Swept Under the Bridge
It's 5:45 a.m. and still completely dark when a car pulls off NW Twelfth Avenue and makes its way silently through the complex of streets just south of the county criminal court. The car turns into the jury parking lot, otherwise completely empty. It creeps past the massive concrete pillars under the State Road 836 bridge, makes an abrupt turn, and stops. The door opens and a stocky, middle-aged man exits. He walks over to a pile of cardboard, bends down, picks up a flap, and peeps. Then he does the same to a pile of rags. Finally he re-enters his car and leaves. After a minute, the rags and cardboard begin to stir three men stand up and begin packing their things.
The men are convicted sex offenders. The car, which visits every morning before dawn, belongs to Benito Casal, a state Department of Corrections (DOC) probation officer who enforces their 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew. If they aren't under the bridge between those hours, he will have them hunted down and arrested.
The men sleep near each other in a row, partly for protection from just-released inmates who wander out from the county jail that is just around the corner. They store their bedding a couple of boxes, torn blankets, and plastic sheets behind the chainlink fence that separates their concrete home from a muddy embankment they use to relieve themselves and shower (they accomplish this by filling a bag with water and poking holes in it).
They live a block away from Kristi House, a treatment center for victims of child sexual assault. They're also within 1000 feet of two day-care centers a violation of state law and less than 2500 feet from eight schools, a breach of county ordinance.
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"I don't know what I can say except that I'm certainly not happy that there are registered sexual offenders living within 500 feet of the child advocacy center," says Trudy Novicki, executive director of Kristi House. Novicki was never told that sex offenders lived under the bridge opposite her building. "It's a county parking lot; how can you live in a county parking lot?" Novicki plans to look into the matter with "the police department and the county parking authority and probation and anyone else I can think of."
Court files, DOC documents, and probation case notes reveal that state authorities are not only aware the three sleep at the location just north of the Miami River they sent them there. Unable or unwilling to find housing for the offenders as they left prison, probation officers Benito Casal, Kimilyn Cohen, and Robert Leiry began sending them to the bridge more than six months ago. Several circuit court judges may have known of the placement. Miami-Dade Police are aware of their location as well. Two of them list their address in the county's sex crimes bureau database as NW Twelfth Avenue and Twelfth Street, and the third is incorrectly registered as living at his victim's address.
Probation officers declined comment, referring New Times to public information officer Gretl Plessinger, who says they tried and failed to find a residence that did not conflict with state and local law. "Probation officers just don't know what to do with cases like this," she says. "I know we have people who are working on this issue, but I don't know if they've come to any conclusions, yet."
Indeed no one seems to have drawn a conclusion about housing sex offenders, especially those who leave prison homeless, but there have been plenty of ideas for where not to house them. Following the Jessica Lunsford murder in 2005, Miami Beach effectively barred sex offenders from moving to the city. Miami-Dade County responded the same year with its own rule, prohibiting offenders from living within a half-mile of a school. Across the country, similar laws have gone into effect: California voters approved a statewide referendum cracking down on sex offenders; Tampa recently considered banning them; and Suffolk County in New York recently proposed housing them in trailers that would move from place to place.
According to Miami-Dade Sex Crimes Bureau Lt. Ronald Rebozo, there are 27 homeless offenders in the county. But the number is suspiciously low, because it does not count those whose whereabouts are unknown. In March 2005 the Miami Herald reported that at least 1800 offenders had gone missing statewide. Miami-Dade had 243 missing, the most of any county in the state. In the last couple of weeks Rebozo's bureau has boasted of a series of crackdowns on offenders who have changed residence without notifying police. The men under the bridge haven't heard a peep of it.
Sanchez, Carrasquillo, and Wiese have been sleeping under the bridge by the courthouse for between two and six months. They all contend that they were told to report there immediately after their release from prison, and probation case notes confirm their story.
Angel Sanchez, whom the men call "pops," is 65 years old and was born in Puerto Rico. He was arrested on May 15, 2003, and charged with two counts of sexual battery after a relative reported he had been molesting her for "approximately five years," according to the court file. Sanchez had digitally penetrated her vagina at first when she was around nine years old. When she was thirteen years old, three weeks before she finally turned him in, Sanchez attempted to rape her.
Designated a sexual predator, he spent only a year in prison. On May 11, 2005, Sanchez was released and reported to a probation office, where his officer then Esperanza Alfonso had him arrested on the spot, ostensibly for failing to have cab fare to get to a temporary residence she had arranged in Hialeah. He was jailed for fifteen more months.
While he was locked up this second time, his new probation officer, Casal, looked into at least two assisted living facilities, but according to his notes, all proved to be within illegal range of a school, park, or day care. Casal called homeless shelters and found they either wouldn't take sex offenders or couldn't because of their location.
