LaFAYETTE, Ga. — When LaFayette public housing resident Starr Dean heard that the redheaded teenager a couple houses down had been arrested on 14 counts of child sex charges, her thoughts jumped to one moment.
"I caught him trying to give my son cigarettes," she said. "God knows why."
Since she found out about 16-year-old Scott Winebrinner's arrest in May, she's kept an extra-close eye on her 8-year-old son.
"I don't even want him to go outside," she said. "You just don't know who to trust around here."
Winebrinner is charged with five counts of aggravated sodomy, five counts of aggravated child molestation and four counts of child molestation. Police say he admitted to befriending then sodomizing two boys, ages 7 and 8.
"It's disgusting," Dean said. "I couldn't imagine something like that happening to my son. I would -- oh gosh -- I don't know what I'd do, really."
LaFayette police Capt. Stacey Meeks said all the alleged abuse happened at the public housing complex around Reading Circle, a couple of blocks north of West Main Street.
The complex of 64 apartments includes a shared basketball court and open, grassy area where the neighborhood kids gather to play football or just hang out. Often, the kids are not closely supervised by adults, Meeks said.
"One thing that became very apparent during the investigation of this case was the fact that these victims are often left unsupervised at a very young age to roam around," he said.
Winebrinner used the lack of supervision, Meeks said.
Public housing resident Tina Russell said the thin teenager came to her house once to try to sell her homemade Easter bunnies.
"He was a weird kid," she said. "It's hard to pinpoint. He acted kind of sneaky in a way. Something just wasn't right there."
Ruth Bass, executive director at the LaFayette Housing Authority, said the organization works closely with police to try to keep LaFayette's 300 public housing apartments safe.
"We provide really good housing; we provide really good security," she said. "But at the same time, we don't have eyes on the children 24/7. It's really unfortunate; it's tragic. You never know what goes on behind closed doors at anyone's home, or anywhere."
In her 25 years at the housing authority, she's never encountered a sexual abuse case involving only minors.
"We run criminal backgrounds on every adult who even applies for housing, but this was a minor and a minor," she said.
The authority partners with after-school programs like Kids 4 Christ, but providing child care is not really the authority's role, she said.
"I've gotten calls from other families in that development, and I tell them: Know where your kids are, know who they are with and keep eyes on them," she said.
Kids 4 Christ Executive Director Gail Marks said the daily after-school program can afford to enroll only 15 kids, and she keeps a waiting list. The program offers free tutoring, snacks and transportation. Every Thursday, staff members serve dinner to about 100 kids and teach Bible lessons, she said. Parents can enroll children by calling Kids 4 Christ.
"Most problems children have with getting in trouble happen during the after-school hours, and it's often because children are not supervised," she said. "I think it would be great if we could expand our program and keep them safe during that time."
The Reading Circle neighborhood was quiet Wednesday afternoon, with only a couple of kids playing outside. Resident Charity Word said she didn't know Winebrinner, but hearing about the experience shook her confidence in the neighborhood.
"It really makes you think about what's going on around you," she said. "It's like, that could have been right here in my backyard, you know?"
Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...