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Sex offender flees center on copter

The man and the pilot, thought to be armed, are on the run after the helicopter crashes just 100 yards away.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2000


It was recreation time at Martin Treatment Center. Behind the fences and razor wire in 90-degree heat, dozens of sex offenders were shooting hoops, playing volleyball and chatting in the open grassy area.

Suddenly, like a scene from a Hollywood thriller, a chopper zoomed over the fence. As several staffers watched in helpless amazement, one of the men sprinted toward his ride to freedom.

The chopper bounced on the ground a couple times, then barely cleared the 15-foot-high fence before crashing 100 yards away in an Indiantown orange grove.

By late Monday, convicted sex offender Steven Whitsett, 28, was still on the run, along with the novice helicopter pilot, thought to be 23-year-old Clifford Sebastian Berkhart.

Authorities were searching nearby orange groves, swamps and woodlands for signs of the two men, thought to be armed and uninjured.

"They're dealing with bugs big enough to carry them off, unbelievable heat and no relief. We don't believe they have any water or provisions with them," said Martin County sheriff's spokeswoman Jenell Atlas.

Whitsett was convicted in Broward County in 1994 of lewd and lascivious assault and sexual battery on a victim under 16, and he completed his prison sentence last year. But under Florida's controversial Jimmy Ryce Act, he faced the prospect of indefinite incarceration as a sexual predator.

The Broward County State Attorney's Office was seeking to keep him locked up under the Ryce Act, and Whitsett was awaiting a civil trial to determine whether he represents a continuing threat to children.

Reached at her home in Pembroke Pines, Whitsett's mother, Susan, could not say what drove her son to escape, but she said few people can comprehend the desperation of someone under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

"Unless a person has been in the position of having gone through the ordeal of a trial, the ordeal of sentencing, having successfully satisfied what society said was required of them, and then, two days before they were scheduled to be released, be moved to another facility and placed in a limbo, can you begin in some small measure to understand?"

Whitsett had an undisclosed visitor the day before, could make unlimited collect calls and at one point had an illegal pager confiscated from him. He also had a laptop computer, which he said he used to play games and write.

When the 1993 Robinson 22 training helicopter descended about 1 p.m., staffers could do little but watch. Authorities said the chopper descended into an open recreation area and hovered at about chest level as Whitsett climbed on the runner. It wavered and bumped the ground twice, possibly clipping it with the rotor, before taking off.

"Nobody was close enough to try and tackle him," said Robert Briody, executive director of the Martin Treatment Center.

The facility, a converted former county jail about 35 miles northwest of West Palm Beach, is on a rural 640-acre tract that also holds two state prison facilities.

Despite the razor wire and Department of Corrections officers patrolling the perimeter, the facility is technically not a prison. Officially, it is a treatment center, though it faces constitutional challenges from critics who say it is intended to confine offenders who have served their sentence.

Whitsett himself expressed his bitterness about the Ryce Act to a Times reporter last year. The Martin facility, he said, is practically identical to a prison.

"Even the menu they put up for the chow hall is the prison menu," he said. "Same paper, same format, same food."

One distinction: Martin Treatment Center has no armed guards in towers. Because detainees are held under civil law, deadly force is forbidden to stop escapees. Staffers have access to pepper spray and electronic stun shields, but they had no chance to use them on Whitsett.

"If a helicopter tried to land at a prison, we probably would fire shots," said Corrections spokeswoman Frances Marine.

In fact, last December two women hijacked a helicopter with plans to spring a death row inmate from the Union Correctional Institution near Raiford. They abandoned their plan as the chopper approached the maximum security prison and were arrested.

Convicted drug kingpin and former powerboat champion Benjamin "Barry" Kramer of Miami came only slightly closer to freedom in 1989. A helicopter trying to pluck him from a federal prison crashed inside the prison fence.

In Monday's daring attempt, the helicopter was flown by Clifford Sebastian Berkhart, 23, who took off from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport around 11 a.m., according to the National Transportation Safety Board in Atlanta.

Berkhart has been in flight training for two months at Volar Helicopter, the NTSB said, and this was only his second solo flight. He had 31 hours of flight time, not enough for a Federal Aviation Administration private flying license.

Whitsett, who spent most of his prison sentence at Zephyrhills Correctional in Pasco County, is described as bright and articulate. He was a psychology major at Nova Southeastern University in Broward County when he was arrested for performing sex acts and taking nude photographs of a 15-year-old male patient at an adolescent sex offender facility.

Although he was already on probation for soliciting someone under 16 for prostitution, Whitsett convinced a Nova professor to approve a research project at the adolescent treatment facility, said Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider, who prosecuted him. Although he was not supposed to have contact with patients, she said, he managed to start a relationship with one of the patients.

On Monday, amid the groves and swamps where Whitsett disappeared, deputies and prison officers from the nearby Martin Correctional Institution were searching from the air with helicopters and on foot with dogs. Atlas, of the Sheriff's Office, said they had searched vehicles on the two-lane highway next to the crash.

Dorothy Raulerson, who lives on a cattle ranch about 10 miles south of the treatment center and its neighboring prisons, has seen occasional escapes over more than 40 years in the area, but she wasn't too worried Monday night.

"Now I might be afraid for somebody up the road, but if somebody escapes I know they're not going to stay in this vicinity if they can help it," she said. "But I'm going to be very careful tonight."

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which also included information from the Associated Press.

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Paper: Date: 6/06/00+

Page: 1 Section: SEMINOLE TIMES+

Byline: JANE MEINHARDT

Notes:

LARGO -- An elderly, disabled Largo man was in critical condition Monday after firefighters pulled him from his burning apartment late Sunday

Bernard Thomas, 71, was taken by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg for treatment of respiratory problems and minor burns.

The blaze at Golf Terrace apartments at 2045 East Bay Drive caused so much damage to Thomas' ground-floor apartment that units above it and adjacent to it were declared unsafe, said Largo District Fire Chief Pat McGinley. During the fire, those eight apartments in the three-story concrete building were evacuated.

The fire was reported at 10:46 p.m. Two minutes after firefighters arrived, they found Thomas on the floor in his apartment.

It appeared the fire started in the bedroom of his ground-floor apartment, McGinley said.

Thomas is disabled and has a motorized wheelchair. McGinley said Thomas' legs had been amputated.

"He was found in the living room," he said. "We don't know if he crawled there from the bedroom, was asleep on the couch or what. We have not been able to talk to him."

The cause and origin of the fire had not been determined late Monday because of safety reasons. The fire damaged the apartment's structure so extensively that investigators were concerned about possible collapse.

"The structural integrity is in question," McGinley said. "The cables in the prestressed concrete are exposed, and the ceiling is sagging 4 to 6 inches in the center. That means the floor of the apartment (above) is also sagging."

The apartment had a smoke detector, he said, but officials are investigating to determine if the complex's fire alarm system operated properly. Several residents said Monday they heard no alarm. A woman who lives several doors away from Thomas' apartment said she slept through the fire.

Tricia Taylor, who was visiting her parents at the complex, did not know there was a fire until she heard big trucks outside and opened the door.

"You could smell the smoke then," Taylor said. "There were fire trucks, and they were already putting water into the apartment. We didn't know anything until then."

Some tenants took in their displaced neighbors, and others went to stay with relatives and friends, said complex manager Thelma Creech. Two people were allowed to stay in vacant units temporarily.

It was unclear Monday how long it will take before tenants are allowed back in their apartments, McGinley said.

"We're worried about the domino effect," he said. "If one apartment goes, the others probably will."

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