WEST PALM BEACH (CN) - A woman says she and her children were booted from an apartment complex so a local ministry could convert it to a colony of sex offenders. She says the ministry bought the property to house the felons, but "at no point was the true nature of the business arrangement ever revealed to the residents," who had to leave on short notice.
Equilla Dowell sued Matthew 25 Ministries and Calvin Alston, former manager of Pelican Lake Village, 52 duplexes in rural Pahokee.
Dowell says that in December 2008, Alston's management company sent a notice to Pelican Lake tenants telling them the complex was being sold and converted to an "adult-only community" called Miracle Park.
The notice stated that "any resident who had children under the age of 18 living with them had to move out before January 1": less than three weeks away. If families "refused to move or comply with the new owners," Alston threatened to "evict [them] immediately," according to the complaint in Palm Beach County Court.
Dowell says the notice was part of a concealed effort to make sure no children were around when the sex offenders began moving in.
"At no point was the true nature of the business arrangement ever revealed to the residents by any of the defendants," the complaint states. "At the time, [Dowell] had a newborn baby and was on maternity leave from work. She did not have money to move and did not want to leave Pelican Lake."
Matthew 25 Ministries kept its intentions under wraps, Dowell's attorney, Lisa Carmona, said in an interview. But the details eventually emerged, Carmona said, and Pelican Lake tenants who hadn't lined up alternative housing found themselves living among dozens of former inmates, some of whom were convicted child molesters and violent criminals. Surrounded by this reality, the previous residents scrambled to get out.
Rev. Richard Witherow, head of the ministry, is unapologetic about his efforts to reintegrate sex offenders into society.
"Those branded as sex offenders have the most difficult time in transitioning back into society following their release from prison," Witherow states on his Web site. "In Florida, they are not permitted to live within 1,000 feet of anywhere that children congregate, including school bus stops. This has resulted in many receiving a technical violation of their probation and being sent back to prison. We continue to look for locations where we can assist more who are worthy of our support."
Witherow, who has been a prison minister for almost 30 years, recently published a book called "The Modern Day Leper," which claims that sex offender recidivism rates are exaggerated by the media.
Several former tenants of Pelican Lake have sued the ministry in the past year. Even when they put aside the reverend's controversial stance, the tenants say the community's conversion wasn't handled correctly. Alston Management's offer to move them to a complex in Belle Glade offered little concession: they say their leases were abruptly broken under false pretenses just weeks before the holidays.
And Dowell says she still hasn't received her deposit back.
She seeks damages for fraud, negligence, breach of lease, deceptive trade, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Carmona joined Shane Weaver of the Legal Aid Society in representing her.
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