By JULIANA KEEPING
About 70 men had to move out of manufactured housing at Hand Up Ministries' mobile home community in south Oklahoma City. A new law prohibits sex offenders from sharing such living spaces.
The thought of several dozen sex offenders moving out of their homes down the street has Priscilla Garza on edge.
Garza and her four children, ages 1 month to 14, live in the Arrowwood Mobile Home Community, about a half mile from a south Oklahoma City mobile home park run by Hand Up Ministries.
The 14-acre park houses 170 men, all of them registered sex offenders.
A new law that prohibits sex offenders from living together in manufactured homes takes effect Sunday. That means about 70 of the sex offenders at Hand Up Ministries' location may have to find a new place to live.
Though they've never bothered her family, Garza said she hates that so many sex offenders live near by. The mass move out isn't appealing either.
“I'll be keeping them under lock and key,” she said of her children.
Fighting the law
The statute approved by lawmakers in 2011 clarified an existing law designed to keep sex offenders from living together. Police said such arrangements make it more difficult to investigate criminal allegations.
Hand Up Ministries fought the new law and lost in federal court. It sued to stall the law's implementation until a judge could rule whether or not it was constitutional. U.S. District Judge Lee West dismissed the lawsuit Thursday.
Among the suit's claims: the new law violates the First Amendment rights of the Rev. David Nichols, founder of Hand Up Ministries, by stripping the organization of its right to practice its faith without government interference.
The nonprofit group also owns a 6-acre mobile home community, comprised of married and single sex offenders, women who have recently left prison, and non-sex offenders, Nichols said. The new law means three people living there had to move.
At its peak, the population of sex offenders at the larger trailer park was 270, Nichols said. That number dwindled to 170 last week in advance of the law taking effect.
Residents pay a weekly program fee of $100, Nichols said. They receive spiritual support, help finding work and rides to treatment centers. While the ministry helps them get back on their feet they must follow rules like a midnight curfew, no drugs and no alcohol.
Residents have committed a host of sex offenses. Some of the men got drunk and exposed themselves by urinating in public. Others swapped sexual emails or photos with underage girls. One man was caught having sex with his girlfriend in a convenience store restroom. Another molested a 12-year-old relative while on a meth binge.
All received the same label: sex offender.
The law requires those convicted of sex offenses to register as a sex offender each year from 15 years to life with the state Department of Corrections and local law enforcement. They are required to update their address with a frequency scaled to the severity of their offense.
Police cite problems
The residents at Hand Up typically live three or four to a trailer, Nichols said.
That first caused a problem for police in 2009, Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty said.
Convicted sex offender [name withheld], who lived at Hand Up, was lurking around a movie theater restroom Oct. 24, 2009. The father of a 7-year-old boy entered the restroom and caught [name withheld] in a stall with his child.
Officers arrested [name withheld] and executed a search warrant on the trailer, seizing several movies of child porn.
[name withheld]'s two roommates at the time had convictions for sexual battery and indecent exposure.
That scenario creates a problem for police trying to identify which felon owns the evidence that would support the criminal investigation, Citty said.