Watch CBS News

WCBS 880: Rapist Near Bronx School Reveals Lapse in Sex Offender Enforcement

By Alex Silverman
WCBS 880 Reporter

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- When a convicted child rapist was released from prison in July, the agency charged with keeping track of his whereabouts admittedly had no idea that, in clear violation of the law, his new home in the Bronx was just a block from a special needs elementary school.

In the weeks since, an inquiry by WCBS 880 has revealed signs of a lapse in coordination and communication in implementation of the state law that distances children from sexual predators.

Mark Mercado's address on Williamsbridge Road, "up until today, was considered to be SARA-compliant," a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision told WCBS 880 just hours after a story revealing his location aired on Aug. 21. SARA is the state's Sexual Assault Reform Act, which bars the most dangerous sex offenders from living within a thousand feet of a school.

WCBS 880: Rapist Near Bronx School Reveals Lapse in Sex Offender Enforcement

A simple Internet search revealed that the Biondi Elementary School, a private school serving students with social, emotional, and academic difficulties, was well within that radius.

Mercado, who was convicted in the 2009 rape of a 14-year-old girl, would be relocated "without further investigation or delay," vowed the DOCCS spokeswoman. Action was indeed swift. The next morning the department confirmed Mercado had been removed, and as of Sept. 1 the public registry listed him at an address on Staten Island.

An explanation for the error did not materialize as quickly. After repeated inquiries over ten days, WCBS 880 received this statement from Tom Mailey, the director of public information at the corrections department: "As a private nutritional center, it is the responsibility of Leake and Watts, Inc. to communicate to [the New York State Education Department] their intention to operate Biondi Elementary as a school. As a result, this school was not included in the comprehensive registry that ensures no registered sex offender lives in a protected zone."

Leake and Watts, the Yonkers-based organization that operates the school, strongly refutes that.

"The school is properly registered with the state education department, and we have been in regular touch with that agency for years," said Meredith Barber, a spokeswoman. "DOCCS should have done its due diligence with the state education department and other agencies to ensure the safety of the children in our care." Company officials said the school has been operating at the Williamsbridge Road facility since 2003.

Joanne Beattie, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said the address "was registered as a child nutrition feeding site." However, at the time of the inquiry the school was listed publicly on the department's own registry of special education programs.

"It's readily available information," said Laura Ahearn, executive director of the advocacy organization Parents for Megan's Law. "It just sounds to me that somewhere in the process someone just didn't do that simple Google search."

"We are deeply concerned that the Department of Corrections allowed a registered sex offender to be permitted to move so close to our elementary school," said Barber, the school spokeswoman.

The education department "has already begun working with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision staff to ensure that in the future, they have all the information they need to protect students from sexual predators," Beattie said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office did not respond to a request for a comment.

State Sen. Jeff Klein (D-The Bronx), who represents the area in question, has introduced legislation that would require the corrections and education departments to reconcile their lists of schools once a year. It is not clear how often that is currently done.

"We need to make sure this doesn't happen again," Sen. Klein told WCBS 880 in August. "They should at least know the schools are there to protect our kids."

Earlier this year, New York's highest court struck down local laws restricting where sex offenders can live.

"Here we have a state law that's intended to be the last resort for the community to protect themselves from these individuals, and there was a failure in the process," said Ahearn. "It's not only disappointing but it's really frightening."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.