Inconsistent sex-offender laws give pedophiles, predators a chance to slip under the radar

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COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (WOWT) -- Today marks the 76th day Michael Brandstrom has been locked inside the county jail in Council Bluffs. He won’t be getting out anytime soon after admitting last week to kidnapping a 4-year-old girl who was wandering around his apartment complex in September and taking nude photos of her with his phone.

Michael Brandstrom sits in jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa after he admitted to kidnapping and taking nude photos of a 4-year-old girl from his apartment complex on September 2, 2019.

"That poor girl will never get her innocence back, ever. It’s nauseating," one neighbor said to 6 On Your Side.

They said heard from 6 News reports that he was arrested years ago for a child sex crime in North Dakota.

“This is just mindblowing,” another said, wondering why Brandstrom wasn’t on the sex offender registry?

6 News asked Investigator Jon Hilz with the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s a pretty acceptable practice that if you have to register in one state, you’d have to register in another,” he said.

Hilz has spent the last four years making sure the county’s 250 registered sex offenders followed the rules regarding where they live and work and visit.

“You just want to prevent further offenses on folks by registered sex offenders,” he said.

Before the Iowa kidnapping, Hilz never had to check on Brandstrom — even though he had been convicted in another state of terrorizing a little girl — because Brandstrom wasn’t required to register in Iowa.

Or in North Dakota. Or anywhere.

The reason baffles investigators to this day.

On Aug. 30, 2011, Det. Conley with the Grand Forks Police Department brought Brandstrom into an interview room to get some answers.

The suspect was 20-years-old at the time.

“Tell me how you touched these kids so I can tell them it wasn’t their fault," Conley is heard saying on the recording.

Officers had received complaints that Brandstrom and his friends were inappropriately touching girls on the swing-set and monkey bars at a trailer court playground.

“I remember lifting them up onto the monkey bars, guiding them across in case they accidentally fall," the suspect is heard responding on the recording.

For more than an hour, Brandstrom wrestled with his answers and the apparent truth.

“You don’t want that child to keep wondering, 'Why me? Why me? Why me?' " the detective says.

Eventually, Brandstrom told Conley this about his 6-year-old victim: “I’m sorry for tickling the little girl’s vagina, and that I deeply regret it.”

In November 2012, Brandstrom pleaded guilty to terrorizing. The judge sentenced him to three years of supervised probation. She did not require him to register as an offender against children, even though terrorizing is one of the crimes that fit the requirements.

Two weeks later, Brandstrom was found with child pornography — numerous pictures of female minors depicting sexual conduct — on his computer in his bedroom.

His probation was revoked, and another judge eventually sent him to prison for three years. He also ordered Brandstrom to complete sex offender treatment while in prison — and yet, he still didn’t have to register as a sex offender.

Those in Iowa who became Brandstrom’s new neighbors don’t get it. If you’re supposed to take a sex offender class while locked up, logically speaking – shouldn’t you have to register as a sex offender, too?

Legal experts tell 6 News that judges in North Dakota are allowed to deviate from the registration requirement under certain circumstances.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said that's not the case here.

“I don’t think our judges have that type of discretion," he said. If someone is convicted of a certain crime, you’re forced to register as a sex offender."

But if states continue to operate with different sets of standards, how can the public know if they have dangerous neighbors?

While Brandstrom went from a North Dakota playground to the one in the middle of his Iowa apartment complex — and it’s eerily similar — there’s one big difference between sentences and the judge’s order: With his recent conviction for taking nude photos of a 4-year-old, Iowa law requires Brandstrom to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

The two North Dakota judges involved in this case are both retired now. One is a practicing attorney; 6 On Your Side emailed her twice for comment but did not hear back.