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Beach town tackles 'dirtbags' topic

Ideas to keep tabs on offenders range from ordinances that exceed state law to a Neighborhood Watch program.

Published May 11, 2005

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - Even one sexual offender living in their city is too many - and town officials hope to do something about it.

This month, Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Jessica Lunsford Act, which takes effect Sept. 1. The law requires electronic tracking of sex offenders on probation, increases prison time for child molestation, and requires local probation officials to use the state's sex offender database.

State law also bans registered sexual offenders and predators from living within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks, playgrounds and other places where children regularly congregate.

Now Indian Rocks Beach Commissioners Jim Palamara and Jeremiah Carmody want to go further by passing a local ordinance that would extend that ban to 2,500 feet.

Palamara also wants offenders and predators living in the community to wear electronic tracking devices even if they completed probation.

And he wants the City Commission to meet with Pinellas County School Board superintendent Clayton Wilcox to discuss ways to better protect children waiting at school bus stops, particularly early in the morning.

Carmody said he would push for placing warning signs in the yards where offenders live. He also wants to post their photographs on bulletin boards at City Hall and at parks.

These ideas - as well as organizing a citywide Neighborhood Watch program - were discussed during an Indian Rocks Beach Neighborhood Association meeting Monday night.

The highlight of the meeting was a personal appearance by Mark Lunsford, whose daughter, Jessica, was killed this year by a sexual offender living in his Homosassa neighborhood.

"Awareness is a big thing," Lunsford told the audience, urging them to take action to force sexual offenders out of their neighborhoods. "Change the rules of your city. It can be done. Tell them (sexual offenders) to get out. They are a nuisance on society."

When Jessica Lunsford vanished this year, convicted sex offender John Couey, 46, was on probation and had registered as a sex offender, as required. But local authorities did not know he had moved from his registered address to a mobile home in sight of the Lunsford home.

Jessica's body was later found buried in the back yard of that mobile home. Couey is charged with murder, sexual battery and kidnapping.

"I can't bring Jessica back. But I can go forward. I want to start a grass roots effort to keep these people out of our communities. We need to take control," Lunsford said before the meeting. He has spoken to groups in his Homosassa community and plans to speak next in Oviedo, where officials are considering stricter rules for sexual offenders.

During the meeting, Lunsford cautioned the audience not to become "vigilantes," but said by working together, people can "make it work."

He urged residents to work closely with local law enforcement. "They can't do it all," Lunsford said. "They need your help."

Two deputies assigned to the Sheriff's Office special Sexual Predator/Offender Tracking Unit explained state laws governing the registration and tracking of sexual offenders.

Residents were told how the six-member unit investigates the whereabouts of the 1,183 registered offenders and predators in Pinellas County.

The deputies urged the town to form a Neighborhood Watch so that "local eyes and ears" will be alert for known sexual offenders as well as those who have yet to be caught.

"There is nowhere you can go in Pinellas County and not live within a mile or two of sexual predators," Deputy Kelly Griffin said. "They are out there. They are everywhere."

She said that one in seven males commits sexual offenses against either children or adults, and that usually they are not caught until after they have "offended" an average of 138 times - which can mean multiple acts against a few victims.

The unit handled nearly 600 calls last month from people concerned about possible sex offenders in their neighborhoods.

"We can't hang out in front of a dirtbag's house and wait for him to commit a crime," Deputy Scott Summers said. "You are our eyes and ears. We need you to keep them open."

After nearly two hours of discussion, the consensus of the commissioners and nearly 40 residents was predicable: They don't want sexual offenders in their community. Short of that goal, they want to know who these people are and where they are living.

One way to find out, they were told, was to call the Sheriff's Office "SPOT" line (582-7768) to find out if someone in their neighborhood is on the list or to report a suspicious person.

[Last modified May 11, 2005, 00:46:18]

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