Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

“True Love” Meets the Rules (Felicia and Jeff’s Story)

Felicia and Jeff, both age 35, have been married just since 2010. But they’ve known each other for 22 years, so they watched each other grow up.

That explains a lot about why they’ve held fast to each other in a system that keeps trying to pry them apart.

In 2003, when Jeff was 24, he met and took home a woman at a bar who turned out to be an older-looking girl—she was only 15.

The girl’s parents found out and quickly pressed charges. Faced with 7 to 15 years in prison, Jeff took a plea bargain and spent 4 years behind bars. Released in 2008, but his sentence was just beginning—he was also placed on Texas’ public sex offender registry for life. On the list, his conviction reads “molestation of a child.”

Felicia says she launched into the marriage in 2010 knowing they’d face rough seas. The storms they’ve faced have been every bit as bad as she feared.

It starts with Jeff’s inability to get a steady job. He’s a carpenter who was employed full time before he went to prison. Since getting out, he’s applied to scores of jobs. But he’s been able to find only temporary contract work. All job applications ask about criminal record. But some also ask specifically about convictions for sex offenses.

Perhaps the low point came a couple of years ago when he walked into an office and asked to fill out an application, which asked whether he’d every committed a sex offense. He wrote that he had and that he’d explain during the interview. When he slid the application to the woman at the counter, she looked it over, glared, and said, “Seriously?” On his way out, Jeff glanced back and saw her drop his application in the trash.

That’s made Felicia the primary breadwinner, no easy feat on her wages at a retail store.

Their limited income would have made finding a decent place to live hard enough. But Jeff’s photo on the registry has made getting housing a herculean task. When they first married, Jeff moved to Felicia’s apartment in a suburb south of Houston. But that fell apart within a few days—the town has a ban on registrants living within a thousand feet of a school, and a nearby school had just bought an adjoining property whose back edge fell within a thousand feet of Felicia’s house.

It didn’t matter that the building the school had bought was sitting empty. Rules are rules.

So Jeff went to live in Tennessee with his parents. Felicia tried to find another place they could live that wouldn’t be in a banned zone. But she struck out—nothing was available. So Jeff came back to Texas and stayed with a friend of Felicia’s out in the country, away from the nearest zone with a residency restriction.

They decided they’d try another town where they knew people north of Houston. But Felicia got a reminder of the new world she was inhabiting when she tried to find them a place to live. When she told prospective landlords that Jeff was on the registry, she was turned down, often on the spot. “I just can’t,” apartment managers and trailer park owners would say.

“That was my first realization that things were completely different,” Felicia says.

For two months, she tried every apartment that she saw advertised but got nowhere.

A friend rescued them—the friend lived in another suburb and was manager at a trailer park. She rented a trailer to them.

That worked until their friend’s boss, the trailer park’s owner, found out. He told their friend they’d have to move—he was afraid that Jeff’s living there would attract other registrants.

So they moved in with friends nearby. That lasted a few days too—their friends had 5-year-old daughter, and a neighbor had reported their friends to child protective services on an accusation that turned out not to be true. But when CPS showed up at their door and found Jeff and Felicia living there, they ran their names and found Jeff’s on the registry. They told Jeff and Felicia they had 24 hours to leave.

No matter that Jeff’s original offense didn’t involve a small child. Rules are rules.

A friend rescued them again—he ran a trailer park in Pinehurst, and invited them to rent there. It’s where they’ve been ever since.

Jeff wants to improve his job prospects, so he applied to the local community college. He was accepted and paid for classes. But the campus required that as someone on the sex offender list, he register with campus police within seven days after classes started. So he went to see the police. That was a mistake. They told him that he couldn’t attend classes until he’d sent a letter to the school’s board of directors explaining why he was on the registry. He sent the letter but as of a month later, he hadn’t heard anything back.

Meanwhile he missed classes that he paid for. The police told him that one registrant waited 8 months to get approval.

No matter that the students on the college’s campus are older than 18 and Jeff’s offense didn’t involve an adult woman. Rules are rules.

Halloween is perhaps the worst day of the year for them. Felicia likes Halloween, used to throw parties. But now, local ordinances prohibit them from even turning on a light or putting up a single decoration. Their kids go stay with Felicia’s ex-husband that day because otherwise they’d have to sit home in the dark with their parents.

No matter that no study has ever shown a link between Halloween and an increased risk of sex offenses. Rules are rules.

So why does Felicia stay? “For 22 years I’ve known him, and I have never been able to stay away,” she says. “We have dated through the years, we have gone our separate ways… obviously we dated again.”

“And you know there’s just something about him with me and there’s something about me with him. So for us it really is truly love.”

“I could walk away any day. And you know in a couple years if it even takes that long I’m gonna be like ‘Where is he at? What is he doing? I’d really like to see him.’ And then the minute I see him, I’m not gonna want to go anywhere. So for us that’s the way it is.”

Think Paris and Helen, Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and Heloise. The kind of bond that can shake empires.

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