Tracking homeless sex offenders

Posted at 1:53 PM, May 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-17 06:21:57-04

There are nearly 800 registered sex offenders in Lee County.  The state maintains a database so you'll know exactly where these criminals are located at all times, but our investigation found some offenders have been flying under the radar.

Sex offenders are supposed to tell authorities whenever they move somewhere.  But we found men who have raped children wandering around homeless, making it impossible to know where they're staying.  More alarming: they tell us authorities are the ones who instructed them to live in the woods, right next to large residential communities.

"There are some that they don't learn their lessons; they just keep repeating and repeating," says Robert Taylor.

According to the Department of Corrections, there are no "transient" -- or homeless -- sex offenders in Lee County who are currently on probation and require supervision.
However, the Lee County Sheriff's Office tells us they are tracking one homeless sex offender.

We wanted to track down homeless sex offenders for ourselves.  After all, you deserve to know where they are.  We began by looking for two men we reported on four years ago.
Back then, we uncovered how they were falsely registering their home address at a church on Ortiz Avenue in Fort Myers.  Instead, we found them living in the woods far behind the church, shunned by society.
"They treat us more worse than Hitler," says Eddie Pruna. He and Robert Taylor tell us they were not alone.  "You've got about four or five different sex offenders living out there in tents," says Taylor, a sex offender himself.

After our report in 2012, the men tell us police kicked them out of the woods and they moved into a North Fort Myers trailer, where they live today.

Knowing the exact location of sex offenders is important, especially when they rape young children.

"I sexually raped a ten year old girl," says Pruna.

"I sexually molested my daughters," says Taylor.  "The twins were six and my step-daughter was twelve...for about a year."

These men tell us they decided to move into the woods because their probation officer told them to.

"We talked to our probation officer, Tito Nieves at the time, and he says 'come at Ortiz behind the Seventh Day Adventist Church' the woods, and we stayed there for a year," says Pruna.

State officials say that probation officer resigned last year, so they can't tell us what really happened.  They do say it's not their policy to tell offenders where to live.

There's also a homeless population living in the woods just off Veronica Shoemaker Boulevard.  It became the center of controversy a couple of years ago when sex offenders said that the Lee County Sheriff's Office told them to live there.

At that point the city reacted, posting a 'no trespassing' sign, saying they had to find another place to live.

So just to be sure, we began searching the woods in that area.  It's right across from Trailhead Park.  It's also adjacent to several large apartment complexes.

Our search led us to one homeless man who clearly didn't want us there.  As we searched further, we found a homeless family of four.

Vinnie Harris, his wife, their 14-year-old daughter, and an elderly woman have all been living out there since losing their home last year.  "We've been out here now for half a year trying to save up money to get a new place," says Harris.

Even though the sheriff's office says there are no sex offenders living in the woods, the Harris's say that's not true.  They say a DCF worker warned them about a sex offender who moved into the woods last month.

They were urged to keep a close eye on their teenage daughter.  "You really don't know who's sneaking in here during the night," says Tiffany Harris.

The chilling news putting nearby residents on edge. "Put them in jail, they're sex offenders," says Shenika Morian.

Some feel these men can never be trusted.  We asked Pruna and Taylor is they are dangerous.  "No, I don't think so," said Taylor.

"No more dangerous than a dog," said Pruna.

We reached out to DCF to find out which sex offender may be living in the woods.  Fort Myers Police tell us sex offenders told them the Lee County Sheriff's Office instructed them to live in the woods.

The sheriff's office won't confirm that, saying the person who would know retired from their sexual predator unit last month.

If you want to track sex offenders in your area, click here.