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Convicted sex offender remains free, but with new restrictions

TAMPA — A Hillsborough judge imposed tougher restrictions Tuesday on convicted sex offender Richard Chotiner but refused to put him behind bars while his appeal is pending.

Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman's decision represents middle ground in the hot-button case, helping to appease the mother of the mentally disabled man Chotiner molested without overriding a prior ruling by the judge's senior colleague.

Timmerman warned Chotiner, 48, not to violate the newly narrowed terms of his freedom.

"You will be in jail so fast you won't know what happened," the judge said.

Chotiner was convicted earlier this year of sexually abusing a man he met at the Adventure Island water theme park in Tampa in April 2007. The victim, then 23, functioned at the mental level of a 10-year-old.

In March, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett sentenced Chotiner to 15 years in prison. Instead of sending him there immediately, the judge agreed to release Chotiner on $50,000 bail while his attorneys readied an appeal.

Unusual but legal, the decision outraged the victim, his family and Fox television commentator Bill O'Reilly, who sent a producer to confront Padgett at a convenience store.

On Tuesday, a prosecutor asked Timmerman to reverse Padgett's ruling. Timmerman took over the sex crimes division after Padgett's retirement.

Assistant State Attorney Kimberly Hindman argued that Chotiner was a flight risk and a danger to the community. She recounted how the former nurse, then on probation for driving under the influence, had tricked the mentally disabled man into coming to his home and performed sexual acts on him.

The victim told the judge about his recent panic attacks. His mother, Linda Petruzzi, said her family lives in fear.

Padgett did not require Chotiner to wear an electronic monitoring device.

"We are scared because Mr. Chotiner lives two miles from our home," she said. "We are the ones in prison now. We have to stay locked up in the house."

Timmerman said if the case had been his to decide first, he probably would have kept Chotiner jailed.

But the judge said the state was essentially asking him to find that Padgett, who served 34 years as a judge, failed to exercise sound judicial discretion. He refused to do so, saying he had no doubt that his colleague understood the laws that permitted Chotiner's appeals bond.

"To say that he didn't would be like saying a first-grade teacher doesn't know the ABCs to teach her class," Timmerman said. "Judge Padgett knows and knew the law."

Acknowledging the victim's concerns, Timmerman ordered Chotiner, who is living with his elderly parents, to be placed on an electronic monitoring device and to follow a curfew. He is not to have any contact with the victim, minors or mentally disabled individuals.

After the hearing, Petruzzi sounded tired and resigned.

"It's not exactly what we had hoped for," she said, but "it's better than nothing."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Convicted sex offender remains free, but with new restrictions 04/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 12:10am]
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