Devils' Advocate

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Not too long ago, Karl cruised local pawn shops and bought 20 televisions. He drew names from a fishbowl and sent the televisions to inmates. Word has spread outside the various sex offender yards where Billy's been housed; Karl gets requests from corrections facilities all over the state, with guys asking for $25 for a Walkman or money for an electric razor. Their wishes are generally granted. Karl estimates he spends $200 a month -- money some would say he can ill afford. His modest home has seen better days, and he's put off getting a tooth pulled.

Now Karl's got strays all over Arizona, mostly child molesters and other sex offenders. He helps anyone, regardless of his crime, although he won't fight all of their battles. He turned down the guy who wanted Karl to protest the wearing of orange uniforms in prison, and another who complained that the toothbrushes are too short (it's so they can't be used as weapons).

Some have even sought him out after they've been released. Karl would let them stay with him, but his 17-year-old daughter is living at his house, and released sex offenders are not allowed to live with minors.

From time to time, Karl sends a "newsletter" to his mailing list of inmates, a chatty note filled with tales of his cats' health and his four-wheeling adventures and updates on his relationship with Billy, and on Billy's case. He includes some Internet humor (a recent newsletter offered a list of the "Top ten things a man would do if he woke with a vagina for a day") and sponsors a contest, with cash prizes. The latest quiz: What is the meaning of a license plate his daughter bought for her boyfriend's motorcycle? It reads "8 3 1."

The answer? "Eight letters, three words, one meaning:


From the prison yard to the streets, sex offenders are the lowest of the low. In prison, they are segregated from other criminals as a means of protecting the sex offenders' safety. Once out of prison, laws require that many register their whereabouts with the government, that they undergo lifetime probation and observation, and that neighbors are notified when they move in.

Society treats sex offenders this way for a reason: They are often the most difficult to rehabilitate. And their victims are the most defenseless, the most vulnerable to immediate harm and emotional trauma -- the kind of harm that haunts one for a lifetime.

There's just not a lot of sympathy out there for child molesters. So why does Karl Whitmire have it in droves? Why would a guy with a daughter, a full-time job and a lot of cats to feed bother with the dregs of society?

"Bad terminology, but out of pity," Karl says, brushing off the question. But it's more than that. Helping these guys -- even if they're society's cast-offs, pariahs -- makes Karl feel important. They look up to him. They need him. And Karl needs to be needed.

"It's one of the reasons I stay with Billy -- because I think he'd be helpless without me," Karl says. "And I do feel important, because I have someone there who needs me. And I love him."

Karl is sitting in a booth at the Metrocenter Souper Salad, crying into his cottage cheese.

This place was his choice -- he wanted something low-cholesterol -- but there's nothing green on his plate. Instead, it's a mayonnaisey mosh of everything white the salad bar has to offer, topped with pink -- ham and salami.

Doesn't matter, he's barely touched it. He's wearing shorts, espadrilles and an oversize tee with an enormous green-eyed cat on it. He found the shirt at a thrift shop and wants to copy it, to sell as a fund raiser for his animal shelter, which is really just his pet-packed house.

Karl is unshaven, his reddish-brown hair faded, and when he gets going on a topic, his face is so expressive he looks like a Dr. Seuss character. But Karl's story is certainly not for children, and is hard even for some adults to hear.

Some history: Karl was born in Buffalo, New York, and moved to Arizona in the early '60s as a kid. He grew up in north Phoenix, not far from Metrocenter. He didn't go to college. Instead, he ran a sandwich shop, made golf clubs, had his own limousine service. He worked at an auto body yard, which is where he learned to weld. For years, he's run his own construction-related business.

Karl says he comes up with his best legal theories while he's welding. "The reason my mind works so well while I'm working is because any multicolored orangutan can do what I do," he insists.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.