By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Judging from his rap sheet, Jesus Garcia is not the sort of guy you'd want for a next-door neighbor. Since 1972 he's been arrested nineteen times under various aliases and charged with crimes ranging from cocaine possession and disorderly conduct to aggravated battery and homicide.
Of course Garcia's neighbors in Pompano Beach don't know this. His arrest history is generally available only to law-enforcement personnel with access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center computer. But residents of Northeast Third Avenue do know that the gregarious, muscular Garcia is one of Florida's 331 sexual predators, eighteen of whom live in Broward County.
On October 1 a new state law went into effect requiring local police to publicize the identities and whereabouts of sexual predators -- a legal term that can now be assigned by a judge to someone who violates any of 20 different Florida statutes. The crimes include molesting a child younger than twelve, committing sexual battery on a mentally or physically incapacitated victim, and sexual abuse by a law-enforcement or correctional officer. A single conviction is all that's required for someone to be designated a sexual predator, assuming the offense is a capital, life, or first-degree felony. A second-degree felony conviction can earn a person the label, too, if the transgressor has a prior record of sex crimes.
The law doesn't specify exactly how police must inform the public about its hometown predators, and different agencies have chosen different ways to spread the word. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement now runs a telephone hotline and a Website that lists information about sexual predators, as well as a much larger pool of 8589 "sexual offenders." The Broward Sheriff's Office has held a number of sparsely-attended meetings at local schools. Pompano Beach, like several other cities, did the same thing but then went considerably further. Police hand-delivered fliers with the name, address, and photograph of Garcia and four other sexual predators living inside the city limits to every home within two blocks of where the men reside. In addition they placed fliers in post offices and put up a big wall map in the police station lobby. One of the five push pins on the map points to the house where Garcia lives with his wife, brother, and twelve-year-old son.
Early last month Garcia came home from work and found his photo dotting telephone poles up and down his street. This time it wasn't the work of detectives in Pompano Beach's major crimes unit, but rather a neighbor a few houses down. The telephone-pole posters noted that Garcia "does not have a mustache now."
The odd -- and inaccurate -- mustache update arose from a case of mistaken identity. A week before, the same neighbor had called police when she thought she saw Garcia playing football in the street with her sons, ages seven and nine. Actually it was Garcia's brother, Manuel. The two men look vaguely alike, but Jesus Garcia has a furry mustache.
The concern that led his neighbor to put his picture on telephone poles could easily become vigilantism aimed at the wrong person, Garcia fears. "She wants the neighborhood to know what's going on," he says. "Okay, fine. But she ought to get her facts straight. If something happens to my brother, she's going to have to pay for it. No one's going to mess around with my family. If they do, they'll see some real parole violations."
Garcia maintains he was wrongly accused of a 1994 sexual battery on his five-year-old grandniece. He was released on parole in May 1996 after serving less than eighteen months in prison. Since then he says he's made his peace with the system -- all except the new public notification law. Garcia moved to Pompano Beach a few weeks ago because the landlord at a Coconut Creek trailer park discovered his sex-crime conviction and booted him out.
"I'm pretty straight," Garcia claims. "I go to work at six o'clock in the morning. I don't care what people think about me, because I know in my heart I never did that crime. With my record if I had gone to trial and lost I never would have seen the streets again, so I plead guilty and made a plea bargain.
"What I care about now is my kid. But the way things are, he can't play nowhere -- not here, not at school. The other kids know what's going on, they know about me. My son ain't on probation, right? My brother neither. So I don't think they should suffer."
Garcia's gripes are far overshadowed by the need to protect society's most innocent and vulnerable members, proponents of the law say. State Senate Majority Leader Locke Burt, who wrote the Public Safety Information Act of 1997, tells the story of a woman who went to church with her young son. There she met a man whom she noticed was paying inordinate attention to her child. When she called the state's new sex-offender hotline, she discovered that her fellow churchgoer had a history of child sex abuse and was banned from associating with minors.
"I know that there is at least one ten-year-old kid who's not a victim because of this law," Burt says. "That's why I say my bill is working just fine, thank you very much."