Ronald Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, states in no uncertain terms that he wants nothing to do with the problem of homeless sex offenders. "I don't take them I won't take them into our programs," he says bluntly. "I don't have enough resources to build a program to house sexual offenders, and at the end of the day, I cannot."
The idea to stash offenders under the bridge seems to have originated within a county probation office; very possibly it was Casal himself who started the practice. On June 12, 2006, Casal's notes indicate that he notified the court that "if the subject is released without a residence, I will have to place him under the bridge...." Sanchez would be sharing the location, the probation officer added, "with another sex offender that is residing there." The other offender is not identified, and it's unclear whether there were others before him.
On August 17, 2006, Casal ordered Sanchez under the bridge. But he wasn't acting alone. According to his notes, he informed a probation officer named Ilzee Rabel, who works in Circuit Court Judge Diane Ward's division, of his decision. Whether Ward herself was ever told is unclear. She didn't return several phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment. But one thing is clear: By this past February 9 Casal had visited the site near the child abuse center at least 118 times to enforce Sanchez's curfew.
"They treat us like animals," Sanchez says, "putting us down here. It's not right, it's not just."
Marco Carrasquillo, also Puerto Rican, was next to arrive. The short and wiry 45-year-old pled guilty to sodomizing an eleven-year-old boy, a relative, while holding a knife to his throat in 1997. He faced a possible life sentence, but plea-bargained for twelve years in prison, ten of probation, and sex predator status.
Carrasquillo was released this past January 3 and sent to Camillus House, where he spent a night before reporting back to the probation office the next morning. That day a probation supervisor, Dawn Dinatale, contacted a circuit office of the probation department "whom advised that [Carrasquillo] is to sleep under bridge located at corner of NW Thirteenth Street and Twelfth Avenue," according to case notes. Later, probation officer Kimlynn Cohen sent him there. "Defendant cannot sleep at Camillus House, must sleep under bridge," Cohen wrote.
He has been there every night since. Carrasquillo claims that Circuit Court Judge Cristina Pereyra-Shuminer, who didn't return phone messages, knew he was being sent to the muddy location. "I told the judge to let me back into prison," Carrasquillo says. "If I'd have known this was going to happen, I'd have finished my eight years there."
Patrick Wiese, also 45 years old, arrived under the bridge two days after Carrasquillo. Emaciated and toothless, he sleeps in a long cardboard box that looks like a coffin. He was arrested in late 2005 for molesting his nine-year-old stepdaughter and sentenced to a year, followed by ten years of probation.
When it came time for his release this past January 12, Weise was taken to a probation office at NW 167th Street and 36th Avenue. There, he says, probation officer Robert Laier told him he was telephoning Circuit Court Judge Reemberto Diaz to learn where Wiese would be sent. The homeless man says that Laier made the call, hung up, and said that he would be living under the bridge. "A person goes to prison, does his time. They're supposed to help him," Wiese says bitterly. "They do help others, but what do they do to us? Stick us under a damn bridge."
Diaz, who was appointed to the Eleventh Judicial Circuit by Gov. Jeb Bush last June, is the only judge who agreed to discuss the case. He says he cannot recall being informed of any offender sent to live in the jury parking lot and adamantly denies ever giving instructions to anyone to do so. He blames probation officers for Wiese's placement. "I can't say where to put them," he says. "We let probation deal with it."
It's hard to imagine a situation that is less safe for anyone. The rate of recidivism among sex offenders is high, and except for Casal's predawn checks, the men are left almost entirely to their own devices. Wiese and Carrasquillo have gone together several times to a day labor center on Flagler Street and registered for work. Wiese says he almost got a job "digging holes," but it fell through. Carrasquillo says he has looked for dishwashing work since he left prison, but hasn't found any.
And then there is the disturbing issue of treatment: Besides a compulsory weekly meeting with other offenders, there isn't any. "The only reason I can think that they put us here," Wiese reflects, "is that they're just waiting for us to violate, so they can throw us back in."
Meanwhile, the problem of homeless sex offenders isn't going away. Just four weeks ago, Circuit Court Judge Rosa Rodriguez had a sex offender in court named Ivan Daniels, whose family had agreed to take him in. The family's home, however, was too close to a day care or school. The offender's probation officer, Rodriguez was told, had found another solution. "It was a bridge by Twelfth and Twelfth, by the courthouse," she recalls. Rodriguez says she was shocked. "I said to the defendant, öLook, I'll release you, it's your right but I don't want you to have further problems or to be in a situation where you're out there, where there's maybe drugs.' So after conferring with his attorney, they decided the better option was for him to stay in jail."
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