By Shoshana Walter
Critics say 2006 ordinance increases number of transient predators, offenders
In September, Edward finished his 10-year sentence on lewd and lascivious assault and walked out of Avon Park Correctional Institution a free man.
When Edward gave the Department of Corrections his new address in Winter Haven, he was told it was out of the question. As a sexual predator, he'd have 48 hours to find a suitable location and to register his new address.
He abided by law and registered - as transient. Ninety days later, Edward is still looking.
That is the unintended consequence, counselors and offenders say, of a 2006 county ordinance that expanded residency restrictions for offenders and predators. The ordinance is under renewed scrutiny after the arrest last month of a group of homeless sex predators in Auburndale.
Supporters have said the ordinance is for the protection of the public, but critics say that it's had the opposite effect. It's increased the number of homeless sex predators and offenders, actually increasing the likelihood of further offenses.
"Desperate people do desperate things if they feel like there's no hope," Edward said in a recent interview. He is currently living on-and-off with family in Auburndale. "People can change. They have to want to. But if they're told everyday that they can't, why would they believe that they could?"
Polk County is among several Florida counties that have gone beyond state law to expand restrictions. Now many counties are facing similar challenges, and offenders and those who treat them say county commissioners should rethink the ordinance.
By the time he reached 25 years old, Edward, who grew up in Winter Haven, had a wife, five children and a lucrative career running his own car- and motorcycle-detailing business. He also had a long-running addiction to drugs and alcohol.
He was about "as morally bankrupt as you can get" by the time of his first offense in 1996, when he was charged with possessing a photograph that included sexual conduct by a child.
The child was the 14-year-old daughter of a woman with whom he frequently partied and whom he hired for a promotional event. The girl and her mother both wore bikinis to the party and stood by motorcycles while Edward snapped photographs. Everyone was drinking, including the girl. When she began to strip, Edward continued taking pictures.
The second offense occurred in 1999 and involved another 14-year-old, also the daughter of an employee. He had just dropped off the girl's 21-year-old boyfriend when Edward and the girl began to mess around. One thing led to another, and before the situation escalated further, Edward said the girl "flipped out."
"Physically, this wasn't a pubescent child. But she wasn't emotionally or mentally ready to make that decision," he said. She reported the incident and he was charged with lewd and lascivious assault.
Edward spent the next 10 years watching his children grow up in photographs and receiving help for his drug and alcohol abuse. Today, Edward easily admits that his actions were wrong.
He has a support system of friends and family in Polk County who have provided him with food, bathrooms and beds. While he looks for a full-time job and a permanent residence, his sister, brother and nephew watch him closely to ensure he doesn't seek the comfort of alcohol and drugs.
The nearly 50 other homeless offenders in Polk County may not be so lucky.
Those without a support system, he says, are much more likely to fall into old patterns of behavior. And what of the stress of lacking a home, the depression that comes with loneliness and the anxiety of finding and maintaining a job?
Richard Brimer has led court-ordered sex offender treatment groups in Lakeland for more than 20 years.
"These kinds of things are going to make an offender more apt to act out. When an offender lives in a home, not only does he have more stability, he has an address." That also lessens the burden on law enforcement to track them, he says.
Brimer says that county commissioners did not think about the ramifications of the ordinance, and Polk County Sheriff (Contact) Grady Judd's zero-tolerance approach does not help the problem.
"I could understand his passion to want to rid the community of sex offenders and predators. But it's not realistic. They're going to be among us. They're going to be released from prison, they're going to come back here," he says.
"This isn't about me feeling sorry for predators. It's about me advocating for community safety."
A group of seven homeless sex predators in Auburndale moved three times in a week before they were arrested in an orange grove Nov. 24 on charges of trespassing, violating their probation and failure to register.
The original tent city off Reynolds Road in Auburndale included 18 offenders, mostly predators, but after the Sheriff's Office told them to move, the group split up.
About seven of them moved to Tropical Moon mobile home park off Old Dixie Highway in Auburndale, where park owner Lori Crump, a former Department of Corrections officer, allowed them to stay temporarily. Because the park is located across the street from a school bus stop, the group was told to move again.
No one in the park, which includes many tenants who are sex offenders, knew where the group could go.
