NORCROSS - Shuffling across the Norcross Extended Stay parking lot, a young Philadelphia woman led a child by the arm to a gray Ford extended cab pickup on Tuesday. Abandoned Nike high-tops lay scattered in the parking lot, busted beer bottles lined nearby woods, and men strolled the hotel doorways and corridors.
With her sleeveless, tattooed left arm, the woman motioned to the hotel balconies.
"We just came in town looking for a place," said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, before she drove elsewhere down Interstate 85. "We won't stay here."
Days earlier, the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department had ordered 20 registered sex offenders to vacate the hotel for residing within 1,000 feet of a public pool. It signaled the largest single crackdown against sex offenders in Gwinnett's recent history.
By the time the Philadelphia woman visited, 13 of the primarily male offenders remained. The rest were ordered two weeks ago to be gone by Monday.
The gathering of sex offenders in Norcross this month was the most Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway has ever seen residing in one place. According to Gwinnett County's sex offender registry, as many as 21 offenders were living at the Norcross Extended Stay address - 2250 Pelican Way - at once in July. Exactly 810 feet down the street, a tiny, inflatable basketball goal bobbed in a public pool at the Country Inn & Suites hotel, where no lifeguard was on duty.
Clint Sabom, a front desk manager at the neighboring hotel off Jimmy Carter Boulevard, said the area is riddled with crime, especially on weekends, and guests sometimes seek refuge at his chain hotel.
"It's pretty bad," said Sabom, "but we haven't had any people invade the pool or anything."
Raj Pathak, an assistant manager at the Norcross Extended Stay, maintains his business is an inviting, family-friendly place to stay, although sex offenders occasionally and inexplicably group there. In order to qualify for residency - and take advantage of the hotel's relatively low $149 weekly rates - patrons must provide only a valid ID, he said.
"No hotel or motel has access to check backgrounds - we just believe what they say," Pathak said. "This happens from time to time. (The offenders) will be gone. I have no idea where they'll go from here."
When it comes to residency options, registered sex offenders' choices are limited in Gwinnett County, to say the least. Georgia law specifies that people convicted of a sex crime against a minor since July 1996 cannot live within 1,000 feet of a public pool, school, church, day care or park, which disqualifies every motel and extended stay in Gwinnett County, said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais.
Accordingly, the recent crackdown didn't stop in Norcross. Investigators found three offenders residing at Gwinnett Inn, located on Highway 78 in Lilburn, who were within 1,000 feet of a community center with a pool. Four others were living at Inn-Town Suites near
Snellville at U.S. Highway 78 and Ross Road, within 910 feet of an apartment complex pool. All were given two weeks to vacate and are in the process of moving out, Bourbonnais said.
"We have checked all extended stays or motels in Gwinnett County," she said, "and none meet the legal requirements as a legal address for a sex offender to live."
Pathak, the assistant manager, said offenders who can't rent at an apartment complex or mortgage a home sometimes land at the Norcross Extended Stay.
"The only place they have is a hotel or an individual landlord," Pathak said.
Adds John Bankhead, spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, "It's getting kind of hard for (registered sex offenders)" to find viable residency. Last year, Cobb County experienced a high concentration of offenders who would settle in pockets at hotels, creating "a big issue," Bankhead said.
"It's not anything that I'm aware of that's illegal; as long as (offenders) provide a correct street address, they abide by the law," Bankhead said. "The sheriff's office enforces where they can and cannot live."
The local department, according to its top official, is determined to let no offender slip through the cracks. The Sheriff's Department spends roughly $190,000 in salaries for deputies and other personnel - in addition to highly accurate mapping equipment - to keep tabs on all registered sex offenders in Gwinnett, said Sheriff Conway.
"We take it very seriously," Conway said. "We've dedicated the resources to make sure we enforce the law."
Conway said the list of offenses that constitutes a sex offender label "runs the gamut" of possible sex-related convictions. So who's required to register, and who can avoid the sheriff's department altogether?
According to the GBI, the nucleus of Georgia's Violent Sexual Offender Registry, people required to register have been:
n Convicted since July 1, 1996, of a criminal offense against a victim who is a minor.
n Convicted since July 1, 2006, of a dangerous sexual offense.
n Sentenced under the First Offender Act in Georgia and required to register until the sentence is successfully completed.
However, anyone convicted of a sexual offense in Georgia and released from prison before July 1, 1996, is not required to register. That rule also applies to:
n A person convicted of a misdemeanor sexual offense after June 30, 2001.
n Anyone prosecuted for a sexual offense in juvenile court after June 30, 2001.
Jeamia Tribble, manager of the Norcross Extended Stay, periodically checks Gwinnett County's sex offender registry online. Sometimes she'll find a couple names matching her postal address, sometimes more. She checked recently and found an alarming tally.
"I was extremely shocked," Tribble said. "I saw (the registry) this time and was like, 'Wow.'"
Tribble suspects offenders congregated this month in Norcross after word-of-mouth spread that her business was a viable place to reside, which could prompt her to stiffen background searches beforehand, she said.
Tribble said, as of Friday, three sex offenders remained on her premises.
"We don't do background checks," Tribble said. "We could definitely do that."