Triumph Church harbors sex offenders

Believing it was his calling to reach out to the people Jesus called “the least of these,” Pastor Ricky Martin built a church and opened a camp behind it for some of society’s most unwanted people.

With the help of former inmates convicted of rape, sodomy, child sexual abuse, and other crimes, Martin raised a chapel in a rural part of central Alabama in 2010 and parked old campers and recreational vehicles behind it to house these men. Over time, more than 50 convicted sex offenders have lived there.

The camp came to an end yesterday when a law passed the Alabama Legislature earlier this year that caused the shut down Martin’s sex offender refuge.

Martin said that he will make the remaining men leave a half-dozen campers parked behind the church.

“It’s about like it’s against my constitutional rights,” he argued Monday. “This is a state coming against a ministry.”

Prosecutor C.J. Robinson, who pushed for the law that legislators passed to close down the camp, said on Monday he doesn’t doubt the sincerity of Martin’s religious beliefs. He said that no one living at the camp has been arrested for additional sex-related crimes and admitted that they needed a place to live.

Robinson said he doesn’t know where they will end up, but he admitted that having so many ex-convicts with similar criminal records in one place is a public safety threat and Martin doesn’t have the specialized training and credentials to deal with them.

“I think his motives are good. I just disagree with the way he’s going about it,” said Robinson, the deputy district attorney.

Alabama restricts the areas where sex offenders are required to live and it results in barring anyone convicted of certain crimes to reside within 2,000 feet of a school or day care. Laws are even stricter about where offenders can work or hang out, by restricting them from being within 500 feet of parks, athletic fields or businesses where kids gather.

Inmates serving time for sex crimes must tell authorities where they plan to live following their release and many prisons or county jails must continue holding anyone who can’t prove they have a legal place to live.

Martin runs a small upholstery shop beside his Triumph Church when he’s not ministering and said that he met men with no place to go while serving as a volunteer chaplain in a state prison. He came up with the idea of a sex offender refuge in rural Chilton County. It was far away from any schools or day care centers. Prisoners are screened before they are allowed to live there.

Some of the recently released prisoners helped construct the church, which stands between the road and the camp. That, in turn, is partially encircled by a wooden fence. The residents pay when they can and abide by strict rules: No smoking or drinking, and no more sex crimes. Martin and his wife live on a house that is on the campus as well.

“We try to live Christian,” Kenny Dark, one of the people living in the camp, said. “We go to the church Wednesday and two times on Sunday. We help each other.”

Martin stated that he is simply living out his faith by offering a hand to people rejected by society.

“You know what Jesus said? He said, ‘When you help the least of these you help me,'” said Martin. “No one else will help these people.”

Federal law requires local authorities to keep track of the sex offenders. Robinson grew concerned as he saw notice after another about sex offenders moving to the same spot, which was Martin’s one-acre tract just outside Clanton, a town of about 8,700. They came from 28 of Alabama’s 67 counties and three states. All but 10 committed crimes against children, Robinson said, and 32 were convicted rapists, including Dark.

Convicted in Talladega County in 1980, Dark has been living in the camp since his release from prison in 2011. He doesn’t know where to go next.

“I did my time,” said Dark. “I’m just trying to live now.”

People in the community grew worried about all of the sex offenders, Robinson said, so he wrote a bill to shut down the camp by passing a law prohibiting two convicted sex offenders from living within 300 feet of each other on the same property unless they are married. The Legislature passed the measure without a negative vote.

The law only affects Chilton County, where the pastor’s refuge is located and where people were most worried, Robinson said.