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A fence line away from its fear

It was pouring rain, freezing cold, the middle of the night. A crowd huddled along the two-lane country road, waiting.

At 2:45 a.m., police lights broke the darkness. Squad cars escorted the man past the throng, down the hill, to his mother's doorstep.

He emerged from his car and turned to look. The crowd erupted: Get out, they shouted. Go somewhere else. Leave.

Welcome to Williston, Thomas Luke. Welcome to the small town that wants nothing to do with you.

Luke is a convicted child sex offender. He left prison Tuesday looking for a place to stay, to work, to start anew.

The town heard he was coming, and it was ready. The people here know they can't stop crime. They can't stop child molesters. They can't stop Thomas Luke, or any ex-con, from settling among them. They can't even stop Luke from living down the street from the town's elementary school, as he is doing.

What they can do is make life difficult for him. So they have. And so they will continue.

Air horns will blare at 4 a.m., interrupting sleep. Protesters will gather, glaring each time he sets foot outside. Mothers will point, warning children to avoid this monster. Employers will see the name "Thomas Luke" on an application, raise their eyebrows, move on.

"He's got to feel worse than he did in prison. At least he had friends there," said Lisa Luke, who is Thomas' sister-in-law and among the most vocal passengers on this anti-welcome wagon.

Of course, human nature is a lot like physics: Every action sparks an equal but opposite reaction. Thomas Luke is digging in his heels.

His mother had been warning him for weeks before he arrived: The red carpet, if you want to call it that, would be lined with spikes.

He came anyway. And he's here to stay.

"If I didn't come back," Luke said, "that's telling them I'm guilty."

A mother's dilemma

Roberta Luke was always there for her kids, as they grew, and after they married and moved on.

So when her oldest son reached for help, she was there.

Thomas would be getting out of prison soon. He needed a place to stay and find a job _ auto work, body and fenders, mechanics.

Sure, she said, come and live with me. She liked Williston _ a town with more churches than fast-food restaurants. A town of about 2,500, people the police chief describes as "God-fearing folks who work hard and try to basically mind their own business."

But Ms. Luke's other children _ a daughter, a son, their spouses _ flipped out.

Pedophiles usually repeat their crimes, they told her. Williston Elementary was just down the road from her mobile home. What about the school kids? What about their children?

Ms. Luke was a nervous wreck. They suggested that she move. She refused. They begged her to rescind her offer. She wavered.

Finally she gave in: The deal was off, her son was not welcome. Two days later, she changed course again. Thomas Luke would live with her.

"I told them he was coming home, that by the system he had done his time," Ms. Luke said. "From there, they escalated it."

Her other children said they had no choice.

"We feel that we know him real well and that he'll do it again," said Kim Riddle, who is Thomas' sister. "If we didn't notify people, who would be to blame if he offended again? Us."

In 1990, when Luke lived near Fort Lauderdale, he was accused of molesting his 10-year-old stepdaughter.

Authorities say he placed his exposed penis on the girl's bare thigh, put her hand on his penis, touched her groin and rubbed her buttocks. They say he tried to have sexual intercourse with her.

Luke says he's innocent, that his former wife trumped up the charges when he tried to get out of their marriage.

A prosecutor, reading from the court file, says Luke pleaded guilty. Luke says he pleaded no contest _ neither admitting nor denying guilt _ because his public defender refused to go to trial.

Either way, in April 1991, the judge convicted him and sent him to prison for seven years. Luke served only three years, thanks to Florida's overcrowded prison system. He still has 10 years of probation to go.

As Luke's release date approached, John Luke, his sister and their families passed out fliers, explaining Luke's past.

They sent letters to Tallahassee complaining about early prison release. John Luke even visited the Department of Corrections office, looking for answers.

They checked with the probation department: Couldn't Luke be sent to a special home for convicted sex offenders? Could he be forced to wear an identification bracelet letting people know he is a convicted child molester?

They passed a petition, seeking an ordinance to keep Luke out of town. More than 1,700 people signed. Remember, the entire population of Williston is only about 2,500.

There was another petition, asking that child molesters be required to post a sign outside their homes announcing their convictions. About 1,500 signed.

The Williston City Council could do nothing. Their attorney told them these measures would violate Luke's rights.

"Whether we like to think so or not, he has civil rights, as well," said Debra Jones, the council president.

It was clear the town couldn't keep Luke out. But while working toward that goal, the people realized they had achieved something else: strength in numbers.

Thomas Luke had won the battle of the laws and the ordinances. The town regrouped, determined to win the war of the wills.

The great divide

About 14 hours after he arrived in town, Thomas Luke, 37, stood outside his mother's mobile home. He wore gray jeans, a red sweatshirt and a denim jacket, trying to ward off the unseasonably cold afternoon breeze.

"All I wanted to do was come here, live my life in peace, do my probation, and that's it," Luke said, cigarette in hand. "Now I'm blackballed. I can't even get a job because of this."

Across County Road 316, Luke's siblings have gathered. John Luke just finished exchanging expletives with Thomas. They are close enough to toss a football back and forth.

John was there all night, and others are scheduled to join him for the next night shift. He doesn't care if his mother is upset by all this. John doesn't even call her mom anymore. She's not my mother, he says. He calls her Roberta.

Roberta Luke stopped going to work weeks ago. She was embarrassed by the fliers, afraid that people would harm her. Tuesday, the day she set out to pick up her son from the bus station, she found her tires slashed and her radiator hose cut.

On Thursday, the authorities forced the protesters to move off the shoulder of the road. No matter. The people who live next to Ms. Luke agreed to allow the protesters onto their property.

"The only thing that separates them now is the fence line," said police Chief Olin Slaughter. "Really, there's nothing much we can do."

The conflict has strained Slaughter's 10-officer force. The chief himself was at Ms. Luke's house when Luke made his middle-of-the-night arrival. Ocala police escorted Luke from their bus station because protesters had gathered waiting for Luke to arrive; local squads joined in at the Williston city limits.

These days, the chief pays a man overtime to stay outside Ms. Luke's house from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. During the day, the officers on patrol frequently pass by.

Slaughter notes that one of the terms of Luke's probation is that he cannot have contact with any child younger than 14.

"It seems patently unfair to Mr. Luke to put him in a position where he's a block away from an elementary school," the chief said. "To me, it defies good common sense on the part of the criminal justice system."

Regardless, Luke is there. School officials have taken no extra steps, although parents are aware he is nearby. Luke says they have nothing to fear; he doesn't want to harm anyone.

In fact, he says, he and his mother have been the ones harmed most. "This is senseless," he said. "It's stupid. It's childish. Give me a chance to prove myself. That's all I'm asking for."

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