When a new playground popped up in the backyard of a storied LGBTQ community center in Wilton Manors, its directors hailed it as the first of its kind.
Backed by corporate sponsors JetBlue and Kaboom!, it was designed to be a “safe space” for same-sex couples and their children to play free from judgment or harassment, a statement to South Florida that “our families matter,” as one board member told the Miami Herald in 2015.
But The Pride Center at Equality Park had a secret known only to the director and his confidants: The janitor was a convicted sex predator.
The man tasked with picking up trash throughout the campus and who even lent a hand setting up the playground had raped an 11-year-old girl in North Miami Beach in 1995 and was sentenced to 10 years. The girl said he’d threatened to kill her if she told.
The checkered past of the longtime employee became public only after the concerned father of a 7-year-old boy called on CEO Robert Boo to act. Days later, on March 19 — about 15 years after he joined the center — Clarence Charles Collins, 63, was fired. Fourteen days later he was arrested for lying about where he had lived for the past five years — an apartment about 500 feet away from a daycare center — and failing to re-register as a sexual predator when he moved to the Broward County city. Both are felonies.
Police on Tuesday added a third charge: violating a state law prohibiting sexual predators who targeted minors from working near children.
“This elderly former employee of The Pride Center had decades prior, a single reported incident of inappropriate behavior toward a minor,” reads part of Boo’s emailed response to the concerned parent. “In his years of service at The Pride Center, the employee did not raise any concerns or red flags and in fact, was widely liked by those who knew him.”
Through a representative, Boo told the Miami Herald that he found out about Collins’ status as a registered sex predator in 2006, but that he was unaware state law bans Collins from working or loitering near a playground. But Collins’ record was concerning enough that he was shooed away from events that catered to children.
“While we had always worked to ensure that the employee was off site during child-focused events,” Boo said in the emailed statement, “upon learning of the playground statute last month, we immediately terminated the employee.”
Parents who spoke to the Herald said that isn’t entirely true.
Tom Mulroy, 53, recalls seeing Collins milling around the campus during various events hosted by the group South Florida Family Pride and heavily attended by children. Collins’ tufts of white hair and unkempt beard were easy to point out, said Mulroy, who attended these events with his 7-year-old son.
Mulroy said about 50 children would attend each event, and that they had free rein to run from the 2,500-square-foot playground to inside the center and up to its second floor.
“These things can happen in minutes,” Mulroy said. “He could have been in there with a kid for 10 minutes and nobody would’ve known.”
He doubts that Boo didn’t know Collins was violating Florida law by working on the campus.
“Who doesn’t know that?” Mulroy said. “If you can’t protect the children, then tear down the playground.”
Florida has some of the strictest requirements for sex predators in the country, especially for those convicted of preying on kids. Registered sex predators can be arrested for loitering within 300 feet of any place children gather, working at a playground or failing to register their current address and other personal information with their local sheriff’s office four times a year.
The designation is a life-long scarlet letter the state won’t scrub until you die. And even then, it’ll take about a year for the records to be wiped from online databases.
Collins was arrested in 1995 and confessed to molesting and raping an 11-year-old girl several times over the course of a month. The victim told investigators that Collins had threatened to shoot her to death if she reported him, according to court filings. After he pleaded guilty, Collins was sentenced to 10 years in prison and served about seven, including two in jail while awaiting trial, then served 10 years on probation.
Boo, who joined the center in 2006 as director of development, said via his representative that in 2012, when he was promoted to CEO, he called Collins’ former probation officer, “who raised no concerns and told me that the employee was no longer under any form of confinement, supervision or any other court-imposed sanctions.”
“The safety of all children, visitors, partners and staff is of the utmost importance to The Pride Center,” Boo said. “To ensure optimal safety and compliance with all legal and ethical requirements, we terminated the employee and have since created a task force to complete a thorough review of all policies, practices and procedures.”
Although Collins’ background is easily accessible through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s sexual offender registry, Boo said he first learned of the details of Collins’ crimes after the Miami Herald first reported them last week.
Boo, who has apologized for his self-described ignorance of the law but appears intent on keeping his job, refused an interview with the Herald, and despite stating he wished to respond, he only addressed a fraction of emailed questions sent to him via a representative over the course of several days.
“He didn’t know and didn’t understand the gravity of the crime, the depths of the depravity,” Boo’s spokesman, Evan Nierman, told Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago on Tuesday, after the Herald’s original story was published online. “He was horrified at what he read in the Miami Herald this morning.”
Collins has been in the Broward County Jail since being arrested and has been assigned a public defender. His total bond has been set at $8,500.
Gary Blocker, the assistant chief of police for Wilton Manors, told the Herald that “at this point in the investigation” his department had not received any reports of sexual misconduct against Collins and that Boo has not been found to have violated any laws by keeping Collins on staff.
“Our agency continues to investigate this matter in our endeavor to look at this issue in its totality to see what, if any, additional criminal charges are warranted,” Blocker said. “Through this process, Mr. Boo and The Pride Center have cooperated and assisted our agency’s investigative efforts.”
Tamara Lave, a law professor at the University of Miami and a former public defender who is not involved in the case, called Collins’ firing unjust and pointed to statistics that show the older a predator gets, the less likely it becomes that they sexually violate more children.
