When Frank Rodriguez and his future wife first starting having sex, they considered themselves just two of millions of teenagers who were in love.
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However, their love was against the law in Texas, so Rodriguez soon joined a more exclusive group, one in which no one seeks membership: He became one of more than 650,000 registered sex offenders in the United States.
And today, after 15 years and four daughters with his high school sweetheart, the 34-year-old suburban father still wears the modern-day equivalent of the Scarlet Letter. Friends, neighbors or parents in his hometown of Caldwell, Texas, can go online to view the public sex offender registry and see his name alongside those of rapists, child molesters and child pornographers. His teenage love for his future wife, Nikki, is classified in a much less romantic way — sexual assault of a child.
When Frank and Nikki slept together as teens, he was unaware it would haunt him well into adulthood. “I figured I would go through a probation period [of a] few years,’’ Frank told Matt Lauer in a TODAY interview Wednesday. “I had no idea it would follow me for the rest of my life.’’
“I understand punishment, breaking the law,’’ Nikki told NBC News. “You have to be punished for it. But for the rest of your life? I think we’ve suffered long enough.’’
When the two first fell in love, the Texas football star was 19 years old, his cheerleader girlfriend was 15, and her mother was not happy about it. One trip to the local police station in 1996 by his future mother-in-law, and Rodriguez’s life was irrevocably altered in a state where the legal age of consent is 17. A list created to protect children from predators soon included a man who would go on to become the proud father of four daughters.
Following an article detailing their saga in the latest issue of Marie Claire, Rodriguez and his wife spoke exclusively with Lauer on Wednesday about the stigma of still being on the list despite not being a violent or dangerous criminal. They were joined by Robin Sax, a criminal defense attorney and former sex crimes prosecutor, who offered her perspective on Rodriguez’s situation.
Having been on the sex offender list for nearly half his life, Frank is unable to secure a job with a major corporation or leave the state without notifying local law enforcement. He cannot coach soccer for any of his daughters, who range in age from 4 to 11 years old. While the Rodriguezes admittedly broke the law as teenagers, “It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all,’’ Nikki told Lauer.
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The future couple met at a mutual friend’s house when Frank was a senior and Nikki was a freshman, and a relationship quickly blossomed. It soon became sexual, a fact that Nikki eventually admitted to her mother. After ongoing arguments with her daughter over her relationship with Frank moving too fast, Melissa Ostman took her daughter to the local police station and reported Frank for having sex with a minor in an attempt to throw a scare into him.
A day later, Ostman returned to rescind her complaint, but it was too late. Her daughter told the police interrogator that the sex was consensual, but was taken to the hospital to be examined for rape. The case was now in the hands of the state, which charged Frank with statutory rape. In order to avoid jail time, he pleaded guilty and accepted seven years of probation, which also required having to register as a sex offender.
“I would say this is a mom who’s trying to use the legal system to parent instead of having a conversation,’’ Sax said. “Once you open that Pandora’s box of the legal system, there are consequences, and the consequence here has been a scarlet letter that’s following him and a case where no one would expect someone in this situation to be registered.’’
During his probation, Rodriguez was not allowed to talk to Nikki or go to public places like swimming pools or football games where children might be present. He also was not allowed to vote and had to perform 350 hours of community service while also attending regular counseling sessions for convicted sex offenders.
But the biggest blow may have been being forced to move out of his home because he was not allowed to be under the same roof as his 12-year-old sister. “If I had known the implications,’’ Ostman told Marie Claire, “I wouldn’t have done it.’’
Despite the limitations of Frank’s probation, the couple eventually reconnected, married and started a family. When they had their first daughter, Rodriguez was not allowed to live in the house because he was on probation, so he lived there illegally, engulfed by paranoia and fear until his probation ended in 2003.
With Frank still listed in the sex offender registry, he and his wife have had to endure whispers behind their back while also repeatedly setting the record straight to those who stumbled across Frank’s name on that stigmatizing list.Video: They dated, and now he’s a sex offender (on this page)
“[You are] constantly feeling like you have to explain yourself to everyone that you come in contact with, always wondering if people have seen him on the registry,’’ Nikki said. “We thought that everyone knew, but once the [Marie Claire] article came out, we realized there were a lot of people in our hometown that had no idea.’’
Nikki recalled a family whose children used to come over every day to play with her daughters, then abruptly stopped coming without explanation. It was yet another instance where the couple has wondered if Frank’s status as a sex offender has caused a ripple effect.
“The idea behind the list is it’s supposed to show who the worst of the worst people are out there,’’ Sax said. “It’s a tool that we as parents use to protect our kids. It’s supposed to signify ‘This person is a danger to our society, watch out.’ When someone is looking at that list, they are not expecting Mr. Rodriguez to be there.’’
A light at the end of the tunnel for Rodriguez could be coming in September, when Texas is expected to modify its sex offender law. At that time, he can petition the state to be removed from the sex offender registry.
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