Published: March 6, 2008
Updated: 03/06/2008 09:57 pm
TAMPA - In the past, Elisha Grubbs periodically would check the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Web site to see whether any sex offenders had moved in to her neighborhood.
Now there's really no reason for her to check. Grubbs just can look out the window of her home in J&L Mobile Home Park in Palm River, where she and her children live. From that vantage point, she can watch convicted sex offenders stroll by or gather for a quick smoke just a stone's throw from her front door, which Grubbs now has reinforced with a heavy-duty deadbolt.
Grubbs said she is frightened for the safety of her 13-year-old daughter, Irene, and enraged that a nonprofit organization is being permitted to house convicted sex offenders at a mobile home park at 5011 24th Ave. S. in Palm River, across the street from her neighborhood.
She and other equally angry residents gathered last week at First Baptist Church of Palm River to learn more about Florida Justice Transitions' plans and vowed to voice their concerns to Hillsborough County commissioners today.
"How dare they do this without asking our permission?" Grubbs said. "It's just greed. It's all about money. It has nothing to do with trying to help these offenders."
Tony Spino has two daughters, ages 4 and 2, and lives about a mile from the mobile home park. The day after the civic association meeting, he launched a petition drive to close the sex offender program.
"I can only imagine what these guys are talking about when they get together at night," Spino said. "When you put 20 builders together, they're going to build something. I don't even want to think about what happens when you put 20 sex offenders together."
Palm River Civic Association board member Dottie Tilden said the community wasn't aware the nonprofit group was establishing a transitional living program for sex offenders until victims' rights advocate Judy Cornett gave the group a heads-up.
Cornett, of Lutz, is executive director of Safety Zone Advocacy, an organization she formed after her son was sexually molested in 1992. The Tampa-based group disseminates information to help prevent sex crimes. Cornett contacted the civic association after offenders began moving in to the mobile home park in January.
Now, residents of the largely low-income, tightly knit community on the eastern outskirts of Tampa are intent on doing whatever it takes to protect themselves and their children.
Seeking Treatment Options
Nancy Morais of St. Petersburg, founder of faith-based Florida Justice Transitions, is equally vehement about protecting the offenders' civil rights.
Her son, Marc Morais, 38, who lives in Riverview, was convicted of attempted sexual battery of a child younger than 12 in 1996, FDLE records show. He was jailed in the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia, where sex offenders are committed for treatment until they no longer are deemed a risk.
According to legislative records, Nancy Morais toured the center with state legislators in 2005 and protested that offenders there were treated inhumanely and did not receive the counseling they needed.
Morais did not return calls from The Tampa Tribune requesting comment, but on her Web site, she contends that problems only worsen upon sex offenders' release from the Florida Civil Commitment Center. County ordinances and courts can limit how close a sex offender may live to a school, church, playground, bus stop or child-care facility, and the distance specified in those ordinances can vary from county to county, so finding a place to live is difficult and complicated, Morais said.
In addition, there are no state-funded treatment programs for sex offenders, she said. To help sex offenders and others released from prison transition back into society, Morais opened the Palace Mobile Home Park at 2500 54th Ave. N. in St. Petersburg.
Jim Broderick, a transitions director for Florida Justice Transitions, said 90 of the 200 residents of Palace Mobile Home Park are convicted sex offenders. Some were released from the commitment center in Arcadia, others from traditional prisons, he said. In most cases, living at the transitional center for two years is a condition of probation.
Three or four residents share each mobile home and pay $400 a month to cover utilities and operating expenses. Broderick said the nonprofit group is not getting rich.
"We're doing this to help these people, both men and women," he said. "We get zero funding from the state or federal government. In fact, we're losing money. They come here with nothing but the clothes on their backs. We buy stuff out of our own pockets for them."
A Case For 'Clustering'
Morais and other proponents of what's known as "clustering" sex offenders say doing so makes it easier for parole officers to monitor the offenders. She said probation officers and members of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Sexual Predator and Offender Tracking Unit visit the Palace trailer park every day, and a sheriff's substation has been established there for the convenience of deputies and corrections officers.
"And our rules go beyond what the probation department requires," Broderick said. "We have never had a reoffender."
Supporters of sex offender clustering say that in addition to getting counseling and help with drug and alcohol addictions, residents of such programs also monitor one another and have turned in fellow offenders for violating the terms of their probation.
Cornett thinks that's the exception, not the rule.
Six sexual predators and three sex offenders live in 12 mobile homes and one permanent, single-family home at the Palm River mobile home park. Morais has announced plans to house at least 24 sex offenders there. In addition, 11 sexual predators and offenders live less than a mile from the mobile home park.
Sexual predators have been convicted of one first-degree felony sex crime or two second-degree felony sex crimes. The second-degree crimes must have been committed after 1997, when Florida statutes changed. Sex offenders have been convicted of less serious or fewer sex crimes.
While knocking on doors to alert families in Palm River about the transitional center, Cornett was stunned to see a school bus drop off children at 24th Avenue and 50th Street, she said.
"The kids walked right past that trailer park. That's scary," she said.
Detective Joseph Venero of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Sexual Predator Unit said Sheriff David Gee doesn't like the idea of sex offenders congregating in his county, especially because most at the mobile home park come from other counties. Only one is from Hillsborough.
Among the residents is Mitchell Westerheide, 34, who was released from state custody Jan. 7. The Volusia County man spent eight years at the Florida Civil Commitment Center after pleading guilty in 1994 to lewd and lascivious assault and other felonies involving the use of whips, knives and fishhooks and carving his initials into the chest of his 15-year-old girlfriend, according to court records.
"We're watching this closely, and we've voiced our concerns with the state attorney's office," Venero said. He thinks Hillsborough has a disproportionately high number of sex offenders because the county has less restrictive laws than other Florida counties. "We've got 1.3 sex offenders per square mile in this county. They're everywhere."
Cornett is working with state Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, to develop a state law or a county ordinance that would ban sex offender clustering and further restrict where they may live.
Hillsborough County code enforcement office supervisor Bill Langford said Morais' operation may be illegal for reasons that have nothing to do with sex offenders.
At the civic association's request, he researched and discovered the property is zoned for industrial use, meaning residential uses are prohibited.
"Even if the trailer park has been there for years, it doesn't mean it's legal. It's an improper use," Langford said. "Plus, I saw some electrical and tie-down issues that I'm concerned about. The owner will have to come into compliance."
If property owner Rooring Lake Gilbert LLC does not address the code issues, Langford said, the matter will go to a hearing before county code enforcement officials in April and the county will begin fining.
"Then we could assess a lien on the property," Langford said.
Broderick said that's "nonsense."
"It's just not true. That trailer park has been there since the '60s or '70s, a very long time," he said. "If it was illegal, something would have been done about it before now."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article had an incorrect address and property owner.
Reporter D'Ann Lawrence White can be reached at (813) 657-4524 or firstname.lastname@example.org.