Randy Tifft stood in front of the packed clubhouse at the Embassy Mobile Home Park and tried to soothe the residents upset about the prison inmates living next door.
Tifft, a regional director at the Department of Corrections, was getting bombarded with questions about the types of inmates placed at the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center run by Goodwill Industries.
He tried to reassure them: "An inmate that has a violent crime, say murder, will not go to a work release center."
His statement, on the last day of January, visibly lowered the anxiety in the room.
But it wasn't true.
A Tampa Bay Times' investigation found 20 murderers housed at work release centers across the state, including one who lives at the facility next to where Tifft was speaking.
While work release centers are often described as a way for nonviolent offenders to transition back into society, a Times' analysis found that hundreds of inmates living in them have been convicted of violent crimes.
• Of the 3,495 inmates at the state's 32 work release centers, 615 inmates — or 17.6 percent — are serving time for violent crimes, including robbery, battery, aggravated assault, kidnapping, manslaughter and attempted murder.
• Many inmates in work release were convicted of multiple violent charges: 220 had two or more charges, 26 had five or more.
• At least four people recently were incarcerated in work release centers even though they were serving life sentences with no guarantee of ever getting out of prison.
• In addition to those who committed the violent offenses mentioned above, 117 other work release inmates killed or maimed people by driving or boating while intoxicated.
Pinellas County has more work release centers than any other Florida county. It is home to nearly one of out every five work release inmates statewide.
There are no other state work release centers in the Tampa Bay area.
At the Largo center, 18.5 percent of inmates were imprisoned for a violent crime. The murderer, Andrew DeNapoli, 42, shot a man in the head during a drug deal in 1996.
Now nearing the end of his 20-year prison sentence, DeNapoli works at a Clearwater marketing firm and enjoys a level of freedom not afforded in prison.
Work release prisoners are able to leave for hours at a time, often unsupervised. Many work in restaurants or the service industry. One man convicted of second-degree murder had a job last summer cleaning up after baseball games at Tropicana Field.
Time outside the facility isn't limited to work. Inmates can go to doctor's appointments, on shopping trips or to visit family.
Barbara Beresford lives with her 9-year-old twins in a subdivision near the Largo center. She has worried about the center's proximity since it opened in 2008.
She attended the meeting where Tifft spoke and waved off concerns about violent criminals.
There aren't any, he said, except maybe someone who committed a battery years ago but had served his sentence and showed good behavior in prison.
The Times' findings are "a complete 180 of what they've been telling us," she said. "I am shocked because I have been told that it's for nonviolent criminals.
"Even if it's one murderer, it's one murderer too many."
State corrections officials say they are aware of the murderers and other violent criminals placed in work release centers across Florida. State policy allows it, they said, and no changes are planned.
Criminals next door
Andrew DeNapoli was selling drugs in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1996.
He took several thousands dollars for marijuana from a man he knew. But police said he never handed over the drugs. Instead, he shot the man in the back of the head and fled.
Prosecutors called him a cold-blooded killer. The jury agreed, convicting him of second-degree murder. He is scheduled to be freed from the Largo center in October.
Other Florida work release inmates include a Polk County woman who shot a man twice in the head and killed him, a woman who shot and injured an Orlando security guard who caught her shoplifting, a 38-year-old Broward County woman who stabbed her 80-year-old boyfriend to death, and a Lee County man who got into a shootout with deputies. (A closer look at some of these violent offenders is on 15A.)
These aren't the types of prisoners state and private officials talk about when they open a work release center.
As Goodwill Industries prepared in 2007 to open the Largo center under a contract from the state, a spokeswoman said inmates would mostly have drug offenses and be nonviolent. In a report the following year, Goodwill said the center "serves non-violent male offenders transitioning from Florida correctional facilities."
The Times also discovered that some inmates serving life sentences have been assigned to work release centers.
Under Florida's old parole system, people sentenced to life can be released if the Florida Parole Commission approves. The parole system was dismantled in the 1980s, but still exists for inmates sentenced before then.
These life sentence inmates could be sent to work release, only to have the Parole Commission ultimately decide not to release them.
That's what happened to Derrick Joseph Johnson, a man convicted of second-degree murder who lived at the state-run St. Petersburg Work Release Center and worked at Tropicana Field, cleaning up after baseball games.
He lived at the center on Eighth Avenue S for months before he was sent back to a Polk County prison last month after he was caught with a cellphone.
Work release centers — and the Largo facility especially — came under scrutiny in recent months after two Largo inmates were accused of violent crimes.
Last September, Michael Scott Norris — serving a 15-year sentence for a string of burglaries — left the center several hours before his restaurant shift was set to begin. He then broke into a St. Petersburg home, police said, and killed two men working inside before setting the home on fire.
Norris, 36, had been living at the Largo center since late 2011.
A subsequent police investigation found that even though he was supposed to be released only for approved purposes, Norris somehow became a regular customer at a downtown St. Petersburg gym. He also struck up a relationship with a female employee at the work release center, which got her fired.
