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'ROMEO'S' VICTIM WASN'T NOTIFIED

He was allowed to come off the state's sex offender registry after a teen relationship.

Their teenage relationship occurred a decade ago and did not involve poetry, balcony recitations or vows to love each other until death.

"It's not a Romeo and Juliet story,'' the girl's mother told the St. Petersburg Times. "These were not two star-crossed lovers.''

So mother and daughter became angry Tuesday when they read a newspaper article and learned that Anthony Croce, 28, of St. Petersburg, was the first person removed from Florida's sex offender registry under the new "Romeo and Juliet" law that took effect July 1.

The law is intended to allow teens engaging in sexual activity with each other to distinguish themselves from rapists, molesters and sexual predators.

But the victim and her mother said they should've been consulted before Croce was removed from the registry.

"He should not be able to walk away from everything he did,'' his victim said Tuesday, sobbing at times. "For me not to be notified so a judge could hear my side of the story is ridiculous.''

The Times is withholding the two Pinellas County women's names because of the nature of the crime.

Croce was 17 when he started having sex with the 14-year-old girl, her mother said. When Croce turned 18, he pleaded no contest to a lewd and lascivious act in connection with that relationship, requiring him to register as a sex offender.

Just days after the "Romeo and Juliet" law took effect last month, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell approved Croce's removal from the offender registry.

No one from the state informed or talked to his victim.

"He had no business being with me,'' said the girl, now 25 and married. "That man basically took advantage of me.''

Mother and daughter said they have no problem with the law, but believe Croce's case does not meet the goal intended by lawmakers - to give relief to teens involved in consensual sexual relationships.

"How can a 14-year-old give consent?'' the mother asked.

The mother said her daughter was a virgin when she met Croce, a high school dropout who lived in the neighborhood. She said he introduced the girl to drugs and to a life of crime that ended with burglary, in which both were charged.

"It was a drug-induced, manipulative relationship,'' the mother said. "He took her down that road and she did not come back. To this day, she's challenged.''

Croce's Clearwater attorney, Denis de Vlaming, said the law does not require victim notification. Even if it did, it would not have mattered, he said.

"He either qualified or he doesn't,'' de Vlaming said. "The bottom line for this law is whether it was a consensual act or a forceful act. It was not forceful.''

Croce declined to comment via de Vlaming.

Notification isn't required

Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Beverly Andringa said the facts of Croce's status were not in dispute.

"As we read the law, victim notification is not a mandatory thing put on state attorneys by the Legislature,'' she said.

Should it be?

"I'm not going to respond to what the Legislature did,'' Andringa said. "I'm not a legislator.''

Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Kristen Perezluha said her agency, which maintains the sex offender registry, does not have victim information and therefore would be unable to notify them.

The victim dropped out of school and had a child by another teenage boy at 17, said the mother, who is now raising her 7-year-old granddaughter. She says her daughter suffers from depression and struggles to maintain steady work.

"I don't have a problem with the law,'' the mother said. "I have a problem with how it's applied.''

Underage sex is a crime. Adults, not juveniles, are listed in the offender registry.

But now they can qualify for registry removal if their victims were between the ages of 14 and 17 and were willing participants in the sexual activity. The offender can't be more than four years older than the victim or have any other sex crime on his record.

Another case is pending

Of the FDLE's database of 43,000 sexual offenders or predators, it is unknown how many people would qualify for removal.

"We expect it to be a relatively low number,'' Perezluha said.

So far, she said, Croce is the only person allowed to shake the stigma of the registry, though at least one other case in Pinellas County is pending.

The names and addresses of registered offenders are listed on the Internet and they are prohibited from living near schools.

"The problem with the registry is it does not discuss the facts,'' de Vlaming said. "It lumps people who are not truly sexual deviants with those who are.''

He said Croce has had difficulty finding jobs and when he has worked, he has been let go when employers learned he was a registered sex offender.

"The last 10 years have been pretty rough,'' de Vlaming said. "Psychologically, it's taken a toll on the young man.''

Croce's victim, who calls herself a survivor, said her life will never be the same because of her youthful relationship.

"I believe he is the one that's guilty, not me,'' she said. "For them to listen to his side and not mine, do they not care?''

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

'Romeo and Juliet' law

What it is: The law is designed to distinguish between people convicted of teenage sexual activity and rapists, molesters and predators. Offenders who meet the law's provisions can petition a judge to be removed from the sexual offender registry, which prohibits them from living near schools and publicizes their names on the Internet.

Who qualifies: Victim had to be between the ages of 14 and 17 and a willing participant in the sexual activity with the offender, who must be no more than four years older. The offense must be the only sex crime on the offender's record.

Source: Florida Statute 943.04354

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