KTSM 9 News

Sex offender camp growing in Florida woods; public apparently not warned

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (WFLA) — A Florida camp powered by solar panels and a generator is home to about a dozen sex offenders who claim they were sent there by probation officers, but there is no indication the public was alerted.

Land records indicate the tents that sit under a structure made from branches are on land owned by the Florida Department of Transportation. An FDOT spokesperson said they were “not aware of this.”

Several sources, including a defense attorney, told Nexstar’s WFLA that anyone on probation is still “under sentence,” and they said that telling them to live outdoors violates state administrative code.

A DOC spokesperson denied offenders are told where to live by probation officers.

Several of the camp residents agreed to discuss their living conditions but asked to hide their identities to avoid possible retribution from the state employees they claim sent them there.

“Yes,” one of them said when asked if his probation officer told him to live there. “They actually brought me out here.”

“They told me there’s a spot that you need to go to,” another offender said. “So, I drove around for a while trying to find this place, and eventually, I did.”

(WFLA)

The sex offender registration law was put on the books to let the public know where these types of offenders live.

But the registry website lists an intersection for the people who live in the camp — an intersection about a mile away from the tents.

“Exactly,” one offender said. “There’s no address.”

The camp is within walking distance of schools, homes and businesses. But it does not appear to violate the state law that restricts sex offenders from living within “1,000 feet of a school, child care facility, park, playground, or other place where children regularly congregate.”

Camp residents said their makeshift homes are well hidden from the public.

“They don’t even know we’re here,” one said. “They’re hiding us from society.”

(WFLA)

All the offenders in the camp are wearing electronic monitoring devices, but they said they were not told how to charge them to avoid violating terms of their probation.

This prompted them to buy a solar-powered charging station and a generator, they say.

Department of Corrections spokesman Paul Walker denied the offenders were told to live in the woods.

“For purpose of your story, FDC does not assign residence locations,” Walker said in an email. “The FDC aims to protect the community by supervising offenders and reporting non-compliance to the sentencing court or sentencing authority.”

(WFLA)

The camp is in House District 60, which is served by State Rep. Lindsay Cross.

“I think the first thing is being aware of the situation,” Cross said. “I think it’s very irresponsible to direct people to an open area and not alert the residents of that community.”

Cross said she plans on talking with other lawmakers about finding a way to avoid using the outdoors as housing for offenders on probation.

“We need to go back to the safety of the residents,” Cross said. “It’s also inhumane to have anyone live without running water, electricity, housing.”

Denise Rock, founder of inmate advocacy non-profit Florida Cares, said the state has to do more to find housing for offenders to ensure their safety and to protect the public.

Rock said several former inmates from other parts of the state have made similar claims about being sent to live in wooded areas by probation officers.

“I remember one case where they said they were told to go to an area behind a [fast-food restaurant],” said Rock. “The address on the registry was for the [restaurant.]”