LARGO — Little Christian Milner does not know why the puppeteer who once lived down the street from him is in jail.
The 9-year-old said he still feels uneasy when he walks by Ronald William Brown's abandoned home in the Whispering Pines mobile home park. The electricity has not been turned off, and inside, day and night, a ceiling fan spins. The lights are still on. The remnant of a smashed front window stares fixedly at the street, like a bad eye.
"It creeps me out," Christian said. "I don't know why."
For adults, who know a lot about Brown, lingering reminders of his presence are even more disquieting.
Brown, 57, agreed to plead guilty to child pornography charges this week in U.S. District Court in Tampa, promising a swift close to one of the more bizarre criminal cases the city of Largo has seen.
According to a draft of the plea, which will not be official until approved by a federal judge, Brown acknowledged possessing pornography that authorities said included sexualized images of children being tortured, as well as "hundreds of images of deceased children."
Strange to say, these accusations are not what upset people most about him.
In the initial criminal complaint against Brown, federal agents said the professional puppeteer, who for years performed on a Christian Television Network show called Joy Junction, had planned to kidnap, cook and eat a boy at Gulf Coast Church in Largo.
Using Internet chat programs, Brown and a man from Kansas named Michael Arnett discussed the easiest ways to murder unsuspecting children, and the culinary techniques most appropriate for their victims' various body parts.
In the plea deal he signed, Brown avoided an initial charge that was leveled at him of conspiring to kidnap a child, which could have led to life in prison. His sentence on the pornography charges could be as short as five years, though his defense lawyer says it will more likely be six to 10.
"I think he should be in for a lot longer," said Stacy Gaughan, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives across the street from Brown's home. "Some people just don't belong in society."
It was a sentiment repeated by Brown's neighbors this week, who say in unison that he deserves to be shunned.
It has been three months since Brown's arrest, and his front door is papered over with eviction notices. It is unlikely he will ever return there, since his tentative plea deal requires him to register as a sex offender, making it impossible to move into a place populated by children.
For those at the Whispering Pines mobile home park, a community of young families and retirees, that is not enough.
"My personal opinion is that he should never see the light of day," said Diana Herbst, 60, who has taken to double-checking the locks on her doors since Brown's arrest.
Brown, a quiet man with thick glasses who retreated from contact with most adults, was virtually unknown to his neighbors before his sensational arrest in July. The criminal complaint against him, which includes transcripts of him and Arnett describing their cannibalistic fantasies in great detail, was printed and passed around the neighborhood like a memorable edition of the newspaper.
Brown's lawyer, Eric Kuske of Tampa, says his client's writings about killing and eating children were the stuff of fantasy, a sort of amateurish attempt at violent pulp fiction.
It's not an argument that brings much comfort to those who lived steps away from the house where Brown, bent over his computer late one night as Arnett sent him messages claiming he had drowned an infant girl, typed these words, according to his criminal complaint:
You are making me hungry.
"He might fulfill his dream," said neighbor Ann Lavecchia, 86, who believes he should stay in prison as long as he lives. "You can't trust him. You don't know what he'll do. He might get real bitter in jail and come back and do it."
Alan Gerosky, 31, looks at it this way: "There's a lot of stuff you can get in trouble for saying and not actually doing." Saying you want to eat a little boy, he said, "should be one of them."
Whispering Pines is full of children. In the afternoon, swarms of them just out of school block the trailer park's narrow streets to passing cars. They are out in force around Halloween, which is a big deal in this community.
Many houses had paper ghosts or plastic spiders hanging from the eaves this week, or decorative white cobwebs stretched across the bushes in their yards. There is an odd excess of wind chimes on Brown's street, creating an eerie, continuous music in the fall wind.
On Halloween night, Brown was known to crank up a cotton candy machine at his front door and serve young trick-or-treaters who lined up at his house well past midnight.
Christian Milner decided to dress up as G.I. Joe this year. His mother, April Waart, said she would be taking her son to a different neighborhood to ask for candy.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.