In a well-worn T-shirt and shorts, Ed Little appeared a bit disheveled. There was stubble on his face, and his graying blond hair was uncombed -- not surprising, perhaps, for anyone disturbed at home on a Sunday afternoon. He stood at the wooden gate of his brick patio, which was lined with potted plants, attempting to block the escape of an inquisitive dog.
You'd never know that Little has a sexual problem. Or at least that he did 14 years ago. Like 33 others in my neighborhood north of Broward Boulevard near Federal Highway, he is listed in Florida's online sex-offender registry. On the night of June 23, 1990, according to witnesses' statements, Little gave three teenage boys wine coolers, showed them a porn video, and tried to get them to join him as he masturbated. Then, when they barricaded themselves in a room, terrified and crying, he tried to batter his way in.
"Yeah, it's a nice joke around here," Little said of his official status. "It's not discussed. [My neighbors] are all my friends."
An 18-year-old neighbor who didn't want to give his name didn't seem to get the joke. "No shit?" he asked. "Oh my God!"
In 1997, Florida became one of the first states in the nation to put its sex offender registry online. Today, it is among 44 states that do so. The listings, which are fascinating in a traffic-accident kind of way, are searchable by address, ZIP code, city, and county. Queries on the site, fdle.state.fl.us, return ready-to-print fliers with names, photos, addresses, and offenses. Among the cryptic terms listed: "Lewd assault," "Sexual performance by a child," and "Phys helpless resist," whatever that is.
The Florida database gets a lot of traffic -- 400,000 to 500,000 Internet queries and about 2,500 phone calls per month.
In my ZIP code, 33304, a racially and economically mixed, 2.7-square-mile chunk of Fort Lauderdale, there are 34 offenders among 20,000 residents. That ranks it second per capita of 25 ZIP codes in America's Venice. (The highest is 33301, downtown.) I decided to try knocking on the doors of all of them over a two-week period. I wanted to know neighbors' opinions of their presence and what life is like when one is listed on the sex offenders' list.
Most of the offenders didn't answer the door. Their addresses were in low-rise apartment complexes, some with pools in the courtyard, some with weeds. A pastel townhouse with a shiny Lexus in the driveway was home to Daniel Oltarsh, convicted of sexual battery and listed in 2004. Joseph Bennett, who told his girlfriend's 6-year-old daughter that his penis was a lollipop, lives in a murky tenement with scuffed walls and a stained carpet.
In the courtyard of a freshly painted apartment complex, I found only the memory of John Lamberti, who was, according to the database, convicted of an out-of-state sexual assault.
"Oh, the sex offender," said Damon Dewerdt, who was working in the courtyard. "He's long gone."
Dewerdt said he bought the complex a little more than a year ago and quickly asked Lamberti to leave. "He was really nutty," Dewerdt said. "He chased the previous owners around with a baseball bat. His apartment was a mess. He had stuff piled up to the ceiling."
The sexual offenders' places were generally scattered -- with one small but notable exception. In apartment four of a one-story complex with a tree-shaded courtyard, Nathan Benton makes his home. In 1992, Benton, then 30 years old, had what he told the court was consensual sex with an 11-year-old girl. A few steps away, in apartment two, lives Gerald Weissbach, who is registered for molesting his daughter's 8-year-old dance camp colleague during a sleepover in 1998.
Weissbach, who has long, gray hair and gapped teeth, answered when I knocked around 6:30 p.m. He said the registry is justified for serious offenses but insisted, "My case is totally different." Despite multiple visits, Benton's door never opened. The lucky contestant behind door number three wasn't home either. I could hardly blame him.
Then there's Mark Geller, a portly, 58-year-old man who lives on the ground floor of a dilapidated, two-story, cement block of apartments. On June 14, 2000, police paid Geller a visit at his home in Hollywood and found four pornographic pictures of minors on his computer.
"They traced my [Internet] address... and found me," he said. Geller complained he has been evicted three times and has had difficulty finding work as a result of his presence on the registry.
"I'd like to see us not bundled together," Geller said. "There are violent offenders, and there are nonviolent offenders. And then there are nonviolent offenders who have no physical victims."
Geller is taking classes in the hopes of starting a new career to replace the one he said he has lost.
"I'm the least dangerous person you could possibly meet," Geller earnestly declared. "I'm serious."
After our conversation, Geller showed me to the door of his small, cluttered apartment. He seemed like a case study in the drawbacks of being listed on Florida's registry -- convicted of a relatively minor offense, apparently rehabilitated, he feels forced to live a furtive and solitary existence. I left not without real sympathy.
Later, my sympathy was tempered somewhat by the revelation that, in fact, police had not traced his IP address. Instead, a local man had reported that Geller was having sexually explicit Internet chats with his teenaged son. Geller had given out his name and address in the chat room.
I also recalled a vivid example of just how hard it is for sex offenders to overcome the stigma, the sheer creepiness of their label. As I walked toward my car, Geller had called after me. "I just have to ask," he said, "how old are you?"
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