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Sex offenders finding refuge in Fort Myers woods
Question of the Day
FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) - Lee Dugan unzipped his pup tent, his abode in a patch of wilderness off Veronica Shoemaker Boulevard in Fort Myers.
He grabbed a flashlight and his ID and stowed them in a book bag hitched over his shoulders.
He was a Boy Scout, he said, but that did not prepare him for this.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Dugan. He is 46, but looks older.
A hammock stretched between melaleuca trees is the most comfy spot for his 250-pound frame. His kitchen is an upside-down grocery cart fashioned into a grill for coffee and soup. A wooden palette is his coffee table.
On this afternoon last month, Dugan was in pursuit of a hot meal. He stepped onto a worn path hemmed by slash pine trees. He passed the camps of his neighbors, who reside under makeshift hovels of tarps and tents in this small colony of homeless people.
But this camp is unusual: its inhabitants include sex offenders, who said the Lee County Sheriff's Office directed them to this hidden spot about a quarter-mile east into woods that run along a trail. The woods sit across from the city’s Trailhead Neighborhood Park and abut the Sienna at Vista Lake complex of one- and two-bedroom apartments, where, on this afternoon, young men played football in the parking lot.
Dugan had lived there since October. He had struggled to find someone to hire him after five years in federal prison for possessing child pornography. And it was difficult for him to retain jobs because of mental illness.
He said the sheriff's office showed him the camp location.
“They’re trying to give us a safe haven,” Dugan said. “They keep a close eye on us.”
The sheriff's office refused to comment on the assertions.
But Fort Myers police and social service providers said they’ve also been told it was the sheriff's office that sent them there.
This much is for sure: Law enforcement knows about the camp. On Wednesday, they told the men they would soon have to pack up and leave.
Last year, the sheriff's office tallied about 120 routine calls checking on sex offenders near the intersection where the camp is located, mostly occurring after another camp of sex offenders off Ortiz Avenue was disbanded by city police at the property owner’s request. Since May, at least 10 transient sex offenders and one sexual predator have registered to the camp, records show. Six are currently registered there with convictions that range from sexual battery to lewd behavior toward children, according to a check of Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s sex offender public registry.
Offenders can register as homeless without a precise address. The camp meets state requirements, which say that sex offenders can’t live within 1,000 feet from a park, playground, child care facility or school, though Fort Myers police said they found a few people living too close to the trail, which qualifies as a park. The sheriff's office told the police they would move them, police said.
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