After Norris' arrest, Goodwill officials said they were "shocked and distressed" and had never had such an incident before.
Three months later, another center inmate was charged with sexual battery after he was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl on her way to school.
Dustin Kennedy, 28, left the center to try to get work at a nearby day labor site. The attack happened, police said, as he returned to the center.
Both Norris and Kennedy are back in jail, awaiting trial.
Goodwill officials, who have a state contract to run the facility, were left to field questions about security at the center near U.S. 19 and Whitney Road and how closely they keep tabs on their inmates.
Last month, 40 corrections officers and seven drug-sniffing dogs made a surprise inspection at the center after the Times reported about security lapses there. Afterward, a dozen inmates were sent back to prison for various violations and Goodwill was ordered to tighten up its security and oversight.
With about 250 inmates, the Largo center is the state's biggest. It also has the most escapes — averaging about one every other week.
Who gets in
Two crimes bar an inmate from getting into a work release program. Murder isn't one of them.
People convicted of sex offenses or escapes are not allowed. The law does encourage officials to pay close attention to violent histories, but provides much leeway.
"Having a murder charge, per se, does not disqualify someone," said Deputy Corrections Secretary Timothy Cannon.
Cannon and DOC Secretary Michael Crews said releasing any inmate into the community involves risk, but insisted it sometimes makes sense to put inmates with violent pasts into work release if they are carefully screened and have good prison records.
Tifft, the corrections official who told Largo residents that murderers wouldn't wind up in work release, acknowledged Friday that he had given incorrect information. "I must have misspoke that day. I apologize," he said.
He noted that regular inmates only get $50 and a bus ticket when they leave prison.
"Work release is a very important part of reducing victims and reducing crime in Florida," he said. Officials select inmates for work release only if they have shown a willingness to change, he said.
Work release "gives them a little bit of an opportunity to start reconnecting with that family environment, or that faith environment" and get a job, Crews said.
Those connections give them a better chance of becoming law-abiding citizens in the future, they added.
Even the murderers.
It's not easy to get into work release, Crews said. The waiting list earlier this month stood at 772.
Inmates must have 14 months or less left of their sentences. Anyone who has been to prison more than three times is disqualified.
Inmates also must have earned the prison system's lowest security designation, called "community custody."
A three-member panel at the inmate's prison evaluates the person's crime, background, skills and discipline history to determine their worthiness. A state supervisor has final say.
It might seem counter-intuitive to allow violent inmates into work release, Crews and Cannon acknowledged. But, they point out, these violent inmates are nearing the end of their sentences. It makes sense to start giving them some freedom now.
"Slowly introducing them with certain parameters and certain requirements certainly enhances public safety," Cannon said.
Crews, who took over as DOC secretary in December, said he wants to target inmates who might be wavering between a life of crime and a decision to go straight.
"So to your question about should we just eliminate violent offenders? If I took that same philosophy . . . I'm ultimately going to wind up with a group of people over here because of violent offenses that are never going to have a chance to go through some of those programs," Crews said.
It's unclear whether this approach works.
The Times asked the Corrections Department a week ago for any data they have that compares the recidivism of violent inmates in work release to non-violent ones.
A spokeswoman said the department has no report or study that could answer that question, but the information could be garnered from their database. As of Friday, they were still working on it.
While studies show prison inmates who go through work release programs reoffend less often, the Times could not find any that differentiated between violent and nonviolent offenders.
The Corrections Department, along with Florida State University, recently won a federal grant to study that and other work release issues.
In Largo, where neighbors resisted the idea of the work release facility even before Goodwill opened it in 2008, people speak with outrage about broken promises.
Sam Evans, 86, attended many of the meetings officials held years ago to get the neighborhood on board. He said he and his neighbors were led to believe inmates there would have committed only "petty" crimes or drug offenses.
Goodwill promised security would be tight, he said. Yet neighbors have complained for years that unsupervised inmates have hopped fences and caused trouble in the neighborhood.
"They walk in and out of there just like the motel across the street," he said. "How does a murderer get put in a place like that?
"They lied to us . . . about what was going to happen and how they were going to handle it."
Carol Dattoli, 67, is president of the Whitney Lakes homeowners association near the Largo facility. She too feels betrayed.
"Those are more like career criminals, which we certainly didn't think would be over there — not by any stretch of the imagination," she said.
Dattoli said she believes in rehabilitation. And she said she's sure there are people who are benefiting from the program. But she didn't expect violent offenders to be placed there.
"They made it sound like it was going to be all low-level folks," she said.
"For 20 years we were comfortable here, and now my neighbors and I are afraid to go out at night. . . . I don't want to think that it's hopeless, but how many times does someone have to lie to you before you don't believe them anymore?"
Times staff writer Michael LaForgia and researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Kameel Stanley at (727) 893-8643 or [email protected] Contact Curtis Krueger at (727) 893-8232 or [email protected]