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4,100 citizens, 1 sexual predator

Belleair's posting a flier for 18 months plunges it into a gray area of notification law. When is long enough?

Tacked on a bulletin board in Town Hall, next to notices about scheduled flower plantings, is a picture of this town's lone sexual predator.

Underneath it are his address and crimes: Fondling himself in front of children in 1997. Buying kiddie porn in '94.

The message is clear: Warning. Michael Del Kirk lives in your midst.

Yet the flier poses a dilemma. Kirk's parents have asked leaders of the town they've called home since 1955 to remove the reminder of their son's past. They've grown weary of the anguish, embarrassment and scorn the sign has created, and they say their son deserves a fresh start.

Unsure what to do, town officials wrote Attorney General Bob Butterworth for advice. They were told that cities and towns _ not lawyers in Tallahassee _ must decide how best to notify residents about the worst sex offenders, sexual predators.

In Clearwater, the names and pictures of new sex predators are displayed on the city's cable TV channel. To the south, in Largo, volunteers go door to door to tell residents about their convicted neighbor. But neither city posts permanent signs. Kirk's has hung in Town Hall for 18 months.

Town commissioners will make their first attempt at settling the matter at a public meeting next month.

What should a town put first, protecting its children or allowing its adults to redeem their past? Rarely is the question so sharply focused. Belleair will debate and create new policy, but in this 2-square-mile town of 4,100 residents, it will affect only one man.

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When Kirk was released from prison 18 months ago, he moved in with his parents, Joan and Bobby Kirk.

Following state law, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement listed Michael Kirk's photo, address and crimes on its Web site, The law required Belleair to notify nearby schools and child care centers.

The town also took extra measures. Police alerted Kirk's neighbors. Fliers were posted at the front, side and rear entrances to Town Hall.

Michael Kirk, 44, would not talk to the St. Petersburg Times. But his mother says the signs have taken a toll.

Her grandson has been teased about his uncle. She says several parents pulled their children out of the town's only school, her Belleair Montessori Academy, when they learned of her son's past.

Joan Kirk notified the town police chief, in writing, that Michael Kirk would never step foot in the school. And police say they've never spotted him there. Still, that didn't satisfy some parents.

By November, the pressure was too much. Joan Kirk asked the new police chief, George Harmansky, to remove the signs.

Her son committed crimes because he was an alcoholic, she told him. He's sober now. Working and going to school. Let him move on.

But her request didn't prompt the removals she envisioned. Months slipped by as Harmansky consulted with other town officials, and Joan Kirk repeated her requests.

Finally, the town wrote Butterworth, asking for a legal opinion.

Is the town allowed to remove the signs? Is it allowed to keep them up? Should it do more, and notify new Belleair residents?

This month, the town received the answer: It's up to the chief.

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Kirk's legal troubles began 14 years ago. At age 30, he was arrested in the parking lot of a Largo child care center after a passer-by saw him standing outside his truck masturbating. After pleading no contest, he was sentenced to six months probation.

Then in 1994 Kirk ordered a videotape from a magazine ad. He sent a $50 money order and requested that it show "8 to 12-year-old females engaged in sex acts."

When Kirk picked up the tape, police were waiting. He pleaded guilty to the felony of possessing child pornography and got two years probation.

Time passed, and Kirk was managing a Largo bowling alley his parents owned. In August 1997, Kirk approached an 8-year-old girl and a 9-year-old girl at the bowling alley for a church field trip.

He got them to follow him to a small room, where police say he unzipped his pants and began fondling himself through his underwear. He offered the girls quarters if they would touch him.

Instead, they ran away. Kirk was charged with committing a lewd and lascivious act in front of a child. In March 1998, he pleaded no contest.

The judge declared him a sexual predator and sentenced him to 25 months in prison. Joan and Bobby Kirk were in court. Joan Kirk says she wasn't even allowed to hug him before he was handcuffed and led away.

Looking back, Joan Kirk says her son was so drunk that day at the bowling alley that he doesn't remember what happened. Nobody really knows for sure, she says.

She believes her son doesn't deserve to be labeled a predator.

"Michael never raped or touched a child," she says. "Two little girls saw Mike's underwear because Mike is a recovering alcoholic."

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It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The Kirks had two family businesses: the school and the bowling alley.

Their daughter already co-owns the school and will one day take it over. The bowling alley was meant for their son.

Instead, they sold it a few years ago.

Joan Kirk says her father was an alcoholic. So was his father, and his father before him.

Bobby Kirk's father, Michael Kirk's grandfather, was too. He killed himself in 1985.

Michael Kirk spent most of his adult life drinking two quarts of vodka a day, his mother says.

But he has been sober for more than three years.

"If he hadn't been an alcoholic, it wouldn't have happened," she says. "That's no excuse. But he's paid his debt. He's paid his debt big time."

These days, Kirk lives in an apartment above his parents' garage at their home across from a Belleair golf course.

His life is rigidly structured: Work at 6 a.m. Home at 3:30. Alcoholics Anonymous at 5 p.m. _ every day. Dinner with his parents. Bed. Once a week, he meets with a counselor. Once a week, he takes a computer science class at St. Petersburg Junior College.

Kirk's mother and the family lawyer, Fred Carrington, suggest the signs have stayed up for sinister reasons.

The Kirks have supported political opponents of current commissioners. Last year, they turned down the town's offer to buy the school.

With it being located two doors from Town Hall, town officials would have room to expand. Now town leaders are striking back, they say.

"Absolutely ridiculous," says Town Manager Steve Cottrell, who added that the town no longer wants the property.

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Last summer, real estate agent David Borota was escorting new clients around Belleair.

They were a nice couple with two young boys, and he had helped them find a home they loved: four bedrooms with a pool, on a golf course. They were ready to bid.

But Borota had a hunch. He had heard a sexual predator had moved to town. So he drove over to Town Hall. He saw the flier.

The house was across the street.

"I called them back and I said, "You guys cannot buy this house.' "

The fliers need to stay, he says.

"People who are relocating to the area, they have a right to know," he says.

The parents of the two girls agree. The mother of one girl says she has little sympathy for the Kirks.

They should never have let their son work at the bowling alley while he was on probation for a sex crime, she says.

"What are we going to wait for next? To kill a child?" she asks. "People need to be aware."

The mother of the other girl says that what still stuns her is that she was there, taking other children to their cars, when Michael Kirk lured the girls away.

"It happened right under my nose," she says. "That's a sick mind that would be brave enough to do that."

State law puts the decision in Chief Harmansky's hands. Right now, he's weighing his options. He realizes that his commissioners will debate the issue in a few weeks.

"We have to strike a line where the community is protected, and still safeguard the rights of individuals," he says.

No matter what Belleair's size, the town's decision must be made for the future, not one man.

"Tomorrow, there might be two," he says.

"That's how I'm looking at it. It's not a matter of how our policy is for the Kirks. It's what will our policy be for anyone."

But Harmansky asks himself:

"What if it were my own son that was the perpetrator? Or my own son that was the victim?"