EAST STONE GAP — Wise County and state law enforcement officials told a community gathering Tuesday that state law does not have a provision for sex offender sanctuaries.
The meeting of more than 100 local residents at the East Stone Gap Baptist Church’s community center brought Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III, Sheriff Grant Kilgore, Virginia State Police investigators and other county officials to discuss reports of a residence for sex offenders being located at the Imby Lane Mobile Home Park.
According to a copy of a March 18 letter from park owner Imby Lane MHP LLC — obtained from county officials — residents were told that registered sex offenders would be allowed to live in the park starting Oct. 1.
“We understand this may not be welcome news by some of our current residents,” the letter stated, “and you may want to seek housing at a different location. If this is the case please contact our office number to discuss options for the possible sale of your home.”
“There is no such thing as a sex offender sanctuary,” Slemp said in response to some residents’ concerns that the trailer park would be a such a sanctuary.
Slemp said convicted sex offenders in Virginia must register with police in whatever community or municipality they reside and comply with probation, parole and sentencing requirements issued by judges in their specific cases.
“We learned that communities like these are popping up all over the country,” Slemp told the audience. “Unfortunately, Virginia law does not permit us to do anything about it … and the General Assembly has not given us the tools to deal with it.”
Slemp said he has met with law enforcement agencies and county officials about any legal options, including restrictive zoning or deed provisions. He advised residents to contact their state legislators to address the issue.
“Tell us, tell legislators what you think,” Slemp said. “They need to hear what you have to say.”
The Virginia State Police maintains a sex offender registry on its website, Slemp added, including lists of offenders committing crimes against children. While many live in Wise County, he said, “A lot obey the rules. A lot complete their probation … keep the peace, do what they’re supposed to do.”
Sheriff Kilgore said his staff has spoken with Imby Hill’s registered agent, Florida real estate developer Jason Shirley, recently about his plans.
“This sounds more like a wish than a plan,” Kilgore told the audience about his investigators’ conversation with Shirley. “I don’t really see this moving forward.”
Several residents told Slemp and Kilgore they were concerned about many issues, including how distance requirements apply to convicted sex offenders to avoid schools, day care centers and attached playgrounds.
VSP Sergeant R.W. Hughes of the agency’s regional firearm and sex offense investigative unit said those distance restrictions generally applied to offenders residing near such facilities or loitering near them, not when offenders were traveling to and from work or other allowable activity.
“The key is ‘live there,’ ” Slemp added.
VSP Senior Trooper J. Minton said police typically visit an offender when they move into a community to make sure they are properly registered.
Hughes recommended that residents should document suspicious or illegal activity and report it to the sheriff’s department or commonwealth’s attorney.
Holly Maddox, youth program director at East Stone Gap Methodist Church, said she was concerned that the church was visible from the trailer park. She asked, if the church bought property within 500 feet of an offender’s residence, whether it would prevent subsequent offenders from moving to that site.
Asked if the offender proximity restrictions applied to bus stops, Slemp said existing law does not apply to stops.
“I can’t give legal advice and I don’t have a very good poker face,” Slemp said.
“I feel like I’m being bullied by the owner into selling my trailer,” said a resident who did not give her name.
Fredericksburg, Virginia, resident Cecil Hensley and Independence, Virginia, resident Tammy Lawson both acknowledged they were registered sex offenders as they called for equal protection under the law for offenders who are obeying the law.
“My god is a god of second chances,” Hensley said of his experience after serving his sentence. “Barely 3% of offenders commit crimes again. I hear a lot of fear here.”
As some audience members yelled at Hensley, Slemp asked the group to remember the words on the church banner behind the stage: “Extending his love, expanding his kingdom.”
“Every person in Virginia deserves protection under the law,” Slemp said.
Lawson told the audience that she had gone on to raise her children and become the director of a women’s shelter after her conviction. She added that sex offenders are classified in different tiers of seriousness.
“Public urination is a registerable offense,” Lawson said.
“It wasn’t his intent to bring outsiders in,” Chief Deputy Russell Cyphers later said about his conversation with Shirley, adding that any residence in the park was intended for local sex offenders.
“(Shirley) didn’t have a lot of detail,” Cyphers said. “He said he wanted to partner with local churches and groups and provide a place where people could feel safe.”
Cyphers said he has not been informed of any registered sex offender recently locating in East Stone Gap.
“We want to protect everyone,” Cyphers said when asked about the possibility of any sort of action against any sex offenders moving into a community. “We have sex offenders who live in the county who obey the law.”