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The Registry

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR. My name is Glynn Washington, and this is the "Identity Crisis" episode - stories about finding out who you really are. And our next story, it's a piece about a mistake. It's a terrible mistake, and as such, it does address an issue that may not be appropriate for young Snappers and sensitive listeners. Send them outside for a while. Let them go do something else, but everyone else should certainly hear this.

Our own Anna Sussman has the story.

JOSH GRAVENS: My name is Josh Gravens. I'm 27, a father of four, married. I live in Dallas, Texas.

ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: When we sat down with Josh Gravens he had one request before he began to tell his story.

GRAVENS: I just wanted to make sure that my name was used. That's kind of my condition.

SUSSMAN: OK, so this is Josh Gravens. The reason for using his name so obviously will become clear. This is his story.

GRAVENS: I remember it was a hot day. It was sunny. We were working in construction putting up wind turbines. I think it was a lunch break. We were all around. Somehow, the conversation shifted to child molesters. There's an older gentleman - I guess you'd call him a rough-looking construction worker - he was talking about receiving a notice in the mail about a high-risk sex offender that had moved into his neighborhood. When he received the note, he said that a couple days later he went over to the house where the address was listed with a shotgun and said, you see that house over there on the corner? That's my house, and if I ever see you near it, I'm going to blow your brains out.

SUSSMAN: Everyone at the construction site laughed.

GRAVENS: They were one-of-a-kind. They were all - probably wouldn't result to violence, but I don't think they would've minded if the guy wandered over there and he shot him.

SUSSMAN: Josh laughed, too, but it wasn't funny to him.

GRAVENS: I had been molested myself around the age of 9, 10, 11.

SUSSMAN: So he mostly agreed with the guys at the construction site; molesters are bad guys.

GRAVENS: I wanted to go out there and see that this guy was hung, to say the least. Those feelings and emotions were the same. You know, people on the registry probably were all bad guys. I just somehow got up in the mix.

SUSSMAN: So this is where it gets complicated. Josh had been molested by a group of neighborhood teenagers as a boy, but a few years after that, he became a perpetrator of sexual abuse.

So can you explain your history?

GRAVENS: At the age of 12, the summer before my 13th birthday, I touched my sister inappropriately, sexually, a couple of times.

SUSSMAN: Are you comfortable talking about why?

GRAVENS: I didn't know - I'd been messed with by guys and girls, and so I questioned what my sexuality was. I didn't know that's what it was at the time, but I think that's what played out. This curiosity, not having the appropriate sexual boundary discussed in the church circles, you just didn't talk about sex. It's not something that you were supposed to talk about or know anything about until you got married. That's how I grew up.

My mom called the counselor, and the counselor let her give all of the details - address, information.

SUSSMAN: He says his mom was actually just looking for answers, for guidance, but the counselor was obligated to tell the authorities.

GRAVENS: So on January 15, which was the next day, I was arrested, and I didn't see the outside world for another four years. I was the youngest person in my dorm by five years probably. I was the only person in the dorm with a sex offense and I was beat quite a bit.

SUSSMAN: There were other kids in other dorms that were in on sex offenses, about 50 of them, Josh says. And they all went to special classes where they learned how to appropriately deal with their urges.

GRAVENS: That's when we were exposed to this idea that we were monsters. I was told I had this disease and this addiction to sex, but I never experienced that.

SUSSMAN: But he did know he was imprisoned for a reason.

GRAVENS: I realized what I did was wrong, and I did need to be punished.

SUSSMAN: So he went to the classes, and he waited until he could return to being the normal kid he felt like he was, among the free.

GRAVENS: That's what we called the outside world was the free. That two-word sentence encompassed, you know, this idea of utopia.

SUSSMAN: After four years, his family came to pick him up and brought him home. His sister told him she forgave him, and he was ready to start his life.

GRAVENS: The world is mine; it's ready to accept me. I'm ready to move on. My first night at home, as condition for my release, my parents had to place an alarm system on all of my windows and doors. Essentially, I was locked in my room at night so that I couldn't get out.

SUSSMAN: This is when he was placed on the Texas Sex Offender Registry. And at first, he felt like the registry pretty much protected kids. He didn't know what it would do to his name, his life, or the radical step he would have to take to get off the registry.

For a while he did lead a pretty normal life. He graduated from high school with honors. He was admitted to Texas Tech University, and one evening he walked out of his dorm to get some dinner.

GRAVENS: So I was downstairs and a pickup truck pulled up in front of me and they started screaming, leave our school, you child molester. And they started throwing beer bottles at me, and I was scared, terrified out of my life. I didn't ever expect that I'd physically be threatened outside of a prison, you know. I ran up to my room terrified. There is a TV station, it's a local TV station in Lubbock, and from time to time they air specials on where sex offenders work, where people on the registry live. And they actually aired my profile and said that I lived on campus, what dorm I lived - they gave my address, the details of my offense. I just wanted to hide, and that's where all of this hiding started. There was this idea, you know, I just need to pull into my shell. I was ashamed and embarrassed.

