The message was clear. Protesters waved signs proclaiming, "Hit the road," "Not welcome in Marietta" and "Show no love for sex offenders" Saturday morning outside the residence in which former state representative Tom Armstrong houses three sex offenders. Saturday's demonstration was the second outside Armstrong's house, located at 704 East Market St. in Marietta, which has been a hotbed of debate for weeks. One of the protesters' main concerns is the safety of children in town.
"I'm here because I have grandchildren," Mary Smith said. "I think it's too close to our schools and our bus stop."
Tracy Portner agreed, saying she was picketing "just to get these wrong people out of Marietta and keep our women and children safe."
Mark Jardel, who lives just down the street from the house, said, "My issue is that it takes away from the community, and there are a lot of children around town. Who's monitoring these guys?"
Richard Owen, who served a 20-year prison sentence for rape, said there is accountability at the house, including a sign out sheet. The other two men are Paul Studdard, convicted of possessing child pornography on computers at Millersville University, where he was formerly employed, and Richard Barker, who served time for aggravated indecent assault of a minor.
"We go nowhere unless we tell each other where we're going," he said, adding that they all attend weekly meetings and receive counseling.
Owen said Armstrong really stepped up in providing these people housing. "The system demands approved housing for sex offenders," he said, but provides little help in finding adequate residence.
The protesters want them out anyway.
"They should be moved into the country, away from children and temptation," Nicole Styer said. However, just the offenders' presence is not the only issue. According to the protesters, the residence is located in a zoning district that does not allow boarders.
Armstrong defends his endeavor on both moral and legal grounds.
"God has moved me into this field because there is such a need to find housing for these people," he said, adding that over 80 percent of the phone calls and letters he receives are in support of his actions. He also pointed out the difference between sex offenders and violent sexual predators. None of the men living with him are classified as the latter. Over 400 sexual offenders live in Lancaster County, compared with only four violent sexual predators.
Armstrong said the protesters are motivated by fear and those living with him are inherently good: "People can change. People have a right to be able to live in peace, and we can be a community of healing and hope. Do you want these people to be healed and restored? I'm going to be part of an answer that makes sense."
Owen said he believes the protesters have the right to express their opinions, but "I do believe it's misinformed, fear-based and judgmental." Both he and Armstrong cited the fact that only around 15 residents showed up to picket.
"I don't think that represents the mindset of the community," Owen said.
As for the zoning issue, Armstrong said the law is on his side. He cited a 1981 Supreme Court ruling that municipalities could not force unrelated people out of their home if they are living as a family, such as with foster children.
Armstrong said the men basically live as a family, eating, doing chores and washing laundry together.
"They're always outside working on my yard and vehicles. They're actually very active," he said. Two of the men currently have part time jobs and are seeking full time employment.
In addition, Armstrong said the borough was unsuccessful in trying to remove veterans he housed since the late 1980s. In fact, the last veteran moved out a few months ago, not long before the current residents moved in.
Another recurring question the protesters had was why Armstrong's wife and daughter moved out of the house. According to Armstrong, they currently care for his mother-in-law, who receives hospice care at home, and actually have a good relationship with his boarders.
"They were not forced out of the house," he said, though one of the offenders' probation officers will not allow Armstrong's 16-year-old daughter to stay over night there. His son, 19, still resides at the house.
The former representative said he hopes the community can become part of the solution. "People think sex offenders, they think pedophiles, and that's not the case," Armstrong said. "The greatest fear we have is fear of the unknown. [The protesters] don't know these men. They're running with a fear."
That fear is a reality for some Marietta residents. "I don't go out at night anymore, knowing they have pretty much free reign," Styer said. "What's to stop them from being out in a car when I'm walking to my neighbor's house?"
Kandi Bridgette agreed, fearing for children in Marietta: "A school is just a few blocks up the street. These little children really don't understand to stay away from strangers."
Despite the picket and occasional horns sounding approval from passing motorists, Owen intends to keep fighting to stay "until the Marietta Zoning Board ceases and desists their misinterpretation of the law. I don't want the perception out there that we're running, especially when the law is on our side."
Armstrong agreed: "I thoroughly believe the law is on my side. I'm believing that goodness and truth will win out."
Armstrong is currently looking into purchasing a larger facility in Columbia that could house 10-12 offenders at a time. He said even though the mayor and other officials in Columbia have spoken out against this plan, many representatives from business and churches, as well as individual community members, have expressed support. ..News Source.. by Jason Gauz, Editor