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Trailer park a 'paradise' for sex offenders
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (CNN) -- It's a community that seems serene, with just a wind chime breaking the silence. But look again and you will see many residents wearing ankle monitor systems that alert authorities if they wander too far away.
The Palace Mobile Home Park is a place that welcomes sex offenders. Ninety-five of these 200 residents are convicted sex offenders, including some pedophiles.
The adults-only, nondescript, low-income trailer park near St. Petersburg, Florida has gained a reputation among sex offenders on probation as a good place to live and stay out of trouble.
"Out there ... it's a jungle," said Michael, who did not want his last name used for this report. "In here, it's our own little piece of paradise. We're safe here."
Michael was released from prison in June. He's been a familiar face to law enforcement in Florida and Mississippi for the past 20 years, serving prison time for grand theft, drug possession and sexual battery on a child.
"I pray a lot that my victim has been given the opportunity to grow beyond the horrendous problem that I caused for them," he said.
In many ways, the Palace provides him a second chance at life. New laws across the country have limited where sex offenders and predators can live, banning them from places where children might congregate. This trailer park is far enough away from schools, churches, playgrounds and bus stops, allowing Michael to call it home without running afoul of the law. Watch "there's no better place" than here »
"As a sex offender -- when you come out, you're told you can't do this; you can't be around children; you can't go to parks; you can't go to the beach; you can't go to the library," he said.
Nearly 600 sex offenders have lived here in the past couple of years, according to manager Nancy Morais, who said she was sexually assaulted by a family member as a little girl.
Not only does she allow the sex offenders to live here, she also offers therapy to help them become part of society again. "Put him on the right track, and we have a better chance of seeing society be a little bit safer with this person," she said. "Can I guarantee they're all gonna be good? Of course not."
Some experts agree that it is hope as much as fear that keeps offenders from relapsing.
"You have to offer people hope if you expect them to change," said psychologist Don Sweeney, who works with the residents here. "If society only wants to tear them down and doesn't show them any way back, then all help is lost in their minds, and they are more likely to relapse."
Morais is allowed by the trailer park's owner to house the offenders. The owner, The R2 Property Company, would not talk to CNN for this story.
Morais said she carefully screens all her potential "guests," even with their unsavory pasts.
"If they come into our program, I would look them close in the eye and will tell them very clearly: 'You want to do good? I will do whatever I can to help you do good,'" she said.
"'You mess up, I'm not gonna cry when you are handcuffed and they are taking you away.'"
Morais charges each offender $400 per month, which includes all utilities. Most have roommates, with up to three or four per trailer. But not everyone who lives here feels safe knowing they are surrounded by convicted sex offenders.
One resident, who asked not to be identified, railed against the trailer park's management for not informing them from the outset about this rehabilitation program.
"They told us nothing. My place is worth nothing now," the resident said, speaking in a whisper.
Another woman said she had no problem living among the offenders, but she said it comes with consequences: She won't allow her grandchildren on the premises.
Others don't seem to mind. Teresa Atkins moved into the Palace a year ago. She is not an offender and didn't know, at the time, that almost half of her neighbors were.
"I'm very safe here. None of these men want to go back to jail. They will do anything to keep from going to jail," she said.
Because of the number of sex offenders, there is a constant police presence in the park.
"We make sure that they know we are going to be an influence in here," said Sgt. Judy Vovan, who supervises the Sexual Predator and Offender Tracking unit for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
"They're gonna see us in here very, very frequently, and we're gonna make sure they are abiding by the registration requirements."
On this particular day, Vovan and deputy Tammy Nixon are going door to door at the Palace. They ensure that all offenders are properly registered. The deputies said more offenders are coming to the park from all over Florida.
"There are people living in this park that have no ties to Pinellas County. We are very much aware of that," said Vovan.
Across the trailer park, Bill Sylvis, the maintenance supervisor, is sanding down a two-by-four. Morais hired him to do repairs at the aging, rundown facility, when he was released from prison in January for sexual assault of a child under 16.
"I was gonna do whatever it took, get my own little cabinet shop, furniture shop going," he said, speaking through a microphone he holds up to his throat. Cancer took away his ability to speak.
But no one would hire him, he said. "We're the bottom of the barrel. They don't want us around. They feel insecure, whatever, unsafe you know."
So far, only one offender who has lived here has re-offended, according to authorities. That man tried to set up a photo shoot with a child on the property.
One of his neighbors, a fellow sexual offender, turned him in."Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.” -- Gen. George S. Patton
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