A Mother's Rough Justice

updated 07/10/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2006 01:00AM

On the evening of Oct. 22, 1992, Judy Cornett was frantic. She had come home from work to take her 11-year-old son, Jason, to football practice, but Jason had gone bike riding with a friend and now was nowhere to be found. After three hours of phone calls and driving through the streets of their Tampa neighborhood, Cornett was about to call police when there was a knock at her door. Standing there, with an elderly woman who lived down the street, was Jason, dirty and bleeding. In a whisper he told Cornett that a man had lured him and his friend into the woods and raped them. "It was my worst nightmare come true," Cornett recalls.

It would also change her life. The once-ordinary divorced mother of two sons today is an ardent crusader with a consuming goal: to keep pedophiles off the streets of Tampa by catching registered sex offenders in the act of violating the terms of their parole. Since 2003 Cornett, 44, has spent hundreds of hours scouring online registries to find offenders' addresses and staked out their homes with a video camera, waiting for her targets to show up drunk, secretly move out, or cross the law in some other way that will get them sent back to prison. So far Cornett has helped put at least six men behind bars, according to Hillsborough County Sheriff Corporal Gordon T. Brown. "She has become a hero," Brown says.

Not everyone agrees. Richard Whitford, a Tampa psychotherapist who treats sex offenders, says Cornett's pursuit of these men may interfere with their getting jobs and establishing normal lives. "Zealots like her may be doing the opposite of what they think they're doing," he says. "Instead of making children safer, they may be putting them at risk." Cornett, a talkative woman who packs a 9-mm handgun for self-protection, has no doubts about her mission. "Sexual predators will always be sexual predators," she says. "I'm doing what I have to do to help other kids escape what Jason went through."

And that was hell. Just two weeks after the '92 attack, authorities in Illinois arrested Kevin Kinder, then 19, who pleaded guilty to performing lewd and lascivious acts with four minors and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. But by November 2001, after serving only six years—plus two more in a psychiatric ward—Kinder was back on the street. "I got frantic," Cornett recalls. "I got on the phone and called everyone I could think of." Over the next six months, Kinder moved 11 times, and Cornett—taking time off from her job as a medical-clinic administrator—followed him everywhere, posting flyers, calling local news crews and holding rallies that drew as many as 100 people. In the fall of 2003, Cornett tipped off police that Kinder had given a false address; he was arrested for violating parole and is now serving a 60-year sentence. "I just wanted to live a good life," Kinder, now 33, says. "Judy Cornett made that impossible."

Even her admirers say Cornett can push the envelope, usually by putting herself at risk. Among her gambits: She stands outside sex offenders' homes in tough neighborhoods. In 2004, for example, Cornett staked out Ramon Caraballo, 53, a registered sex offender; she spied him drinking alcohol, a probation violation, and reported him to authorities. Caraballo was arrested and sent back to prison, slated for release in 2013. "She's done things that are reckless, dangerous, even stupid," Brown says. Still, Brown and Tampa prosecutor Mike Sinacore say Cornett is careful not to violate anyone's civil rights.

She has, however, given up much of her life to her cause. Last year, after forming the nonprofit Safety Zone Advocacy—in which she teaches low-income kids how to watch out for sexual predators—Cornett quit her job, sold her interest in the medical clinic and moved out of her $350,000 home; she now lives with her mother. Cornett admits even Jason sometimes asks, "'Mom, what's the use? There are so many sex offenders out there,'" but, Cornett adds, "he doesn't tell me to stop." Her younger son Justin, 22, says his mom has been a good role model. "She's taught us we don't have to be victims," he says. As for Jason, now 25, his life was derailed by his trauma. Once a fine student and athlete, he became angry and withdrawn, Cornett says, and even attempted suicide. "I got to the point where I thought it would be easier to be dead," he wrote in an unpublished memoir (he declined to comment for this story). He also has been jailed variously for theft, assault and drug raps; last year he was released after serving almost 2½ years for burglary and assaulting a police officer. Although he has now started a home-improvement business, Cornett is worried. "He has been a victim over and over, and we just can't stop the cycle," she says, her usually calm voice cracking. It's a tough situation, but Judy Cornett won't let it distract her from tracking down more offenders. "I can't get to everyone," she says. "But I'm gonna try."

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