Filmmakers examine marginalized' lives of sex offenders

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Palace Mobile Home Park has become a sort of modern-day leper colony. Tucked beside a liquor store off Interstate 275, the trailer park is a haven for sex offenders, with about 100 of its residents on the state's registry.

It is also the subject of a documentary film by a group of Central Florida filmmakers. Titled "Scum of the Earth," the film takes a generally sympathetic approach to its subjects, whose crimes involved children.

One subject molested his daughter, whom he's now not allowed to contact. Another claims she was sexually abused by family members and years later molested a 3-year-old girl she was baby-sitting.

The title, meant as irony, sums up society's view of sex offenders. The film explores how the Palace became a sanctuary for these outcasts.

Clustering of sex offenders is a natural outgrowth of restrictions on where they can live, said Jill Levenson, an assistant professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton who specializes in sex-offender issues. Communities throughout the state have restricted offenders from living too close to schools, day-care centers and bus stops.

"This public policy of fear and revenge is really making the problem worse," said filmmaker Phyllis Redman, who has a background in social work. "Yet it's continuing to be implemented primarily because of public fear."Her husband, Eric Breitenbach, a fellow filmmaker, acknowledges that many people might find the subject matter tough to watch. When he has brought up his latest project in group settings, "you can hear a pin drop in the room ... You can tell people are immediately worried or turned off or apprehensive about watching or even considering watching a film like that."Breitenbach and Redman, who live in Deltona, Fla., often focus on those Redman describes as "marginalized."

Their critically acclaimed film "When Pigs Fly" chronicled a Flagler County, Fla., woman's battle to save domestic pigs from death. The production team also includes Gary Monroe, a DeLand, Fla., photographer.When the group started its most recent project, a mental-health counselor at the Palace encouraged his clients to tell their stories on film. It would be cathartic for them, said therapist Don Sweeney, and educational for those who might choose to watch.

By opening up on camera, "I wanted people to see that I'm still a human being," said Robert Smith, who spent time in prison on charges of lewd or lascivious battery on a child. Smith said he molested a 10-year-old girl at his son's party. Smith said he doesn't remember the crime because "I got pretty blitzed" beforehand.

People credit — or blame, depending on their point of view — a woman named Nancy Morais for creating this haven for sex offenders. Morais, whose son is a convicted sex offender, began offering services at the Palace for sex offenders when she was managing the park. The group she founded, called Florida Justice Transitions, has its headquarters there.

At the Palace, "I think they feel safe," said Sweeney, who runs group-therapy sessions there. "They don't have to worry about vigilantism, people hating them, putting them down."Redman said their subjects suffer with shame, guilt and remorse. In the course of filming, one went back to jail for missing by one day a deadline to register as a sex offender. One attempted suicide. Another faces eviction from the park."All of these guys are really hanging in the balance," Redman said.

"The tougher society makes it on them, the more likely they will not be successful, whatever that means: re-offend, return to addictions or commit suicide or become homeless."The Palace has its share of problems, although law enforcement officials say it's rare for park residents to get rearrested for sex crimes. Sweeney said drugs and prostitutes are prevalent.

Earlier this year, a transient visiting friends at the park murdered a pregnant woman whose fiance lived there, according to news reports. And there is occasionally tension between the sex-offender residents and their neighbors."It's hell here," said one woman who had complained to management that an offender in the park had harassed her.

Residents pay several hundred dollars a month to live — often with roommates — in tiny mobile homes packed tightly along narrow streets. Many of them are well-kept, landscaped and decorated with items such as pink flamingos. An American flag hangs in front of one home.Harold Cooney's home has a ramp for his wife's electric scooter. The living room is decorated with angel figurines and filled with wooden and glass furniture that seems out of place in its cramped surroundings. A small sign over the door reminds him not to forget to wear his electronic monitoring device when he leaves the house.

Now 76 and battling leukemia, he served prison time in 2006 after police caught him masturbating on a Web camera, thinking a 14-year-old girl was watching him on the Internet. It was actually a law enforcement officer.Cooney and his wife, Ruth, consider themselves parental figures to many of the men. She said her husband's arrest turned out to be a blessing in disguise because they have been able to help so many men at the park."If it wasn't for this place," she said, "I don't know where these people would go."

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