The number of sex offenders and predators living in Pinellas County has surged within the past five years as law enforcement continues a crackdown on sex crimes.
Since 2008, the population of registered sex offenders and predators in the county has increased by 26 percent, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office numbers show. As of October, more than 1,600 offenders and predators called Pinellas home.
"It's just going to keep growing," said Detective Scott Summers of the Sheriff's Office's sexual predator and offender tracking unit.
Most registrants in Pinellas County fall under the category of sex offenders — people convicted of a felony related to a sex crime. The minority are declared by a court as predators — those who have been convicted of a first-degree felony or have previously committed several sex offenses.
Both must register and tell authorities where they are living.
"It's a lifetime requirement," Summers said. "The only way to get out is dying."
In the past five years, the number of sex offenders registered in Pinellas increased by 21 percent, but the number of predators more than doubled, from 77 in October 2008 to 162 in October 2013.
Detectives don't know for sure why the number of registrants in Pinellas has increased so much, but they suspect that some other counties' stricter limits on where sex offenders on probation can live may be a factor.
In Florida, sex offenders on probation whose victims were underage may not live within 1,000 feet of a school, child care facility or other places where children congregate. But some counties and cities have tougher residency regulations. Miami-Dade and Polk counties, for example, have increased the buffer to 2,500 feet. San Antonio in Pasco County has a 1,500-foot rule.
"They've passed really restrictive ordinances and made it basically impossible for some offenders to live in those counties or cities," Summers said. "So they have no choice but to leave to another county."
Registrants have clustered in a handful of Pinellas communities.
About 120 offenders and predators live at the Palace Mobile Home Park at 2500 54th Ave. N in Lealman.
About 50 reside in apartments in the 2500 block of Harn Boulevard in Clearwater. More than 30 live at the Butterfly Lodge, a motel at 12500 U.S. 19, south of Ulmerton Road.
"I think word of mouth has gotten out that we have some locations that are somewhat predator/offender friendly," said Sgt. Christopher Wilkins of the SPOT unit.
Since 2006, the unit — which consists of eight detectives, a sergeant and a crime analyst — has monitored sex offenders and predators for the entire county.
It registers offenders at its Ulmerton Road office, and each detective is assigned a geographical zone to monitor. They notify residents when a predator moves into their neighborhood. They knock on offenders' doors to verify they still live at the addresses.
Among the offenders registered in Pinellas is a doctor, a massage therapist and a community theater director.
"They're not just moving in here and we're going to forget about them," Summers said. "There is someone still watching them."
Efforts by law enforcement to target sex crimes may be contributing to the surge, officials said. Prosecutors at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office have noticed more cases involving Internet sex crime arrests.
"The law enforcement agencies have developed some task forces to do that type of investigation," said Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson, "and they've been pretty active."
Jim Broderick, president of Florida Justice Transitions, a re-entry program for sex offenders on probation living at the Palace, said he has noticed a glut of people convicted of Internet sex crimes completing their sentences and getting released.
Some now call the Palace home. Its roughly 80 mobile homes are lined up in three rows off of Interstate 275.
The re-entry program screens potential residents; those with a high risk of re-offending are turned away, Broderick said. Once at the park, they receive counseling and life-skills training as well as transportation to the SPOT unit's office for their registrations.
Broderick maintains a 10 p.m. curfew for residents, and prostitutes who sometimes wander in the park at night are kicked out.
Before becoming the program's president, Broderick was first a resident. In February 2005, he contacted a 14-year-old boy in an online chat room and asked to meet with him for sex. The teen turned out to be an undercover detective for the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office.
Broderick was convicted of lewd solicitation of a child. He served three years in prison and two years of probation, records show.
"It's addiction," he said. "People don't want to talk about sex addiction because it has the word s-e-x attached to it."
At the Palace, residents are forced to face their addictions and problems during group counseling sessions offered three times a week by mental health therapist Don Sweeney, Broderick said.
For the past 30 years, Sweeney has counseled sex offenders. Many offend, he says, because they were molested as children. Their victims are typically the same age they were when they were first sexually abused. Half of his clients have alcohol and drug issues as well, Sweeney said.
The counseling helps many discover what triggered their need to offend.
"It teaches them to break through in a level of honesty. They get to make friends here," he said. "The community is kind of a strength in numbers thing. They watch out for each other and watch each other."
News researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157.