"Predators and offenders live all over the county. I don't want to listen to their whining," Judd said at the time. "They're felons. They're either going to comply or they're going to find a place to live in the Polk County Jail."
- Typical a--hole cop, can't see past his own ignorance and hatred, and sees everyone as criminals. These laws create problems, by making people homeless, and that will increase crime. But, keeps the sheriff in a job, doesn't it!
On Nov. 22, the group moved to another privately owned citrus grove off Hickory Road in Auburndale. The next day, deputies arrested them for trespassing, among other charges.
Boyd Vonleue just barely missed the arrest. The 47-year-old was living in the tent city off Reynolds Road because he couldn't find a place to live. He finally found an apartment just outside of Lakeland through a friend, who convinced his landlord to allow Vonleue to move in.
"I got lucky," he said. "If it hadn't been for friends, I would probably still be living in a grove."
Vonleue, classified a sexual predator, was released from prison in October after serving more than 15 years for sexual battery on a victim younger than 12. He doesn't want to live elsewhere because he grew up in Polk County and has a support system here. He also works for his brother, who first began the fruitless search for Vonleue about a month before his release.
Vonleue says he intends to fight the ordinance in court.
The part of the ordinance that "hurts the most" is the rule that predators must live at least 1,000 feet away from school bus stops, he said. While the ordinance keeps predators from living nearby, it does little to prevent them from treading near restricted places, he said. That means it's ineffective in preventing wayward offenders from offending again.
"The ordinance doesn't work," he said. "The place I would have been in was a fenced-in area away from any schools and churches. When I lived in the grove, we drove by six bus stops every day on the way to work."
PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
Many predators like Vonleue had the same experience upon their release from prison.
They provided authorities with an address, which they were told violated the Polk County ordinance or state law. Once they were out, they'd have 48 hours to find another home and register.
The process for finding a residence is mainly trial and error. Once an offender has found a potential residence, he or she contacts their probation officer or the Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office plugs the address into a computerized mapping system that shows whether or not it is out of a restricted zone. If it's not, it's back to the drawing board, and the offender must try again.
Although the DOC is allowed to provide offenders and predators with some guidance, both it and the Sheriff's Office say they do not tell offenders where they can live. They're on their own for that.
The DOC admits the ordinance has made finding housing more challenging for offenders. Crump, the former probation officer for the DOC, said the ordinance has also placed an extra burden on law enforcement by making it more difficult to track offenders.
And treatment providers like Brimer say the ordinance ignores the reality of sex offenses - that most are not committed by strangers. In two years of child sexual abuse investigations by the Polk County Sheriff's Office, 94 percent of crimes were committed by suspects the victims knew, like Edward, including family members, friends and acquaintances.
So what are the solutions?
Offenders would like to see a tiered system in Florida that separates offenders into more specific categories, with restrictions based on the individual. Brimer said many counties have proposed other rules in place of certain residency restrictions.
Broward County commissioners appointed the Sexual Offender and Sexual Predator Residence Task Force - a group comprising local officials, experts, scholars and law enforcement - to study the effects of the county's 2,500-foot ordinance.
In an August report, the group suggested 300-foot loitering zones as an alternative to the ordinance. The rule would restrict offenders from loitering or congregating in places heavily populated by children.
Many say they'd also like to see areas designated specifically for sex offender housing, and a more efficient system for finding approved residences.
For offenders, the changes would allow them "to pick up the pieces of their lives and be productive members of society," Edward says. Brimer and Crump agree that more stability for offenders is safer for all.
"If the county could get together and talk about this issue with victim's advocates and law enforcement, we could sit down and come up with a viable option," Brimer said.
The ordinance was passed unanimously in 2006 following a single presentation by Judd. But since the arrests last month, many involved in the debate have contacted county commissioners to renew discussion.
District 4 Commissioner Jean Reed, who was not elected at the time of the commission's vote, said she would be open to that discussion.
"Many children walk half a mile to our schools so I feel the ordinance is reasonable, and probably necessary, for our children's health, safety, and welfare," she wrote in an e-mail to The Ledger.
"However, if there are some unintended consequences that need to be addressed, I certainly am willing to discuss them further."