Zach Anderson, the young man from Elkhart, Indiana, whose harsh punishment for consensual sex with an underage teenager he wrongly believed was 17 made headlines around the country in 2015, has been arrested for violating his probation.
What, exactly, did he do? He stopped by for dinner at his parents' home. His younger brother was present, and incidentally, so was the brother's friend. The brother thought this friend was 19 years old, but he turned out to be just 17. Anderson, unfortunately, is not allowed to have contact with anybody under the age of 18, except his own siblings.
There was one other thing. Anderson works on the tech team at his local church. Recently, a 17-year-old girl joined the church staff as an intern. While Anderson has never met or spoken with her, the fact that they volunteer on separate teams at the church is a violation of his probation, according to officials who issued a warrant for his arrest last week.
For these charges, Anderson, now 22 years old, is heading back to court in Michigan next week. (Anderson lives in Indiana, but the "crime" was over the border, in Michigan.) Possible outcomes range from dismissing the charges to extending probation, putting Anderson on the sex offender registry, sending him to prison, or any combination thereof.
There is no credible reason to believe Anderson is a danger to anyone, let alone a young woman he has never even met or interacted with—which is why the 17-year-old submitted a letter affirming that Anderson has never approached her, and that she doesn't even know what he looks like. The church director offered a letter of support as well, noting that Anderson has constantly gone out of his way to avoid violating the terms of his probation, even though the terms are pointless. Anderson is so faithful to them, in fact, that he willingly confessed to the pizza incident during a mandatory polygraph examination.
It's worth recalling the absurdity of the original crime that landed Anderson in this situation. More than two years ago, when Anderson was 19 years old, he was sentenced to 25 years on the sex offender registry for hooking up with a girl he met online. The girl said she was 17 but turned out to be only 14.
You may recall that both the girl and her mother begged the judge to throw the case out, since there was no way Anderson could have known the girl's real age. Unmoved, Berrien County District Court Judge Dennis Wiley told Anderson: "You went online, to use a fisherman's expression, trolling for women to meet and have sex with. That seems to be part of our culture now: meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever."
The case made it to the front page of The New York Times and Anderson was granted new sentencing. At that point he was deemed eligible for a youth leniency program and given a sentence of two years' probation, which was finally coming to an end next week.
Instead, reports the South Bend Tribune:
After two years of following a laundry list of restrictions from both states and within days of expecting to be released from probation, Anderson was served an arrest warrant Wednesday night, arraigned Thursday, posted a $500 bond, and is due back in the Niles courtroom this Wednesday.
Zach Anderson's parents, Les and Amanda, and his Lansing attorney, Scott Grabel, call the new pursuit of Zach's violations "a witch hunt" by a Michigan probation department that still feels the embarrassment of national criticism that surrounded it in 2015.
A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, which runs the state's probation operations, countered Friday that officials were required to notify the judge of the violations, and she ordered the warrant and court appearance.
Michigan found out about Zach's "violations" when he confessed them at one of the regular polygraph tests he is required to take, at $300 a pop. When asked if he'd had contact with anyone under 18, Zach dutifully reported the two slices of pizza he'd eaten at his parents' home with his brother's friend, even though they didn't speak to each other. And he confessed to having learned that a new intern, age 17, had joined the worship team at the Granger Community Church.
Here is the letter that Peter Tarwacki, a director of the church, wrote to the authorities:
We are aware of Zach's past at GCC, so we have taken every measure to make sure that he is following his court orders to the fullest. I have experienced Zach asking me many times how old someone is and if ever hearing they were a minor, he would tell me right away "I'm not allowed to talk to them". I have witnessed him ignore a hello from a minor and even go upstairs if a kid would get near him on the main floor. Zach has shown nothing but integrity when it comes to these situations to make sure he is not violating any of the policies put in place for him. When he attends evening rehearsal he will say "I need to leave to get home in time for my curfew". He had told me before that I can't email him because he is not allowed to be on the internet. My entire experience with Zach has been him trying to never violate any of the restrictions placed on him.
The fact that Anderson's probation requires him to be home by 9 p.m. every day already seems harsh. So does the fact he is not allowed on the internet for any reason other than school homework. And so does the fact he had to move out of his parents' home because it was too close to a dock, and "sex offenders" are not allowed to live near any place children congregate (like, um, docks).
In the name of protecting children from a completely harmless person, the state has literally prohibited Anderson from living life as a normal human being. It's not just harsh; it's torture.
After Anderson received the warrant for his arrest last week, he and his parents arrived at court with the letters of support. Anderson's father told me it was good they had their attorney, Grabel, with them, because although the bond was set at $5,000, the lead prosecutor showed up hoping to raise it to $20,000. When Grabel showed the prosecutor the documents, the bond stayed at $5,000.
This whole case reeks of payback for the negative publicity this case brought to the justice system in both states. And yet, Indiana was ready to release Anderson from probation, so it is only Michigan that can't admit it's ruining a young man's life for absolutely no reason.
Anderson will be back in court this Wednesday, along with his witnesses.