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July 28, 2011

The Accidental Sex Offender

It was a classic teenage love story. He was a football star, and she was a cheerleader. They met, they fell in love, they started having sex. And then the cops got involved. Fifteen years later, they're still paying the price.

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frank rodriguez

Frank Rodriguez today, with his sex-offender registration card.

Photo Credit: Sarah Wilson

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America's sex-offender laws have a noble goal: to protect children from predators. A handful of states have had sex-offender registries since the 1940s, but most states began creating them in the 1990s, after an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling disappeared while riding his bike in Minnesota. In 1994, Congress created the Jacob Wetterling Act, requiring states to establish registries listing convicted sex offenders. That same year, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and killed by a predator who lured her into his New Jersey home. Two years later, Congress passed Megan's Law, making the registries available to the public.

Other federal acts have followed. The federal rules are broadly defined, and state laws vary widely. In 2006, new federal legislation tried to bring some uniformity to the tangle of state laws. The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, also known as the Adam Walsh Act (named for a 6-year-old Florida boy who was murdered in 1981), created minimum standards across the states. However, only seven states have implemented the act to date. A main reason cited is cost: Many states, already struggling to maintain expanding registries, say they can't afford any added administrative costs. The government has said that states that aren't compliant with the act will lose a chunk of federal funding, effective as of July this year.

In the meantime, the effectiveness of individual state registries has become subject to debate. Patty Wetterling, a child-safety advocate whose son Jacob sparked the Wetterling Act, now counts herself among those voicing concerns. The registries were designed to be "a very useful law-enforcement tool," she says, "but legislators wanting to appear tough on crime have hijacked that intent, have cast a very broad net, and are causing many people tremendous harm." Parents add that teenagers arrested for consensual sex are diluting the registries — making it hard to spot violent predators.

Frank Rodriguez was 19 years old in the fall of 1996 when the police rolled up to his home and arrested him. The eldest of three brothers and two sisters, Frank had grown up in Caldwell, where his parents worked for the city and the school system. Frank had spent his high school summers working on local ranches, and the physical labor served him well on the football field. Known around town as a star lineman and kicker, he was surprised when the police treated him as a criminal instead of a hero.

"The guys who cheered me on at games were treating me like dirt," says Frank, while sitting at a Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of town. It's a Sunday afternoon, and he has been working all weekend, doing carpentry work as a freelance contractor.

After spending the night in jail as a teen, Frank met with his court-appointed attorney, Mary Hennessy. Says Frank, "She told me: You could do two to 20 years if you go to trial. I was like, 'What?'" The attorney advised Frank to plead guilty, meaning he would get seven years' probation. He followed her advice.

Hennessy explains today that while she doesn't think it's fair to label Frank as a sex offender, the state has an obligation to protect children. Local authorities could not ignore the complaint against Frank, she says, even if Nikki's mother tried to take it back.

Once he was labeled a sex offender, Frank faced a slew of restrictions. "I couldn't talk to Nikki. I couldn't go to restaurants, public swimming pools, football games — any places where there might be kids," he says. "I couldn't vote. I couldn't leave the county without permission. My probation officer told me, 'If you even look at a woman the wrong way, you could go to prison.'"

Frank did not have to go to jail. Instead, he was required to perform 350 hours of community service — picking up trash, mowing lawns — and to attend weekly counseling courses with convicted sex offenders and pedophiles. He also had to move out of his family home, since a 12-year-old girl lived there: his own sister.

His father helped him rent a place, and Frank says he became depressed. A recent high school graduate, he had been planning to attend a nearby technical college. Instead, he says, "I just locked myself up in there — my life stopped." After a few months, he spoke secretly on the phone with Nikki, who said she would wait for him. "In my world, it meant everything," Frank says. He managed to get a job with the help of a friend whose father owned a construction company. He began fixing up a home his grandmother owned, then moved in. The day Nikki turned 17, she moved in, too. The reunion was an emotional one, as Nikki had endured a rough year herself: Her relationship with her mother had deteriorated dramatically.

Despite the unusual circumstances, Nikki and Frank's connection grew stronger. "We didn't have anything — but we didn't need anything," Frank says. "We were together." Nikki finished school, then got a job in the county courthouse, where she works today; she and Frank married two years later. The couple's first daughter was born about two years after that. Since Frank was still on probation, it was illegal for him to live in the same home as his baby girl. So he lived there against the law, becoming withdrawn and paranoid, constantly worrying about getting arrested. "My personality changed," he says. "I used to be the life of the party. Now I didn't want to leave the house." A second daughter arrived a year later.

In 2003, Frank's probation came to an end, and he could legally live with his daughters. Still, he needed to go to the police station every year on his birthday to register as a sex offender. Nikki lobbied officials in the courthouse — judges, district attorneys — to clear Frank's name, to no avail. Frank simply fell outside the parameters of Texas law, which stipulated that the accused had to be within three years of age of his underage sexual partner to avoid registration. Frank is three years and two months older than Nikki. A further element of the law said that the accused could avoid registration if he was under 19 years old and his partner was over 13 years old when they had sex. Nikki was 15. But Frank lost again: He was 19.

Nikki and Frank connected with activists, and traveled to the state capital to participate in a public hearing. Still, Frank remained on the Texas registry, his crime listed as "sexual assault of a child."


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