'Chief' of Homeless Tent City Romanticized by NY Times Is a Convicted Sex Offender

August 5th, 2009 4:25 PM

New York Times "This Land" columnist Dan Barry landed on Friday's front page with his literary, slightly affected profile of a "tent city" for the homeless in Providence, Rhode Island -- and may now wish he hadn't.

Because there was something left out of Barry's portrayal of John Freitas, the "chief" of the homeless encampment and a major part of Barry's column.

The chief emerges from his tent to face the leaden morning light. It had been a rare, rough night in his homeless Brigadoon: a boozy brawl, the wielding of a knife taped to a stick. But the community handled it, he says with pride, his day's first cigar already aglow.

By community he means 80 or so people living in tents on a spit of state land beside the dusky Providence River: Camp Runamuck, no certain address, downtown Providence.

Because the two men in the fight had violated the community's written compact, they were escorted off the camp, away from the protection of an abandoned overpass. One was told we'll discuss this in the morning; the other was voted off the island, his knife tossed into the river, his tent taken down.

The chief flicks his spent cigar into that same river. There is talk of rain tonight.

Who is this mystery man?

The chief, John Freitas, is 55, with a gray beard touched by tobacco rust. He did prison time decades ago, worked for years as a factory supervisor, then became homeless for all the familiar, complicated reasons.

One possible "familiar, complicated reason" that "chief" Freitas became homeless is one Barry didn't mention -- he was convicted of raping a child in the 70s. And Barry evidently knew that when he wrote the story.

The NYT Picker blog first reported the omission from Barry's "flowery front-page profile":

A quick Google search -- which Barry was far too busy noting the fact that "a tea kettle sings" to bother with -- reveals that Freitas was convicted of raping a child in the late 1970s and of sexual assault in 1985.

In March of 2008, Freitas turned himself in to Massachusetts authorities, after a failure to register landed him on that state's list of Ten Most Wanted Sex Offenders. Freitas was listed as a "Level 3" sex offender, which -- according to a March 21, 2008 account in the Attleboro, Mass. Sun Chronicle -- means he was "considered by the state to be the most likely to commit new sex crimes."

Barry's story reports only that Freitas "did prison time decades ago" and that he "became homeless for all the familiar, complicated reasons."

Barry, whose prose is as purple as the mountain's majesty he covers, apparently can't be troubled with conventional reporting techniques like Google and Nexis to flesh out his observations of things like the glow of his subject's cigar. The result is a stale story that -- yet again -- repurposes local news for an unknowing national audience.

In fact, Freitas was arrested for failing to register as a sex offender the very night the story appeared in the Times. Perhaps feeling obligated, Barry filed a follow-up story on Wednesday, "Homeless Leader Arrested Over Sex Offender Registry."

The leader of a homeless encampment in Providence, R.I., was arrested Friday night on a charge that he had failed to register as a convicted sex offender. He spent a night in prison before a supporter posted his bail Saturday afternoon, but he was arrested again on Tuesday afternoon -- again for failing to register.

The leader, John Freitas, 55, has emerged as a public figure in Rhode Island since early April, when he established a tent city for the homeless under an abandoned bridge in downtown Providence. He has been featured in several newspaper accounts about the camp, including a This Land column that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on Friday, and has been interviewed on local talk-radio programs.

Barry revealed he knew about Freitas's sex offense at the time he wrote the article. So why wasn't it included in the reference to Freitas doing "prison time decades ago"? Probably because the details would mar the faintly nostalgic, "Hooverville" mood Barry was trying to put across.

Mr. Freitas told The Times last month that his past as a convicted sex offender in Massachusetts, with his last conviction dating back more than 20 years, is well known among those in the camp. He also said that he had diligently notified the authorities in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts of his whereabouts, but was under the belief that the requirement that he register had lapsed. This belief was bolstered, he said, because he had often spoken with police officials visiting the encampment and had been so public as the camp's leader.

According to the Web site for the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board, Mr. Freitas was convicted of rape and abuse of a child, in 1978, and of indecent assault on a child in 1978, 1986 and 1987. Mr. Freitas said that after serving several years in prison, he has had a clean record and has held several jobs, including as a supervisor at a wire factory. But a layoff, combined with health issues, led ultimately to homelessness, he said, first in shelters and then in tent cities.