Colony of Outcasts: Sex offenders find refuge in Fort Myers camp in the woods
A camp hidden off Veronica Shoemaker Boulevard is the only place in area some sex offenders have to go
Homeless sex offenders describes living in the woo...: After serving five years in federal prison for possessing child pornography, Lee Dugan says Lee County deputies directed him to a patch of wilderness in Fort Myers where other sex offenders have set up camp. Video by Guy Tubbs/news-press.com
Did you know?
What is a sexual offender?
There's a long list of qualifying offenses, such as sexual battery, lewd or lascivious behavior in front of someone under age 16 or an elderly or disabled adult, computer pornography and unlawful sexual activity with minors.
What is a sexual predator?
A sexual predator is a person who has been convicted of a sexually violent offense.
What are the registration requirements of a sexual offender?
They are required to report a litany of identifying information to their local sheriff's office including where they live even if they are homeless, employer information, and all email addresses and Internet identifiers. Sex offenders must complete a registration form at their office either twice or four times a year, depending on their offense. Sex offenders and predators must update their identification within 48 hours after any change in residence. They must maintain registration for the rest of their lives.
Information about where sexual offenders and sexual predators are living in the community can be found on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement public registry at offender.fdle.state.fl.us
State lawmakers push measures to toughen penalties for sexual predators
Four bills are moving through state legislative committees that would, among other things, lengthen criminal penalties for certain adult-on-child sexual offenses, require more thorough evaluations of sexually violent offenders and require colleges to tell students about a sexual predator on campus. Another proposed provision includes requiring registered sexual offenders to report more identifying information to their local sheriff's offices, such as vehicles in their household.
"The most limited government has the responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens," said Florida Senate President Don Gaetz in a statement. "That is why the Senate is uniting to make Florida a 'scorched earth' for sexually violent predators."
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 unique: 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.
Sheriff Mike Scott has directed his personnel not to answer questions from this newspaper. "As you know, we don't entertain interviews or answer questions with The News-Press," spokeswoman Tiffany Wood wrote in an email.