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By DAN BARRY
Published: August 4, 2009
The leader of a homeless encampment in Providence, R.I., was arrested Friday night on a charge that he had failed to register as a convicted sex offender. He spent a night in prison before a supporter posted his bail Saturday afternoon, but he was arrested again on Tuesday afternoon — again for failing to register.
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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
John Freitas was first convicted as a sex offender in 1978.
This Land: Living in Tents, and by the Rules, Under a Bridge (July 31, 2009) The leader, John Freitas, 55, has emerged as a public figure in Rhode Island since early April, when he established a tent city for the homeless under an abandoned bridge in downtown Providence. He has been featured in several newspaper accounts about the camp, including a This Land column that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on Friday, and has been interviewed on local talk-radio programs.
Mr. Freitas told The Times last month that his past as a convicted sex offender in Massachusetts, with his last conviction dating back more than 20 years, is well known among those in the camp. He also said that he had diligently notified the authorities in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts of his whereabouts, but was under the belief that the requirement that he register had lapsed. This belief was bolstered, he said, because he had often spoken with police officials visiting the encampment and had been so public as the camp’s leader.
According to the Web site for the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board, Mr. Freitas was convicted of rape and abuse of a child, in 1978, and of indecent assault on a child in 1978, 1986 and 1987. Mr. Freitas said that after serving several years in prison, he has had a clean record and has held several jobs, including as a supervisor at a wire factory. But a layoff, combined with health issues, led ultimately to homelessness, he said, first in shelters and then in tent cities.
After being told by state officials that the Providence encampment — which did not include children — would have to break up, in part for safety reasons, Mr. Freitas moved the group on July 26 to a spot underneath another bridge, in East Providence. The police in that community were frequent visitors to the encampment, taking photographs and sometimes checking identifications of the camp’s 40 or so denizens, including that of Mr. Freitas.
Finally, on Friday night, the Providence and East Providence police arrested Mr. Freitas on a charge of failing to register as a Level 3 offender. His lawyer, Arthur Parise, said Tuesday morning that Mr. Freitas had provided him with many documents that “would indicate his requirement to register has in fact lapsed.”
“To my mind, he’s complied with everything he’s supposed to do,” Mr. Parise said. But he added that he was still investigating, and the court documents filed so far by law enforcement authorities were not detailed beyond stating the alleged violation.
A few hours after Mr. Parise explained his position, Mr. Freitas was arrested again at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence for failing to register as a sex offender.
After his client’s re-arrest, Mr. Parise said there was clearly a disagreement about the nature of Mr. Freitas’s case. “Is he required to register or not?” he said. “My position is that he isn’t, and their position is that he is.”
Charles McDonald, a spokesman for the Sex Offender Registry Board in Massachusetts, said that a requirement for a Level 3 offender lasts either for 20 years or for life, depending on the conviction.
Michael Healey, a spokesman for the Rhode Island attorney general’s office, said Mr. Freitas has “a lifetime duty to register” and was fully aware of that duty.