Sex Offenders Welcome: Florida Apartments Offer Home
Since the development opened eight months ago, the minister who runs it has recruited former inmates by distributing brochures in Florida prisons and plugging it in sermons at the lockups. Some 35 sex offenders now live in the complex about three miles from Pahokee, a poor farming community of 6,000 wedged into sugar cane fields of the Everglades.
"Leaving prison or jail soon? ... Do you have special requirements concerning where you can and cannot live? You may have just found the answer to your prayers," reads the pamphlet advertising the privately operated, 24-acre village.
Angry Pahokee residents say they fear for their children's safety. The ex-cons have served time for various charges, including sexual battery on children and molestation.
Some former tenants of the one-time migrant worker camp also have sued, claiming families with children were forced out to make way for the sex offenders.
"There's just too many in one place," said Pahokee Mayor Wayne Whitaker. "It's very, very risky."
Whitaker said he had no idea the offenders at the complex had actually been recruited to live there.
"It's a little unnerving, but our hands are tied," he said.
The village has become a haven for the ex-cons, who face tight restrictions on where they can live. Nationwide, hundreds of ordinances require sex offenders to dwell at least 1,000 feet from anywhere children gather - schools, churches, parks, bus stops.
Elsewhere, narrow housing options have prompted clusters of offenders to live in tents and other makeshift structures, such as the 70 or so who live beneath the bridge that connects Miami and Miami Beach.
"Society sees us as lepers, like rejects," said Louis Aponte, who moved into Miracle Park three months ago from the nearby Glades Correctional Institution after serving almost nine years for attempted sexual battery on a young female family member.
"I don't know where I'd be without it, probably living with my family, but that would be tough," he said.
The neighborhood is the brainchild of Richard Witherow, a minister has been preaching to inmates for about 30 years. Surrounded by nothing but sugar cane fields and country roads, Pahokee seemed the perfect fit for the venture - far enough removed from the voices of dissent, or so Witherow hoped.
Several attempts at establishing a place like Miracle Park elsewhere in Florida failed after local governments kicked him out.
"People get hysterical when you mention sex offenders," Witherow said.
He said Pahokee shouldn't fear his tenants, who pay about $500 a month in rent and work odd jobs around the site if they can't find work elsewhere. Witherow also offers church services and classes on relationships and anger management.
"The ticking time bomb here does not exist," Witherow said.
Jill Levenson, a Lynn University professor in Boca Raton who studies sex offenders, said most of them don't commit new sex crimes. Still, she said it's rare to see a property owner welcoming sex offenders - much less advertising to them.
"There is a fairly small subgroup of sex offenders who seem to be most dangerous, most likely to re-offend, but the majority do not," Levenson said.
Studies on sex offender recidivism rates have produced varied results, from as little as 5 percent re-offending to more than 30 percent, depending on the severity of the original offenses.
Sgt. Mark Jolly, of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Sexual Predator Offender Tracking Unit, said authorities have had no reports of Miracle Park residents committing new crimes. Still, he said, he'd be concerned if he lived nearby.
Pahokee resident Larry Wright, 61, summed up the town's feelings in one word: "Outrage."
"People are just real nervous," he said.
Last month, the Palm Beach County Office of Equal Opportunity determined Witherow, his Matthew 25 Ministries, and the complex's owner, Alston Management Inc., the company Witherow leases from, violated the county's fair housing ordinance by threatening to evict families with children.
A letter sent in December by Alston Management informed tenants in what was then Pelican Lake Village that it was becoming "adults only." Witherow started renting to offenders in January.
"If you have children living or staying in the apartment under the age of 18 years old, you will have to vacate the property," or be evicted, the letter stated.
The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Florida Equal Justice Center have sued Witherow and Alston on behalf of former residents, claiming they violated county and federal fair housing laws.
Legal aid attorney Shane Weaver said the housing of sex offenders is not the concern. Legally, Miracle Park can exist because it sits in an unincorporated part of Palm Beach County far enough away from where children gather, so it violates no laws.
However, Weaver said: "You can't just target people with children and say, 'Leave.'"
Alston owner Calvin Alston did not return telephone messages from The Associated Press, but Witherow said the letter was a mistake. He said residents were welcome to stay, but the school bus stop had to go.
"That was the only thing that prevented us from having sex offenders here," Witherow said.
Mary Diggs, 69, has lived there since 2002. Her granddaughters lived there, too, with their small children, but they moved out when the offenders moved in.
"They didn't want their children in here," Diggs said.
She's not concerned about the offenders, noting: "They don't seem to bother me in no way."
On a recent Sunday at Miracle Park, Witherow stood behind the church pulpit preaching to about 15 sex offenders.
"The word helps us to keep pure, to live a pure life ... to keep us from sinning," Witherow said. "Hallelujah."
Aponte, 34, the recently released sex offender, bowed his head and closed his eyes, an open Bible on his lap.
He took the microphone and wrapped the service with a prayer.
"Lord help us ... to stop loving things that are not of you," Aponte said. "You see the struggles that each one of us are going through, Father, you see the physical pain, Lord, the mental pain, the emotional pain, Lord, help us Father, because we are weak."