Most parents want their children to find a loving, happy and healthy relationship with someone who treats them respect, and Patti Appurlee believes her daughter Lexi, 25, has found a man who fits that description.
Patti describes Lexi’s boyfriend Chris, 26, as hardworking, respectful and ‘one of the best young men I’ve ever met’, and the pair are considering starting a family one day.
But Chris is also a convicted sex offender, who lives in an isolated community in Florida populated by other offenders, as strict laws prevent them from living less than 2500 feet away from places where children congregate.
At 19, Chris and his then-girlfriend of three months were sat in a car together in a park when a police officer approached and asked them for ID. It was then he says he found out the girl he was dating was only 14-years-old; he claims she hadn’t been honest with him about her age.
Chris was sentenced to two years of community control and eight years of sex offender probation, which restricts his movements for life.
Patti, Lexi and Chris all appear in new BBC Three documentary Stacey Dooley Investigates: Second Chance Sex Offenders, which sees Stacey visit Chris’s community in Florida to determine whether sex offenders deserve a second chance at life.
‘They have one of the healthiest relationships I’ve seen,’ says Patti.
She told Metro.co.uk: ‘Is it ideal? No. But on the other hand there’s no relationship that’s perfect.
‘It’s two people who totally love and respect each other, and love and respect the world and the people in their lives. They’ve got the best relationship of most people that I’ve seen.
‘They don’t take anything for granted. They both love their families. They love each other. If Chris and Lexi ever broke up we get to keep Chris.
‘He’s a wonderful young man who deals as honourably as he can with a difficult situation. He loves Lexi enough to let her be who she is and she loves him enough to honour who he is. Isn’t that we want for all people?
‘They have one of the healthiest relationships I’ve ever seen because there’s no pretence.’
During his probation he has to be home by 10pm every night and can’t leave until 6am the next morning and is tracked via an ankle bracelet. He can’t live outside of Palm Beach county, he can’t live near to a park, a playground or a school, and has to register twice a year as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
However, this did not cause Patti any concerns when she introduced Chris to her daughter through her church, where she helps sex offenders rebuild their lives. In fact she knew about Chris’s background before she brought the two of them together.
Patti says: ‘The church where I was serving was in a small community, and Chris was a part of our church. I knew the crime that Chris has been convicted of and the laws that he lives under, I knew him as well as many of the folks that were part of the church and I had known Chris for a long time, and I knew his heart and the pain of the situation he was living in.
‘I know what happened and so Chris isn’t seen as a label. Chris is a young man, and actually introducing Lexi to Chris was just them getting to know each other in a small rural community. There weren’t a whole lot of young people around.’
Chris says it was love at first sight when they met, and Lexi already knew that he was a convicted sex offender.
‘I fell head over heels for Lexi right away,’ Chris says. ‘She was super cute, super funny and just a great person.
‘I remember I was sitting in the front pew at church, and she was at the back and I just couldn’t take my eyes off her, I was always turning around looking at her and I was thinking “don’t be a creep, relax”.’
But his past made him a lot more unsure than Patti was about pursuing a relationship with Lexi, but Lexi being aware of Chris’s conviction through Patti made things easier.
‘It was difficult when you have this label on you’ Chris says. ‘Lexi’s mom does ministry for sex offenders at church, so Lexi already knew about most of the sex offenders there, and so when I started talking about my conviction she was like “yeah, I know that”.’
‘As a mom…who is ever good enough for your children?’ Patti adds. ‘Chris’s label didn’t have any bearing at that time because he was already a part of our family whether Lexi was around or not. So I didn’t have any misgivings because of Chris’s label, but just as a mom with anybody dating your daughter.
‘The folks that I know…yes the crimes they committed are always going to be there, it’s not something they are proud of. But on the other hand they are people who are trying to live their lives again. They never get to get away from the punishment, it’s their reality every day. It’s not something you can forget about.
‘But on the other hand they’re working hard and so sorry and want to just have a second chance again because they’re not going to make those same mistakes. They work harder, they’re people who appreciate life and work the hardest because they know the consequences if there’s ever a problem.
‘It’s something that they did, it’s not who they are, and that was my experience with 30, 40, 50, 60 people, and these are the folks that I felt I was the safest with, that my kids were the safest with and they appreciated the power of a second chance and love and honoured my entire family, so Chris is just someone else that is grateful for people who will see him for who he is, not what he did.’
Patti has no qualms about them getting married (‘As much as any mom wants her daughter getting married to anybody!’) and fully supports them having children of their own. However Lexi admits she fears for the future because of the legal restrictions on Chris.
‘The question about kids is something we’re constantly discussing, just because I don’t know how difficult it would be for [the kids],’ she says.
‘I know we both want kids. It’s hard, not because of Chris’s interaction with them because I know he would be such a great dad, and so loving and caring, but just the reaction they would get from kids in the playground, or if they have a play at school Chris wouldn’t be able to go, or to a soccer game, or be a chaperone on their school trips.
‘And that was such a great part of me growing up, my mom was so involved. She was always a chaperone on our trips and took us to these school events, and Chris would never be able to do that. It’s hard.’
Admitting her family struggled to accept Chris and Lexi at first, Patti says: ‘My family’s first reactions were not the most honouring, but that’s because it doesn’t seem to make sense.
‘But again, once you get to know Chris, and Lexi, it may not make sense on paper but as our entire family got to know Chris you can see he and Lexi are good together.
‘Everybody’s got baggage that they come with. It’s hard but their relationship is them moving forward. The family now knows Chris as who Chris is. They’re supportive. It’s hard but they make adjustments. It takes time with any couple.
‘Everybody knows, it’s public instead of him shirking from it. He has said, “I want to be the best person God has created me to be”, and he’s working hard for that and I admire that. It was hard for his family, he knows how difficult it is for Lexi and we know he’s always battling that stigma, so he continues every day to be the very best he can be.’
When asked why he wanted to take part in the documentary and potentially open himself up to being judged, Chris says it’s all about challenging stereotypes.
He says: ‘We wanted to bring awareness through these interviews and documentaries, showing the real life of a sex offender and bringing awareness so we don’t create any more victims and we don’t create any more sex offenders.
‘When people see this and they see the life that we have, I hope other sex offenders would be clearer and realise, “What I’m doing is wrong and I don’t want to live that life”. And if they need help then go seek therapy and talk about it.’
Stacey Dooley Investigates: Second Chance Sex Offenders is on BBC Three from 24 January via the BBC iPlayer