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Mobile home park provides place for sex offenders

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Published:   |   Updated: May 19, 2013 at 09:34 AM
LEALMAN -

When a 75-year-old man was fatally stabbed at the Palace Mobile Home Park last month, residents were shocked.

The slaying was out of character for this community of 80 mobile homes, spread out behind a liquor store and used merchandise shop in the unincorporated community of Lealman, just north of St. Petersburg.

More than 100 sexual predators and offenders live at the park, the highest concentration of such criminals in Pinellas County. Thanks to strict curfews and supports such as sexual offender counseling, understanding neighbors and even some ministry, the Palace Mobile Home Park has become a destination for sex offenders from across Florida — and even outside the state — looking for a place where they can steer clear of trouble and re-establish some sort of life.

There are few crimes here, and residents rarely commit other sex crimes.

“Situations like the Palace are somewhat unique,” said Misty Cash, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. “There are not a lot of places that have a one-stop approach.”

Residents say they police themselves and provide an important sense of camaraderie.

“We keep an eye on one another,” said Daniel Kessler, 31, who was designated a sex offender in February after a technician fixing his computer found child pornography.

“We take care of each other,” said Francis Forte, 66, a sexual predator convicted in 2003 of having sex with a 15-year-old boy when he was 57.

By a recent count, there were 20 sexual predators — who have been convicted of serious sex crimes such as rape or having sex with children — living at the mobile home park, located at 2500 54th Ave. N., said Rod Bisson, a detective with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Sexual Predator/Offender Tracking Unit, who keeps track of those living here. The community also had 87 sex offenders, people arrested for less-serious crimes, such as possession of child pornography.

The numbers can be so unwieldy that Bisson keeps track of his charges on a spreadsheet.

Despite having so many criminals living here, the mobile home park is relatively safe. Serious crime, such as last month’s stabbing, is rare, according to crime statistics. The most common infraction is trespassing — evidence of the mobile park’s efforts to keep ne’er-do-wells, such as prostitutes, drug dealers and vagrants, away from the residents.

There are only a few places like the Palace Mobile Home Park in Florida, said Jill Levenson, a nationally recognized expert on sexual violence who teaches at Lynn University in Boca Raton. Such communities started popping up around 2005, after governments began enacting restrictions on where sexual predators and offenders could live.

“Naturally, the sex offenders will migrate to the places that are in compliance because there is nowhere else to live,” Levenson said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to find a place to stay.”

The Palace Mobile Home Park qualifies because it not within 1,000 feet of a school, day care center or home day care center — places sex offenders aren’t allowed to live close to, Bisson said.

Though eight of 80 mobile homes are privately owned, the Palace Mobile Home Park is essentially run by Florida Justice Transitions, a nonprofit organization that monitors the offenders and is itself staffed by sex offenders.

Florida Justice rents units from the Seminole man who owns the park. Offenders pay $350 a month to live here, plus a sexual counseling fee, said Jim Broderick, president of the organization. As many as three people live in each mobile home, and there are nine spots for offenders with wheelchairs.

“We don’t make any money, and there’s no funding,” Broderick said. “You can’t get funding for sex offenders because sex offenders are so-called scum of the earth.”

Even so, Florida Justice boasts of a recidivism rate that is “nonexistent,” Broderick said.

He credits that success to restrictions at the park — such as a curfew — along with a bevy of programs, including onsite sexual counseling and religious services.

A resident was accused of a sex crime last year — the only incident of its kind Bisson could recall.

Eric Smith, 53, raped a woman at knifepoint four blocks away from the park after dragging her into an abandoned house and telling her she deserved to die because she was a prostitute, according to court records. He’s in the Pinellas County Jail, charged with aggravated battery and sexual battery.

“Is there a potential for re-offending? Of course,” said Doug Baldwin, the case manager for Florida Justice Transitions. “They happen a whole lot less frequently than people think.”

William David Casey’s death is a different story.

The man accused of killing the sex offender, who pleaded guilty last year to seduction of a child using the Internet and traveling to meet a minor, is 60-year-old Sylvester Johnson, a career criminal who had nowhere to go when he was set to be released from the Wakulla Correctional Institution in Crawfordville late last year.

The state Department of Corrections asked that the Pinellas man be allowed to live at the Palace, and Florida Justice Transitions reluctantly agreed.

Late on the night of April 10 or early the next morning, Johnson walked into Casey’s mobile home, stabbed him and took his wallet, authorities say.

Ironically, Johnson was sentenced to 15 years in prison for sexual battery in 1987, but he wasn’t designated as a sexual predator or offender because those laws didn’t go into effect until the 1990s. He was labeled a career criminal because he kept committing other, nonsexual crimes.

Florida Justice Transitions tries to help predators and offenders stay on the straight and narrow. Eighty-five percent of the residents are men, and they run the gamut from “men who urinated in the wrong place at the wrong time to serial rapists,” Broderick said.

Men and women are allowed to live together — as are homosexuals — as long as they are involved in healthy relationships, Broderick said. That’s the standard sought in therapy as the staff tries to have residents stay clear of sexual deviation.

Often, residents have just been released from prison, where some have lived for decades, Broderick said. Generally, their families don’t want anything to do with them.

“They don’t have a clue: flat-screen TVs, cellphones, the new vehicles today — they haven’t seen any of this,” Broderick said.

Most are lonely and want structure, he said.

“Some of them are coming to us because we are the only place in the state that will take them,” said Baldwin, the Florida Justice Transitions case manager.

The organization periodically offers various life-skills classes to help people adjust — on topics such as balancing a checkbook, looking for work, setting goals and conflict resolution. A ministry comes to the park on Sunday for fellowship, and a licensed mental health counselor works out of the mobile home park twice a week.

“Our goal is to get these guys more self-sufficient,” Baldwin said. “Get them to accept (that) this is what it is and this is where you need to work from.”

Residents are well-aware of the challenges they face.

“People know this is a predator park, and they look down on us because of that,” said Kessler.

“We’re lower on the social scale than murderers.”

Forte has lived at the park for two years, after serving eight years in prison.

“It’s brought my values up,” he said.

At 66, Forte is living off his Social Security check and works at the park’s canteen, cooking hot dogs, chicken fingers, biscuits and eggs. The prices are cheap: 50-cent coffee, three pancakes for $1, two eggs with two sausages or four pieces of bacon for $2.50. Everyone here is tight on money.

The park has a special kind of camaraderie, Forte said. Everyone, for instance, makes sure those required to wear ankle bracelets do so; otherwise, they might violate their probation and end up back in jail or prison.

“It’s a working community. Let’s put it that way,” Forte said.

“If someone has to go shopping and someone has a car, we’re off.”

If anyone sees anything out of line, such as people using profanity or a fight brewing, they try to put a stop to it, or alert the office.

The office, where the staff of Florida Justice Transitions is based, is on top of everything.

“They take care of their sheep,” he said.

To Forte, the world outside the Palace Mobile Home Park is more dangerous than what happens inside.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I’m going to live the rest of my life here.”


sthompson@tampatrib.com

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