Men's pasts brought to light

A Lutz woman has made it her mission to show where sex offenders live.

By S.I. Rosenbaum, Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2008

PALM RIVER - The home for sex offenders opened quietly a few months ago.

One by one, men moved in to the ramshackle trailers off 24th Avenue S, men with terrible things in their pasts.

No one in the neighborhood noticed their presence. Not until Judy Cornett came.

There she was, handing out fliers. Speaking to the civic association. Holding a meeting Thursday night at a local church.

"Make some noise!" she told a gathering of about 60 residents. "Tigers will eventually attack. Sex offenders will eventually attack."

People in the audience nodded and muttered. One woman wiped away tears.

Cornett, who lives in Lutz, is an outsider to Palm River. But this is her life work: finding sex offenders and rallying communities against them.

In 1992, Cornett's young son was abducted and raped. When the rapist was released from prison, Cornett spent years hounding him out of hotels and apartments across the state.

Now, Cornett runs a nonprofit organization, Safety Zone Advocacy. She's softened somewhat. While her former allies were biker clubs, Thursday she brought along a Hillsborough County sheriff's detective and a code enforcement official.

She says she has come to feel sympathy for some offenders.

"I'm not against all of these guys," Cornett said. "We can't create hysteria in our communities over someone who's not really going to be a problem."

But to her, the residents of 5015 24th Ave. S are more than fair game.

Of the eight who live there, six carry the label "predator" for repeat offenses or especially heinous crimes.

One of them, Mitchell Westerheide, isn't termed a predator. But in 1995 he pleaded guilty in Volusia County to carving his initials into his then-underage girlfriend's skin, and tearing her flesh with fishhooks.

Thursday night, Cornett recounted the details of his crime. She played a video montage of the men's mug shots.

She said the company that runs the park targets poor neighborhoods.

"They're trying to find beds wherever they can and suck up the profits," she said.

But the organization that runs the park, Florida Justice Transitions, is also a nonprofit - best known for its Pinellas facility, Palace Mobile Home Park, which houses about 100 sex offenders, as well as Nancy Morais and her son.

Morais founded Transitions after her son, a sex offender, had trouble finding housing after his release from prison.

"Life as a sex offender is a very difficult thing for these men on a good day," said James Broderick, the nonprofit's business administrator. "Society being what it is, this is probably a better environment for them. These men will be better off and society will be better off."

They pay $400 for housing, utilities and a shuttle to weekly counseling sessions, he said.

"We're not making money. We're losing money," he said.

And he denied Cornett's allegation that the company targets poor neighborhoods.

Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Joseph Venero, who attended Thursday's meeting, said he still wasn't sure whether facilities like Transitions were helpful or harmful. "The jury's still out."

But Palm River residents were moved by Cornett's message.

"If something isn't done now, it won't do nothing but get worse," said Horace Baity, 53.

"Judy scared me," said Michelle Williams, who lives in Apollo Beach but grew up in Palm River. "She put something under my feet and made me want to get out and fight for the children."

Reach S.I. Rosenbaum at srosenbaum@sptimes.com or 813 661-2442. Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.