August 2, 2013

Sex offenders, Pahokee congregation forge unlikely bond

8-2-2013 Florida:

PAHOKEE — The pianist at First United Methodist Church was as nervous as he'd ever been before a performance.

Music comes naturally to Chad Stoffel. So he wasn't worried what they would think of his playing. He was worried what they thought of him.

"Do they know about my past?" Had they seen the newspapers? The ones that showed his face and the words sex offender?

This was February 2012. For about seven months, Stoffel had been living 2 miles outside of town in a secluded neighborhood called Miracle Village. He was one of about 85 sex offenders who had quietly settled there under court order after finishing their prison sentences. It was a lonely exile but preferable to sleeping under bridges like so many other sex offenders around the state.

Now he was standing at the front of the congregation — on Ash Wednesday, no less — flanked by two other Miracle Village residents who were going to accompany him on the hymns.

Stoffel, 37, wanted to show the congregation that he was more than a criminal. He wore nice slacks and a dress shirt and tried to be, in his words, "perfect." Still, even Pastor Patti Aupperlee, who had invited the men to the service, couldn't reassure them.

"I don't know what's going to happen," she said.

Just before 7 p.m., a woman in her late 50s found her usual place seven rows back on the right. Lynda Moss, the church treasurer, had attended First United Methodist since she was little. She had harbored an aversion to sex offenders almost as long. It was the reason that she had once stormed into the pastor's office to tell her: "Those people will never change."

No one that day expected who would end up changing.

IN 2009, AN ACTIVIST PREACHER named Richard Witherow decided he needed to do something about the men he called "modern-day lepers."

In Florida, state law forbids sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, park, designated bus stop, day care center or playground. Some local laws push the buffer to nearly half a mile.

Witherow saw the consequences of these regulations.

The town of San Antonio, north of Tampa, virtually banned sex offenders two years ago. In Miami, a few dozen lived for years under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The Bradford County Sheriff's Office stakes big red warning signs in front of sex offenders' homes. ..continued.. by Ben Wolford, Times Correspondent

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