“This guy didn’t do anything for all this time,” she said.
She argued that Collins might not have been in violation of any law by working at the center, depending exactly on what safety measures the board put into place to limit his interaction with children.
Richard Alalouf, who heads South Florida Family Pride, a group of several hundred LGBTQ families that has hosted events at The Pride Center, located at 2040 N. Dixie Hwy., said that his group severed ties with Boo’s organization after hearing about Collins’ employment there.
Alalouf said that he had hosted several events at the center even before the playground went up, and Collins was there for at least some of them. Alalouf said he received Collins’ mug shot from a friend of his and immediately contacted Boo. “The [dominoes] started with me.”
Alalouf, the father of a 7-year-old son who has played at the park and visited the center, complained to Boo on March 16. Collins was fired three days later.
He sent the Herald a 2013 photo showing Collins helping set up a holiday party at the center. A few feet away, Alalouf’s young son toiled away.
“I’ve left my kid with Clarence who knows how many times,” Alalouf said. “We’re mortified.”
The scandal has rocked the Broward County city, famous for its large LGBTQ community, and led some to call for Boo’s resignation.
Heidi Seigel, a board member at the Pride Center and the mother of a 13-year-old who has frequented the playground, resigned last Tuesday amid the fallout, telling the Herald she doesn’t trust the center’s leadership “to create a safe environment for our family.” She blasted Boo for keeping families in the dark.
“Robert knew he was a risk,” Seigel said. “That is why Robert says he sent him away during official kid events. If he wasn’t a risk or violating the law, then why have this plan in place?”
Seigel said she learned of Collins’ past conviction on March 17, after Boo called her to discuss a complaint he received from Alalouf. Seigel said that at a subsequent board meeting on March 21, Boo and Board Chair Mark Budwig tried to keep her from speaking out about the issue. Every three minutes during her prepared, 15-minute speech, the men sounded a buzzer, she said.
She added that the men lined up character witnesses to defend Collins. These attendees “told me I was not welcome at the center.”
“The people that Robert had at the meeting said everyone deserves a second chance,” Seigel said. “I kept saying, ‘What about the victim?’ ”
On Wednesday, Collins’ defenders began donating to a GoFundMe page dedicated to helping him find a new job and place to stay. So far, just under a dozen people have donated $575. The goal is to raise $3,500.
“Clarence is going though a rough patch,” the fundraising page reads. “He was a faithful worker at the Pride Center for over 15 years. Never missed a day of work. Organized to a T, and didn’t ask for much in return. But what he got was some very amazing devoted friends.”
North Miami Beach police arrested Collins on June 23, 1995, and charged him with raping a young girl several times the previous November, according to the arrest affidavit.
Collins was working as a shipping clerk in Hallandale at the time, and according to the arrest form, he confessed to raping the girl, identified in court documents only as “C.W.” The girl was the daughter of one of Collins’ friends. As Collins awaited trial, the girl told investigators that he had shown her a gun and told her he would kill her if she told anyone.
The girl eventually told her mother on May 17, 1995.
Court filings obtained by the Miami Herald chronicle a pattern of abuse:
The young girl — who knew Collins as “C.C.” — described sitting on his bed watching a movie or playing a game “when he would start.” She spent weekends at Collins’ home in North Miami Beach.
She identified Collins to investigators as “the one who raped me,” the man who touched her private areas underneath her clothing and against her will. He would hold her down and force himself on her.
A mental health evaluation conducted by a psychologist specializing in sex additions and disorders found that Collins “would present as a mild to moderate risk to re-offend sexually.”
Initially charged with three counts of sexual battery and two counts of lewd and lascivious behavior, Collins pleaded down to attempted sexual battery and the lewd-and-lascivious charges. A judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison and 10 years of probation. He was ordered to complete a Mentally Disordered Sexual Offender Treatment Program. Less than two months into his release in 2002, he was arrested for not registering as a sex predator.
Two years ago, Wilton Manors City Commissioner Julie Carson was sifting through a sex-offender database when she spotted Collins’ photograph, whom she recognized from her visits to the center.
“I hope that you’ve taken care of all the appropriate registration,” Carson recalled telling Boo. “He said, ‘Yes, no problem.’ ”
But during that time, Collins had been lying to the state about his housing status. Since 2013, Collins registered as being homeless. He had been renting an apartment in Wilton Manors a few doors down from Busy Bee Preschool. He told police he had lied because he didn’t want to be homeless and it was too expensive to pay rent in an area where offenders are allowed to live.
“I’m disappointed,” Carson said, characterizing Boo’s lack of action as deceptive. “Part of me blames myself.”
On April 1, after reviewing the state law, she emailed her police department and the city manager to look into whether Collins’ presence at the Pride Center required some kind of disclosure from the center’s leadership. During the investigation, police discovered Collins had been living in the city undetected for years. Since then, schools and child-care centers in the city have been notified of his presence, she said.
“He was a part of the fabric of the center,” Carson said. “The downside is that part of the mechanism of a sexual predator is to weave themselves into the fabric of a community, establish trust, and then begin to operate in a way that is not healthy.”
“My hope is that there are no victims and that this was a person who was an offender who never offended again.”