PALM RIVER — Monday night, for the first time, residents here met with the woman who runs a controversial mobile home park for sex offenders.
Since the existence of the park was first exposed two weeks ago, neighbors had denounced her as an amoral opportunist. Why else would she house child molesters and sex predators?
But after hearing Nancy Morais speak, some said she was not what they were expecting.
Morais walked to the lectern in a room of First Baptist Church, where she had arrived with a bodyguard.
"As a young child I was raped," she began.
Morais spoke about her abuse at the hands of a relative. She talked about how years later, the same man had moved on to new victims.
She said she was trying to keep other children safe.
"I'm on your side," she said. "I don't want anybody to go through that."
She told them about the non-profit program she runs in Pinellas County. Sex offenders live by strict rules and curfews, monitor each other for drug activity, and attend substance abuse and anger management counseling. They sign in and out when they leave the park.
As she talked, the mood of the audience shifted back and forth.
One woman cited the high number of sex offenders already in the area. Why bring in more?
"I know where my six men are," Morais shot back. "Do you know where the 110 around your home are right now?"
A man asked how she could be sure the men wouldn't commit crimes.
Morais shook her head.
"Are there any guarantees in life?" she asked.
At times, residents talked over her, shouted back to her.
But Morais had already won over an important ally: Judy Cornett of Lutz, who runs a nonprofit that identifies sex offenders in communities.
Cornett first alerted Palm River residents to the park at 5015 24th Ave. S, rallying them against Morais. But Monday night she defended Morais.
"We've come to a mutual agreement to work together," she told residents.
She said she and Morais would find another location for the program, somewhere farther from children. In the meantime, she said, Morais would put a fence and gate around the park and a sign warning children away.
"I would rather see sex offenders be supervised by someone than not be supervised," Cornett said. "That's where I get a little bit of peace from this, knowing that someone else is watching them, not just us."
By the meeting's end, some residents had mixed feelings. "I agree with her program. They need help," said Tammy Layton, 39. "But I still fear for my daughters and her friends. What am I supposed to do?"
Others, like Katherine Gadsby, 28, said their view of Morais had changed. "I feel a lot safer knowing she has them under lock and key," Gadsby said.
Veronica Moore, civic association president, agreed. "It's going to be okay," she said. "She's doing a good thing. We have to work with her instead of against her."
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached
at [email protected]
or (813) 661-2442.