,” he said. “It would have been all that hard work for nothing.”

He said he kept the weight of it to himself, refusing to confide in Schoon. Hughes chose instead to smoke menthol cigarettes as a stress reliever. He also gardens and takes care of his fish in their 40-gallon saltwater tank.

Schoon watched on as Hughes would smoke three to four packs of cigarettes a day.

“He would actually lash out a little bit at me because of [the stress],” Schoon said. “I knew it was just stress. I do the same thing when I’m completely stressed out.”

Hughes knows he’s come close to not being able to successfully have his name struck from the registry. He was able to fight the charge for failing to register in March 2018 when the snowstorm left him stranded in Mitchell.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked, his other options limited.

If he’d stayed at a hotel, he would’ve still been required to notify the sex offender registry officer in Mitchell. Since he got off of work at 1 or 2 a.m., the police station wasn’t open, making it difficult for a shift worker.

“The police don’t give me a lot of options to get things done,” he said.

Then comes the petition

When 2021 rolled around, something pinged in the back of Hughes’s mind: He could finally begin to petition to get off the registry.

Kolbeck, the Sioux Falls defense attorney, had originally represented Hughes when he was with the public defender’s office. Hughes gave him a call, asking if he would help.

Hughes and Schoon would make the hour-and-a-half drive to Sioux Falls multiple times to meet with Kolbeck. They also made trips to see Hughes’s former employers to ask if they would write character statements for him.

The gas was expensive, Schoon said, but she was willing to help.

“I knew he was passionate about getting off the list and trying to make a better life for our daughter,” she said.

Taylor Hughes feeds the plants and animals in his salt water tank on Saturday, March 26, 2022, in his home in Parkston. Hughes takes great pride in both his garden, which he grows indoors during winter weather, and his fish.

Taylor Hughes feeds the plants and animals in his salt water tank on Saturday, March 26, 2022, in his home in Parkston. Hughes takes great pride in both his garden, which he grows indoors during winter weather, and his fish.

But Hughes had had some run-ins with law enforcement over the years, most in the form of traffic citations. Between 2011 and 2020, Hughes pled guilty to nine traffic tickets. He was fined once for letting his dogs run.

In the state’s response to Hughes’s petition, they wrote, “Hughes has failed to show by clear and convincing evidence that he has substantially complied in good faith with the registration requirements. He also fails to show that he does not possess any risk or danger to the community, and that he is not a recidivist sex offender, thus the State would oppose his removal from the registry.”

On Oct. 18, Hughes and Kolbeck appeared in a Hutchinson County court room. Judge Douglas Hoffman ordered Hughes’s name be struck from the sex offender registry.

“I was just happy I got to go back and walk out of there,” he said. “It took me so long to get here, but at the same time, all that hard work paid off.”

Hughes came home, opened a celebratory beer and tended to his fish and plants while he waited for his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter to come home.

“He just seemed like a kid in a candy store because he was happy,” Schoon said. “He could actually do things he wanted to.”

Life after the registry: ‘You feel normal again’

Now, Hughes doesn’t have to worry about where he can live. He doesn’t worry about being around young children and what people might say. He doesn’t have to think about asking permission to attend his daughter’s school functions.

“You feel normal again,” Hughes said, sighing. “Being actually able to be active in watching my kid. It’s a relief.”

In his personal plea, entered as part of the petition, Hughes wrote about his 4-year-old daughter.

“Everything I do, I do for her,” he stated. “I want to be the best father I can possibly be. I want to give her a childhood that is full of love and adventure. I want to make her proud.”

Hughes has a new job making motorcycle parts. He has the time to start remodeling the house where his family lives and can think about flipping it in the future.

All in all, Hughes looks at his story and thinks that it could inspire other tier I offenders, who have the opportunity to be removed from the registry.

“If I don’t speak up who’s gonna? There’s got to be someone who speaks up and actually goes out and says, ‘Hey, this is what happens. This is how the system works,’” Hughes said. “You can get by, you can get past it. Just keep at it and work hard.”

Follow Annie Todd on Twitter @AnnieTodd96. Reach out to her with tips, questions and other community news at atodd@argusleader.com or give her a call at 605-215-3757.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: South Dakota man off sex offender list 10 years after statutory rape

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