This story contains sensitive sexual information and may not be suitable for all readers.
Juan Guerrero was scared to get out of prison.
He was serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence in Lawton, Oklahoma, for having sex with an underage teenager.
Now, one of about 800,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, Guerrero faces the challenge of assimilating back into society. He was in his mid-30s and asking some pretty daunting questions: Where would he live? Who would hire him? How would he explain his past to people?
“You don’t know how many people I’ve seen come back,” Guerrero said from a prison phone in January, a few days before getting out. “They go back to their same environment and they’re back here within six or seven months. I don’t want that to be me at all. I’m scared.”
On a cold overcast morning, Guerrero had to face his fears when he stepped off a bus at the Greyhound station in Oklahoma City.
There were people there to meet him — his former mentors and tutors from the local campus of Oklahoma State University. Danny Hurst directed the program for at-risk students where Juan had enrolled before his arrest.
“Of all the students I ever had, he was probably in the top five,” Hurst said while waiting for his former student at the bus station. “He would just come in and study the dictionary because he was trying to improve his English skills. I had never seen a student do that.”
Hurst remembered Guerrero’s passion for politics, his ambition to become mayor, and the nonprofit he founded to wipe out graffiti.
His voice cracked with emotion: “I’m extremely anxious. I love the guy.”
Guerrero arrived at the station wearing a windbreaker and a prison-issued pair of white sneakers. His teachers, who had kept in touch with their former student, wrapped Guerrero in a hug.
This was a new beginning, they said. A second chance.
He Knew What He Was Doing
But Guerrero’s crime was not victimless.
On a summer night in 2009, he invited a 14-year-old girl and her 12-year-old friend to his house. Guerrero worked at a shelter where the older girl had been staying. He was twice her age. They’d known each other for a few months but nothing had happened between them until, suddenly, everything happened.
According to court documents, Guerrero got the girls drunk on beer and vodka. He and the older girl had sex several times.
The victim was not legally old enough to consent. “You know they could put you in jail,” she asked him, according to court documents.
“Yeah, I know,” Guerrero said.
The child’s mother told the court that her daughter had become reticent and then angry after the night she spent with Guerrero. She didn’t trust older men. Her mother said Guerrero used his position of power at the shelter to manipulate her daughter.
Seven years later, Juan agreed. “I was letting this power get to me, and I shouldn’t have,” he said on the day he was released. “Maybe she was more mature than myself. I learned my lesson. I don’t ever want to do this again.”
(We tried to find Guerrero’s victim to hear her story. We could not find her.)
What Comes Next
Guerrero’s crime will follow him the rest of his life. He wears a GPS tracking device. As part of his parole, he has to take a polygraph test that asks intrusive questions about his sex life and sexual desires.
Before Guerrero’s release, Hurst went door-to-door asking neighbors if they’d mind if he moved in until he got his life back together. “Most of them like me and trust us as neighbors but they were very hesitant,” Hurst said. “About half of them said they preferred him not to stay.”
So Guerrero bought a bus ticket back to Orange Cove, California. It’s an agricultural area outside of Fresno. He grew up there watching his mother work in the fields. It will be hard to go back. Orange Cove is not a happy memory.
His mother is an alcoholic. His brother is homeless. His late father was in prison.
“But what can I do?” he asked.
Months after his release, he’s starting to find answers to that question.
Guerrero got accepted into a government program that helps convicted felons get back into school.
“In a few hours I will be stepping into a world full of intellectuals,” he said before his first day of classes this week. “Let’s hope I will find my place in this world.”
He found a job working nights guarding shipments of produce. He’s trying to date again and confronting the challenge of telling women about his past.
As he rebuilds, Guerrero lives a day-to-day reality that is neither black nor white. Before he was sentenced, he wrote a letter to the judge that hinted at the struggle to come:
“There is some good in the worst of us,” Guerrero wrote, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “And some evil in the best of us.”
Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now’s assistant managing editor. He tweets @odowdpeter.