The Pervert Next Door
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."
Burt cites a 1997 study by the National Institute of Justice, which he says concluded that few sex offenders are ever harassed by the public. "The instances of people burning down their houses or assaulting them were minimal," he notes. "On the other hand, there is good evidence, evidence that has been clinically and practically demonstrated, that sexual offenders repeat their crimes," Burt says.
Not true, contends Broward psychologist Dr. John Morin, who leads therapy groups for convicted sex abusers, including several of South Florida's registered sexual predators. "The best definition I've seen of a predator is someone who has multiple convictions for sexual crimes against strangers, or against acquaintances made for the purpose of creating an opportunity for sexual abuse," Morin says.
The problem, he contends, is that many of Florida's legally defined sexual predators don't fit that definition -- or the popular image conjured up by the term predator.
Senator Burt and other political supporters of the new law agree it was partly inspired by the horrific case of Howard Stephen Ault, a Fort Lauderdale man who stands accused of molesting and strangling to death two girls, then hiding their bodies in his home.
But none of Pompano Beach's sexual predators quite resembles Ault. Like each of his four fellow predators in Pompano Beach, Garcia was convicted of sexual battery on a family member. And unlike Ault, none of the men has a prior conviction or arrest for sexual assault or battery.
"Typically a true predator is a pedophile, someone who's fundamental sexual orientation is toward children," Morin says. He contrasts genuine pedophiles with "incestuous offenders." The latter, he notes, may exhibit normal sexual responses and behavior most of the time, but they tend to regress sexually when they're feeling out of control or highly stressed.
"The distinction has been completely lost in the media and consequently in the public mind," says Morin. "The fact is, the rate of recidivism is lower for sex offenses than for most other crimes. It's about 13 to 13.5 percent, according to two recent studies."
For true sexual predators, Morin advocates civil commitment -- a legal procedure by which an uncontrollable pedophile can be held in confinement indefinitely, even after completing a prison sentence. The procedure already exists in seven states and was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida legislature is likely to consider it next year.
As for incestuous offenders -- perhaps the majority of Florida's designated sexual predators -- Morin warns that the new law could have unexpected and undesirable effects, including the unintentional identification of victims.
"In a sense you're victimizing the family all over again," says Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Ott Cefkin, discussing his department's low-key approach to publicizing sexual predators. "If it's a father-daughter situation, you're not only publicizing the father's identity but also the daughter's, indirectly. It's a very delicate situation."
Another danger is re-creating the same conditions that Morin believes cause most incestuous sexual abuse in the first place.
"The danger arises when you put pressure on these people -- and that's precisely what this law is doing," says another local psychologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It could cause one of these guys to completely snap. If they lose their job or their family, what do you think they're going to do? You've got a guy with nothing to lose. Is that making things safer for the community?"
(Like Morin, the psychologist quoted above treats sexual predators and convicted sex offenders. He says he requested anonymity because he has twice had landlord problems in the past due to the nature of his clientele.)
Morin agrees: "There are people out there who will take any excuse to harass and persecute people. In recent weeks I've had two guys lose their apartments, and one of those lost his job, too."
Todd DeAngelis, a spokesman for Hollywood's police department, declines to say what he thinks of the public notification requirement contained in the new law. Certainly it's a lot of extra work for police, he notes.
Hollywood's finest recently made personal visits to every school in the city, handed out fliers, ran paid advertisements in the Miami Herald, and issued press releases to local newspapers and TV stations. The result: Neighbors picketed the city's only sexual predator, and the man moved away.
Layton Duncan, another of Pompano Beach's registered sexual predators, says he's thought about relocating. He moved to Pompano Beach after being kicked out of an apartment elsewhere. Six weeks ago when police distributed fliers in his neighborhood, his current landlady asked him to move out, he says.
At first the 57-year-old Duncan agreed, but then he changed his mind. Like Jesus Garcia, he says he's staying put -- at least until his lease runs out in six months. Duncan has a job as foreman on a construction crew but thinks he wouldn't have any job at all if it weren't for an old friend who was willing to hire him.
Duncan was convicted of neglecting and sexually abusing his 28-year-old mentally handicapped daughter. Like Garcia he denies he ever committed the crime. His probation runs through 2002, but his status as a sexual predator continues indefinitely.
"This is a life sentence, man," Duncan says. "Everywhere I go, it's going to go with me. There's no way you can ever tell your side of the story to people, because they've already got you labeled."
Duncan looks old and worn -- and friendly. But the details of his daughter's abuse, graphically described in one detective's report, are utterly chilling. Pompano Beach public information officer Sandra King bridles at the suggestion that community notification has gone too far in Pompano Beach.
"A majority of people would say that someone has gone too far when they commit sexual battery on a helpless, five-year-old child or a mentally retarded woman who put her trust in you," King says.
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