SUSSMAN: He hid from everything, mostly his name. He realized his life was going to be defined entirely by being on the registry. There were regular news reports like the one on the Lubbock TV station, and once word was out that Josh was a sex offender, that was kind of it for whatever life he was trying to live. He dropped out of college. He moved around a lot.

What about your personal life? Like, did you date?

GRAVENS: I dated some, but I really felt like there would be nobody in the world that would ever accept this part of me because nobody had. Any time it had come out that I was on the registry, I lost friends. What man is going to let their daughter date a person on the registry?

SUSSMAN: There was one woman he knew through some friends at church.

GRAVENS: We met up at Starbucks, had coffee and we talked for hours. I think we started seeing each other every day I got off of work. We'd go out and eat. I just really wanted to spend my life with her. So it was a few weeks before I got the courage up to tell her that I was on the sex offender registry. I told her whole situation and she kissed me afterwards. I realized at that point, man, I found her.

SUSSMAN: She had two kids, but she said she wasn't worried about having Josh around them.

GRAVENS: So we were married in October of 2009, but our marriage these past few years, we've been tested in every way possible.

SUSSMAN: They quickly had two more kids. So Josh had six mouths to feed. But he has trouble keeping a job because he's on the registry. Lots of places ask you on the application if you're a registered sex offender. And when he does get a job, it's only a matter of time before his employer finds out through the media or through parole officers. And then he's let go. So he and his wife went around and around trying to think up ways to build a normal life for their family.

GRAVENS: I think the hardest part about this whole situation is that I have not been able to provide for my family like, you know, any dad or any husband would want to. The shame of being a father who can't give their kids and their family what they need is definitely far greater than the shame of being an outcast. I mean, I can stomach name-calling. But failing a person who you are solely responsible for, it really makes you feel ashamed. I am pretty strong. And - because you have to be to carry this label. It's heavy.

SUSSMAN: His sister wrote a letter to the judge in his case.

GRAVENS: It said, you know, I'm the only victim in this crime and I've forgiven him.

SUSSMAN: She requested the he be removed from the registry, but the court said it wasn't up to her. So it seemed like there was nothing Josh and his wife could do but move and dodge the press and keep applying for new jobs in new towns. And, then, there was an envelope in his mailbox saying he, his wife and four kids were evicted. The apartment building had a policy of not renting to anyone on the registry.

GRAVENS: At that point, I had had enough. I went from shame and being afraid to - for people to even find out to - all of a sudden, I had this idea.

SUSSMAN: He had an idea so radical that if it didn't work, he could be in serious danger.

GRAVENS: You know, the word sex offender sells in the media. But you don't ever see an actual person who's on the registry talking on the media.

SUSSMAN: So he and his wife, Nicole, had decided to go public with their story. They hoped to gain sympathy and that that sympathy would outweigh the risk of vigilantism. The Texas Observer ran a cover story about Josh.

GRAVENS: I was - I was scared, and I did think it was a risk. This is Texas, and Texans love their guns. I went from someone who tried to hide in the shadows to, all of a sudden, being on the cover of a magazine and talking to reporters. I'm hoping to get to the point when people Google sex offender that my story comes up.

SUSSMAN: And it kind of worked. Josh's own version of the story was now widely available.

GRAVENS: I mean, it was public already, in the sense that people could find my profile. But this was me telling the true story.

SUSSMAN: Josh sent the article to his own judge - the one who presided over his case.

GRAVENS: And he actually wrote a letter back and said, even though you didn't ask for it, I am taking your letter as a formal motion to remove you from the public registry. So that was not anything I ever expected. I think it was a couple of weeks after the motion was signed, and I searched the Texas sex offender database. And when I typed in my name and it said zero results found, that's when I started to feel a bit of freedom.

WASHINGTON: Thank you so very much, Joshua Gravens, for sharing your story with the SNAP. Listeners may be interested to know that Joshua just started a brand-new job. That piece was produced by Anna Sussman.

Now then, you, dear listener have reached the very end of the SNAP JUDGMENT episode. But don't you fret, don't frown. Full episodes, podcasts, pictures, stuff available right now, SNAP nation, at snapjudgment.org. Get Facebook by SNAP. Get tweeted by SNAP, snapjudgment.org.

If you are wondering who that person is getting a little bit too much into the Renaissance Faire reenactment stuff with that jester's cap on the street and referring to the baristas at Starbucks as my liege - don't call the authorities. That's just the Corporation for Public Broadcasting letting off a little steam. Much love to the CPB. PRX - the Public Radio Exchange. They bring the dance party to public radio. You know what I'm talking about - prx.org. And this is not the news. No way is this the news. In fact, you could wake up wearing another person's body, living in another person's house, married to another person's wife and you could go and empty that person's bank account and send the money to the real you and you would still not be as far away from the news as this is.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That doesn't even make any sense.

WASHINGTON: But this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.