Sex-Offender City

Florida’s sex criminals are crowding into a handful of neighborhoods.

Driving through Broadview Park, a square-mile neighborhood west of Fort Lauderdale, Randy Young splits his attention between the single-level stucco homes outside his window and the laptop affixed to the dashboard of his Toyota pickup. The laptop is equipped with a specially programmed GPS system that displays what looks like a Venn diagram: overlapping, color-coded circles—purple for schools, yellow for day-care centers, and green for parks—marking areas where sex offenders cannot live. In recent months, those circles have been expanding, as the small community, an unincorporated area of Broward County bordered by State Road 7, Interstate 595, and the Florida Turnpike, tries to expel new and unwanted residents.

“See this house here? That’s where we put 24 sex offenders,” says Young, tapping his finger against the glass at a house on SW 22nd Street. “Now there’s only five.”

Young is 53 years old, tan and heavyset, with receding hair and rectangular glasses. He is a registered sex offender, convicted in 2003 of a lewd or lascivious act with a minor—“a 19-year-old girl performed oral sex on a 15-year-old boy in my presence”—and runs a for-profit business called Habitat for Sex Offenders, finding housing for people who have been convicted of sex crimes ranging from child pornography to kidnapping and rape. He operates about 20 houses and 30 apartments in seven counties across South and Central Florida.

Since 2005—when 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a registered sex offender who lived next door—many local governments in Florida have increased the buffer zones that separate sex-offender residences from places where children congregate, and the question of what to do with paroled sex criminals has reverberated from county to county. No one wants to live near them, but no one, especially law enforcement, knows where to put them.

“Everybody says put them on an island,” says Young. “Every sex offender I know would say, ‘Where’s the island? I’ll go! Just tell me where it is.’”

Young made such an island out of Broadview Park. The neighborhood feels forgotten, with derelict vehicles parked on patchy lawns, and rusted wire fences surrounding recently repossessed homes. By early 2008, when Young discovered the area using his GPS system, it was one of the last places in the county with a buffer zone of 1,000 feet, the minimum state requirement, while nearby counties had increased theirs to 2,500 feet. Young leased four houses from landlords desperate enough not to be selective about their tenants, and took in sex offenders who had been living in a tent city under Miami’s Julia Tuttle Causeway. He also bought a three-bedroom foreclosed home for $150,000 and rented it out to nine sex offenders, charging them each $600 a month.

“Randy said, ‘Pay what you can, I’ll work with you,’” said Eddie Pruna, who lived in the house of 24 and kept losing work when his employers found out he had molested his 10-year-old niece. “He helped me when I was on my last nerve.”

Pruna and his roommate, Robert Taylor (12 years for molesting his daughters), paid Young by doing construction work on his other properties. “It’s awful hard, being what we are, to find a place to live,” Taylor said. “We’re supposed to go to therapy and reintegrate into society, but society doesn’t want to see us.”

In 2007, according to the Broadview Park Civic Association, there were four registered sex offenders in the neighborhood; by April 2009, there were 106. Graciela Ortiz, a resident who had 14 sex offenders on her street, began to keep her grandchildren indoors.

Though sex offenders were free to live in Broadview Park, unlicensed rooming houses were illegal, and code-enforcement officials threatened Young with fines unless residents vacated his overpopulated homes. Meanwhile, John Rodstrom, the commissioner of Broward County’s District 7, which includes Broadview, rushed to pass a temporary ordinance mandating a 2,500-foot buffer, which effectively made it impossible for new sex offenders to move in.

“People are afraid of sex offenders, and maybe they have a right to be,” Rodstrom told me. “They certainly have a right to be concerned about their property values, because if it’s a sex-offender haven, people aren’t going to buy in that area.”

The 2,500-foot ordinance was made permanent in September, but it allowed sex criminals who already listed Broadview Park as their permanent address to stay.

Things have since quieted down in the neighborhood. After repeated warnings from code enforcement, many men have moved on, including Taylor and Pruna, whom Young placed in a home in Fort Myers. Some have gone back to living under the causeway. Eighty sex offenders now live in Broadview Park.

Despite their differences, Young and Rodstrom agree that a better solution would be to establish housing in industrial areas—for instance, Young suggested that a major orange-juice company could hire sex offenders to pick its oranges on the condition that they live in corporate housing.

“A good law would be figuring out where they could live,” rather than where they can’t, said Rodstrom. “But no politician would ever do that, because that’s the death of your career.”

As Young crosses State Road 7 into Fort Lauderdale, where the buffer is set at a more friendly 1,400 feet, he glances back at his GPS system. “These used to be million-dollar homes. Last I checked, they were half a million, and now they are probably somewhere around $200,000. So guess what? They’re for rent,” he says. “Two years ago, before the economy collapsed, none of this would have been possible.”

We pass a brick home with large glass windows and a red foreclosure sign on its lawn. Young gets excited. “Oh yeah, another foreclosure,” he says. “They keep pushing and pushing, so I’ll keep moving. All the zoning restrictions did was push us into the rich area.”

The dot on the map representing Young’s truck enters a tiny patch of gray between the spheres of purple, green, and yellow, and Young declares that we are safe here.