When Les and Amanda Anderson went to pick up their son from a county jail in St. Joseph, Michigan, it was the first time they had seen him in two and half months.
“I was thinking just coming up here it’s like he shouldn’t be here,” Les Anderson said. “This, you know, it shouldn’t be happening.”
Since his release last month, their son Zach Anderson’s freedom has been severely restricted because at just 19 years old, Zach is a convicted sex offender.
Zach was arrested last winter after having sex with a girl he met on the dating app “Hot or Not,” who claimed she was 17. But she admitted to police that was a lie. She was really 14.
If he had known she was so young, Zach said, he never would have met her.
“I wouldn't even have gone to her house, like I literally wouldn't have gone to her house at all,” he said.
As a convicted sex offender, the terms of Zach’s probation are incredibly strict. For the next five years, he is forbidden from owning a smart phone or using the Internet. He is not allowed to talk to anyone under age 17, other than immediate family. He is banned from going to any establishment that serves alcohol and he has to be home before 8 p.m. every night.
“They make me out to be a monster,” Zach said. “I can't even look at life regularly.”
His parents say his punishment is cruel and unusual, and they are waging a very public fight, even setting up a Facebook page, hoping to rally support for their son.
Zach graduated high school just last year. Like many teens, he turned to his smart phone to find a date one night. He says he was on the dating app “Hot or Not” for about a week when he started talking to the 14-year-old.
“[She] was actually the first person I had met up with or anything from that,” Zach said. “I had asked her when we were messaging. I said, ‘How old are you?’ And then she had told me 17… I just got out of high school. So it's two years difference. I didn't think that was a big deal or anything.”
The then-14-year-old girl falsely registered on the “adults” section of the dating app. Zach said after they connected, they flirted through text messages and arranged to meet in her hometown of Niles, Michigan, 20 miles across the state line from Zach’s home in Indiana.
“I had been with one other girl before that,” Zach said. “But she was 18, and I was 18, and I kind of just did it to get, you know, to do it, because I was 18.”
Zach picked the then-14-year-old girl up and they drove to a playground in Niles, where they had sex.
Unbeknownst to them, the girl’s mother had called police that night because she thought her daughter was missing. Two months later, detectives showed up at Zach’s job at a mechanic shop.
“I was in the middle of an oil change and my friend who was working there came into the back and was like, ‘There are two detectives here, Zach. They want to talk to you,'” Zach said. “And my hearts pounding like crazy so yeah I knew something was going down. I told my parents that night.”
Zach was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. After admitting that she had lied about her age, the now 15-year-old and her mother even testified on Zach’s behalf at his trial.
According to court documents, the girl’s mother told the judge, “I don’t want him to be a sex offender because he really is not.” Her daughter added, “I feel nothing should happen to Zach.”
But the judge condemned what he called a culture of “meet, hook-up, have sex, sayonara, totally inappropriate behavior,” according to court documents. Zach was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to register as a sex offender.
“The hardest part probably for me was to see him being led away, because he turned and looked at us, and it's like, we want to give him a hug, and you don't even have that opportunity,” said his father, Les Anderson.
Zach will be listed on the sex offender registry until 2040. His parents say the label is incredibly unfair.
“We don't see him that way,” Les Anderson said. “If our son's a sex offender, there's a lot of other people on that list like him which dilutes the list, and it almost makes it meaningless.”
Making matters worse, Michigan, where the crime occurred, is a state that does not provide an automatic defense if the victim lies about her age.
“We’re not talking about loosening the law, no one’s indicating that someone who preys on a young adult in a predatory manner shouldn’t be prosecuted, they absolutely should be,” said Zach's attorney Scott Grabel. “This is an instance in my opinion that you rarely get to say the defendant had no criminal intent, and I don’t think the defendant was even negligent in engaging in the encounter.”
Now on probation, Zach is trying to live his life as best he can within the restrictions of his probation. Since he is not allowed to use a computer, his budding career in computer science is now over.
“I could have had a really good career in that, and now I can't do that,” he said. “I can't really have an actual career. I'm going to be working a job, but not doing something I enjoy doing.”
Convicted sex offenders are forbidden from visiting any public park, which eliminated Zach's favorite activity: skateboarding. He also wasn’t allowed to live in his parents’ house because it was 800 feet of a public boat ramp, just shy of the 1,000-foot distance minimum.
“They're forcing him to leave jail, go to a house, and be by yourself, and be lonely basically,” Les Anderson said. “It wasn’t easy to find a place to live either. I mean because of all of the restrictions. You almost cannot live in the city here at all because you have to be so many feet from a school, a church.”
Zach’s parents were forced to dip into their savings for legal fees and to buy Zach a fixer-upper home on the other side of town that met the distance requirement.
Michigan state Sen. Rick Jones, who helped write the state’s sex offender registry law, says Zach should have been more careful.
“As you grow up, I mean young men are told you know in high school, 15 is jailbait,” Jones said. “Now that’s a slang term, but that’s what young men are told … I would hope that somebody who was 19 years old would say ‘Well do you have a driver's license or something? You don’t appear to be the appropriate age.’”
Next week, the Andersons will go back to court to appeal Zach’s sentence. The goal is for Zach to be removed from the sex offender registry. But they say their fight is bigger than their son alone.
“We hope that they stop putting people on the sex offender registry like they're passing out traffic tickets,” Amanda Anderson said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people that don't deserve to be on that list, and it's supposed to be a safeguard for the community. And instead, they're just publicly shaming these people and our son for life.”