Around 8 p.m. last Friday, a taxi sat on the westbound shoulder of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, blinkers flashing, awaiting its passenger. He emerged from the shadows beneath the overpass, arms weighed down with duffel bags. He climbed in, and the cab sped away. The man was one of at least four sex offenders to flee the bridge and go underground in the past year.
Only an hour earlier, the nearly 20 sex offenders living there had been paid a visit by probation officer Patricia Nelson. The district supervisor parked on the eastbound shoulder of the bridge, climbed over the railing, and plodded down the escarpment.
As she approached the men, Nelson, a tall, stern-visaged woman who seemed almost grandmotherly, waved a friendly, low-key greeting. They immediately surrounded her and engulfed her in questions, most of which amounted to: "Are you here to arrest us?"
The men under the bridge had been told on Tuesday to find somewhere else to live within three days, and the deadline had arrived. Probation officers had hand-delivered notices informing them they would "need to now consider alternative residency options outside the city and/or county." The notice ordered them to submit new addresses, but specified no penalty for noncompliance.
"They're asking us to come down here and have you sign another sheet," Nelson said, explaining the eviction deadline had been extended another 72 hours.
"I gotta sign again?" asked one bridge-dweller.
"I know," Nelson answered tiredly. "I know."
When New Times asked if Nelson would simply return every 72 hours with a new sheet, she responded, "I don't know. Right now I don't know tomorrow from tomorrow from tomorrow."
It has been nearly a year since New Times reported about the first group of sex offenders sent by Florida Department of Corrections officials to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway ("Take Us to the Bridge," March 15, 2007). The bridge is one of the few places in Miami-Dade County that doesn't violate a three-year-old ordinance requiring sex offenders to live more than 2,500 feet from schools and daycare centers — two and a half times the state-mandated restriction of 1,000 feet. This past December, New Times reported the number of sex offenders living there had grown to more than 20. Since then, several have been arrested for minor probation violations; one was deported; at least one has found housing; and at least four — including the man who left via taxi — have gone missing.
The notice the men received last week is the newest twist in an unfolding saga of national importance. Having had the distinction of being the first state in the union to order its residents to live under a bridge, Florida is now officially ending the practice. DOC Secretary James McDonough has announced sex offenders will no longer be sent to the Julia Tuttle or similar locations in the state. As for the ultimate fate of the bridge-dwellers, no one seems to know.
Probation officers provided the sex offenders with a four-page list of about 50 potential residences that don't violate state or local laws. None of the places — largely out-of-the-way hotels, motels, and boarding houses — is located in Miami-Dade. New Times called the closest one on the list, a Motel 6 in Broward County. Spokesperson Laura Rojo-Eddy said the DOC never contacted the chain. "We wish that they had; we would not have agreed to it," she said, pointing out Motel 6 has a policy regarding sex offenders. "We're family-friendly.... If we have known sex offenders, we ask them to leave." The bridge-dwellers say some of the businesses have quoted higher rates than those listed, while others have refused them outright.
On Wednesday night, Sgt. Rodger Irvine of the Miami-Dade Sexual Crimes Bureau paid a visit to the bridge. When the men asked if he had come to arrest them, Irvine responded, "No, no, we just came to see if you guys know what's going on."
The DOC has repeatedly asserted it does not instruct sex offenders to live under the bridge. But probation officer case notes and internal e-mails obtained by New Times have shown this claim to be false. Probation officers have consistently told offenders to report to the bridge or risk being re-incarcerated.
"I wouldn't call it a new policy as much as I would call it a plan that says, 'Look, it's untenable for you to live in the open like this,'" McDonough said last Friday, the same day the sex offenders' 72 hours to leave were to expire. The state, McDonough said, has identified every place in Florida that sex offenders can live. As to why nearly every county in Florida except Miami-Dade appears on the map, the secretary explained the 2,500-foot ordinance has essentially made the entire county untenable: "We mapped this out in great detail.... It left minute space on a map — I don't think anything appeared."
But handing a list of addresses to the men under the bridge is a far cry from resettling them. The state, McDonough acknowledges, is providing no money or transportation. The DOC says it has helped five men move, but at least one of them is still homeless — he simply registered himself at a spot at Krome Avenue and the Tamiami Trail.
No surprise, then, that supervisors like Patricia Nelson are clutching at straws in an attempt to find housing.
"Sometimes churches are willing to help in these situations," she suggested to the men at one point during her visit. "Do any of you know a church that might be willing to help?"
Beverly, who asked that her full name be withheld, has taken on the task of finding housing for her son. He was released to the bridge a month ago after spending 18 months in jail on charges of child molestation. She says he is innocent. "I'm not asking [anybody] to be responsible for him — this is my child," she says. "But damn, give him some leeway that he can come stay with his mom, with me."
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The greatest obstacle in the DOC's efforts to relocate the bridge-dwellers — not to mention in placing the dozens of sex offenders who will be released in Miami over the course of the next year — is they may refuse to leave the county. McDonough stops short of saying he will enforce the order to leave. "We have reviewed it all the way from the Constitution down. You cannot arrest someone because they do not have a place to live," he says. "That would be a violation of the Constitution."
Patrick Wiese, who has lived under the bridge since last July, believes the DOC is playing a game of chicken with local law enforcement. By advising the men to leave, Wiese says, the department puts the onus of arresting them on other agencies. "It's politics," he adds. "It's always been politics."
This past Monday, as the second eviction deadline loomed, several local news crews gathered under the bridge, cameras readied for the impending raid. It never came. "There is no deadline," DOC spokesperson Gretl Plessinger later told reporters.
That night the space under the bridge was full of people, as usual. For now, most of them will remain, 72 hours at a time.