Monday, September 27, 2010

Bill Cameron article yesterday's paper (please do not elect this man again)

Area numbers reflect fewer restrictions


Projects Editor

Palm Beach County became too “helter-skelter” for Shepard Yarger.

“It was too violent,” said the registered sex offender.

Yarger, 69, grew up in Sarasota County. His parents owned property in Charlotte County, and Yarger eventually settled in Rotonda West.

Yarger committed a sex offense on a minor, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and he isn’t the only registered offender to relocate to Charlotte County.

In fact, 60.8 percent of the offenders living in Charlotte County committed their crimes elsewhere, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It’s a different story in neighboring Sarasota and DeSoto counties, where 45 percent and 46.2 percent of offenders’ crimes were committed outside their respective communities.

“This is one of those statistics any community is not going to be proud to wear,” said Charlotte County Commissioner Robert Skidmore.

While calling laws that regulate residency for sex offenders “silly laws (made) out of emotion,” Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Cameron said he isn’t concerned.

“That’s not an alarming number for me,” Cameron said of the 60.8 percent of out-of-town offenders living in Charlotte.

Only 39.7 percent of Charlotte’s offenders are home-based criminals. Once again, it’s different in Sarasota and DeSoto, where the majority of their registered offenders are locals.

Stephen J. Waughn is another one of the transplanted sex offenders living in Charlotte.

Waughn, 46, moved to Punta Gorda after being released from the Idaho Department of Correction in 2003.

“My folks — they’re really old,” Waughn said of the reason for relocating.

Aging parents long has been a reason for relocations to Charlotte County, where the average age of its residents often makes it one of the grayest communities in the country. The median age in Charlotte is 50.9, according to 2009 Census figures. Nationally, it’s 36.7. DeSoto’s is even younger at 36.3. Sarasota’s isn’t much younger than Charlotte’s, at 50.

Charlotte boasts beautiful waterways, affordable housing (compared to other coastal communities), good weather — all the ingredients necessary for an ideal retirement. It’s been the place where the average, to slightly above-average, still can retire near the water.

There are tools Charlotte could use to make the community less hospitable to sex offenders.

The state mandates that sex offenders/predators cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school, park, playground or day-care facility. This is applicable to offenses committed on a child younger than 16 and after the date of Oct. 1, 2004.

Some communities have extended that offender-free zone.

Glades and Hendry counties, along with the city of Cape Coral, have local ordinances preventing offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, day-care centers, parks, etc. Lee County’s ordinance expanded its zone to include pools, YMCAs, libraries, etc.

Charlotte, Sarasota and DeSoto have no local ordinances beyond state law providing additional or extended buffer zones, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

“The more you restrict, obviously it is more difficult for offenders to find places to live,” said Gretyl Plessinger, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections.

Skidmore, Commissioner Tricia Duffy and Commission Chairman Bob Starr independently said they plan to talk to County Attorney Janette Knowlton about considering a local ordinance for Charlotte County.

“I would be in favor of doing anything to add a layer of protection,” Starr said. “We don’t want to be the sex offender capital of Florida.”

Opposing an ordinance

Charlotte’s top law enforcement official won’t support an ordinance further limiting places where sex offenders can live.

“I think the existing laws are fine,” Cameron said. “I’m not in favor of anything more restrictive. You’re going to force them somewhere else.”

Miami-Dade County created problems when it expanded the state’s 1,000-foot offender-free zone to 2,500 feet. That restriction in a much more congested community led to lawsuits, homelessness, noncompliance and recidivism.

Imposing Miami-Dade’s restriction locally would affect fewer than a handful around each elementary school. Deep Creek and East elementary schools have no sex offenders currently living within a half-mile. Kingsway has two; Liberty has four; Myakka River has three, including one who is a predator; Neil Armstrong has three; Peace River has three; Sallie Jones has two, including one who is a predator; and Vineland has one.

Defense attorney Mark De Sisto said his sex-offender clients haven’t had difficulty finding places to live in Charlotte County.

