Sex offender's past stalks him
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- As Kevin Kinder has chased anonymity from one cheap rented room to another in the past six months, Judy Cornett has been chasing him.
She wants to make sure everyone knows he is the man who raped her son.
Two weeks ago, Cornett and several friends came on motorbikes to the Fowler Avenue motel where Kinder was staying. She got him kicked out.
And when he failed to tell authorities where he went, as his probation requires, the state put him on an electronic monitor and a strict curfew.
For Cornett and her supporters, it was another victory against the 29-year-old sex criminal they believe is still a menace. For critics, it's another example of her obsession-fueled vigilantism, which they say is punishing a man who already has served his debt to society.
But the incident also shows how two lives have become deeply and strangely entwined. One is a drifter and high school dropout; the other a 40-year-old woman whose son he brutalized 10 years ago.
If Kinder is one of Hillsborough County's best-known sex criminals, he owes the distinction largely to Cornett, who has taken her story from the local news to the national talk-show circuit.
His photo hangs in the lobby of the Tampa medical office she manages. Wherever she goes, fliers bearing his face go with her.
"I always have him," she says.
The obsession was born in October 1992 on the night Cornett, a single mother, answered a knock on the door of her Tampa home to find her 11-year-old son standing there, late for his curfew and matted with dirt and leaves.
He had been bike riding with a 12-year-old friend when Kinder, already a practiced sex criminal, lured the boys to an isolated canal near Hanley Road and Twelve Oaks Boulevard with the promise of comic books and cigarettes. The boys reported that Kinder grabbed them by the neck, raped them and threatened to hurt them and their families if they told.
In a photo taken not long before the attack, Cornett's son is smiling and handsome, posing in a football jersey. He might be in college now, Cornett says, but the attack plunged him into years of rage and nearly suicidal depression.
As he grew, he also racked up arrests: car theft, burglary, aggravated assault, home invasion, battery, shoplifting, marijuana possession, carrying a concealed weapon. Now 21 years old, he is being held at the Pasco County Jail for violating his probation on a robbery-by-snatching charge.
"He is so full of anger that if you step in his perimeters he'll snap," Cornett says. "He said, "Mom, I'll never let another person touch me, ever.' "
In 1992, Cornett watched Kinder plead guilty to performing lewd acts on her son and three other boys and saw a judge sentence him to 17 years in prison.
Six years later, she stumbled on a Department of Corrections Web site that reported that Kinder was about to be released. The reason was prison crowding.
In August 2000, she led a throng of demonstrators to support the state's effort to hold him for treatment under the Jimmy Ryce Act, the law named for a Dade County boy murdered by a sex criminal. A jury declared Kinder too dangerous to go free.
But last November, eight doctors, including one hired by the prosecution, concluded that Kinder no longer posed a serious danger.
Since his release, Kinder has shuttled from place to place. Authorities list eight residences. At each, Cornett has made sure neighbors know who he is and what he did.
Once, she brought several dozen biker friends to help her.
At an unusual news conference May 10, the Hillsborough State Attorney's office announced that Kinder had vanished from his latest address, a Fowler Avenue motel, and had been missing for 48 hours. It turned out Kinder was in his lawyer's office, trying to get an injunction against Cornett.
"They think they've got a lynch mob on wheels. They think they can run rampant over him," says Michael Connell, one of Kinder's lawyers. "He's going to be haunted by her wherever he goes."
If it were a game, Cornett would be ahead, Connell says. "She was able to effectively maneuver him into a position where he got a violation of probation. I'm sure she can beat her chest all she wants."
But he says it isn't right.
"I don't care if she wants to sit down in a public square every day and scream out his name," Connell says. "But when she goes down and focuses on an individual, she's violating the law. We call that stalking in the state of Florida."
What makes Judy Cornett different from the vast majority of parents whose children were hurt, even killed, by pedophiles?
Even before she heard the name Kevin Kinder, Cornett says, she was a victim herself. A relative molested her throughout her childhood. Later, she chased relationships with abusive men.
Somehow, Kevin Kinder changed her.
"I am an advocate," she says. "My therapy is helping other people. I am motivating people left and right."
Gordon Brown, a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy and longtime friend of Cornett, says Kinder has "a dangerous enemy" in Cornett. "I call her my favorite Signal 20. Signal 20 is our code for crazy person."
"She's a complicated person," Brown says. "She's got a very soft side. She's the first person to hand a dollar bill to a hobo. But she's got this extreme hatred for Kevin Kinder, which I haven't seen her exhibit toward anybody else."
Says Bryan Quaife, a member of the Florida Outlaws motorcycle club, which has participated in her rallies: "She's like a pit bull. She's got her teeth locked in, and she's not going to give in."
"The club's behind her," he says. "If somebody did that to my kid, it would possess me to do that, too. I've met her son, and he views it as everybody's looking down on him because of what happened. It's not his fault. He was a kid."
Ted Shaw, a psychologist who specializes in sex offender treatment and who testified on Kinder's behalf at his Jimmy Ryce trial, says he doesn't think Cornett's crusade is keeping the community safer. Being isolated and friendless could push Kinder toward reoffending.
"It's interfering with Kinder reintegrating into the community," Shaw says. "How is he going to find a healthy relationship if he's running from place to place and avoiding all this publicity?"
In cases of violent crime, Shaw says, "The person that is injured frequently has less trouble getting over it than the parent of the victim."
Shaw says he does not know Cornett personally, but in similar cases, "Parents may believe they failed in their responsibility to protect (the child), so if they stay angry at the offender, it helps them feel okay."
If Cornett had been a victim herself, Shaw says, "This could be a way of gaining mastery over her own experiences."
In January, Cornett accidentally ran into Kinder at a cellular phone shop on Dale Mabry Highway.
"I was trembling," she says. "I just wanted to hurt him so bad."
Of course, she had fliers on hand to pass out.
"This way, I'm not retaliating on him," she says. "I'm venting in a positive way. Every day, people say, "Why don't you just kill him?' But then, where's that going to put me? I'm right where he is."
Living under the microscope might be a harder fate, she says.
"I think this is worse, having him look over his shoulder, wondering who's watching him, wondering whose eyes are on him," she says. "He's probably wondering when he's going to walk out of his apartment for the last time. I wouldn't be afraid of Judy. I'd be afraid of the rednecks out there."
John Skye, spokesman for the Public Defender's office, calls Cornett's actions "a vigilante-type crusade" and "an effort to ruin Mr. Kinder's life" after he has served his time.
"I don't know what the heck it is they think they are attempting to accomplish, other than making fools of themselves," Skye says. "If they're unhappy about how much time he served, then their efforts directed toward Mr. Kinder are clearly foolish, because he didn't sentence himself and he didn't let himself out. They ought to direct their efforts to the Legislature."
Cornett's son is less keen on her mission than she is. "He says, "Mom, you're just fighting and it's not getting anywhere,' " Cornett says.
She is now organizing a motorcycle caravan across the state to Stuart, where Kinder just moved into a boarding house. She is hoping to round up 25 riders.
She plans to follow Kinder until he dies.
She'll go to his funeral, she says, even if she is the only one who remembers him, the only one who shows up.
"I don't care," she says. "That will give him and me our time."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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