Even if the county were to expand that buffer to 2,500 feet, De Sisto said he still doesn’t see it leading to homelessness.

“I think there still would not be a problem (finding housing),” De Sisto said. “The more temptations you keep away from them, the better for society and for them. It’s like putting a beer in front of an alcoholic.”

Cameron, however, feels sex offenders already have it tough by being labeled, listed on a registry and limited as to where they can live. He also used an example of a teacher having a sexual relationship with a student. The teacher goes to prison, loses his ability to teach and can’t get a job “for the rest of his life,” Cameron said.

He referred to sex offender status as a scarlet letter.

“It’s the one crime you can never pay the price for,” Cameron said.

Expanding the buffer

Punta Gorda Police Chief Albert “Butch” Arenal essentially has driven out more than a dozen sex offenders from the city through his sexual offender monitoring program.

“I can’t think of a more important or critical responsibility,” Arenal said. He “absolutely,” would support a city ordinance expanding the state’s buffer zones.

Punta Gorda has worked hard to develop a more sophisticated image after Hurricane Charley.

“One thousand feet is not that far,” Arenal said.

John Wright, president of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce, was surprised to hear about the large percentage of out-of-town sex offenders living in Charlotte.

“I do find that alarming and something that needs to be investigated,” Wright said. “It’s not good PR for Punta Gorda or Charlotte County.”

Skidmore has spent a lot of time working to bring tourists and jobs to Charlotte County. He, too, doesn’t want to attract sex offenders to what has been regarded as one of the best places to live and retire in America.

“I definitely don’t want any laws that appear weak or inviting (to offenders),” Skidmore said.

Recently, Charlotte County was tested when someone reported a possible child abduction near Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Port Charlotte.

Who was investigated first? The nearby registered sex offenders. And there are 53 of them living within a 2-mile radius of the school. Of those, 48 committed crimes against minors.

“It was a very good drill for us,” Cameron said. “I’d rather be accused of doing too much.”

But, he said, not all of those offenders should be bothered.

“Nothing says that a sex offender is dangerous,” Cameron said.

A sex offender could be a “Romeo and Juliet” type, meaning an 18-year-old boyfriend with a 15-year-old girl. “It does not fall into the same category as the wicked uncle (with a toddler),” Cameron said.

He also cited adults molesting relatives as another less-dangerous threat to the community.

“Does that person pose a danger to a stranger?” Cameron asked.

His counterpart in Punta Gorda has a slightly different outlook.

“I can’t think of a greater threat to the community than those type of offenders,” Arenal said.

Skidmore, Starr and Duffy all plan to investigate whether imposing a local ordinance would make Charlotte less hospitable to sex offenders.

I think we need to do all we can to protect our children,” Skidmore said.


Where Charlotte County’s sex offenders are from

• 60.8 percent committed crimes outside Charlotte County.

• 39.7 percent committed offenses in Charlotte County.

• 33.3 percent committed offenses outside Florida.

• 16.9 percent committed crimes in other Southwest Florida counties.

• 10.6 percent committed offenses in another part of the state.

• 1 percent were federal offenses.

Where Sarasota County’s sex offenders are from

• 45 percent committed crimes outside Sarasota County.

• 58.3 percent committed offenses in Sarasota County.

• 22.4 percent committed offenses outside Florida.

• 4.5 percent committed crimes in other Southwest Florida counties.

• 17.3 percent committed offenses in another part of the state.

• 0.7 percent were federal offenses.

Where DeSoto County’s sex offenders are from

• 46.2 percent committed crimes outside DeSoto County.

• 56.9 percent committed offenses in DeSoto County.

• 15.4 percent committed crimes outside Florida.

• 13.8 percent committed crimes in other Southwest Florida counties.

• 16.9 percent committed crimes in another part of the state.

— These statistics are compiled from the registered sex offenders’ information provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Some offenders committed crimes in numerous locations.