A student trying to open an on-campus hotdog cart has yielded his efforts after an anonymous e-mail that called attention to his past began circulating around campus last week.
Joseph Winters, a 44-year-old culinary arts student, is a registered sex offender. After being charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse of a minor in Kenai, Winters pled no contest to one count of sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree Nov. 8, 2000, according to court records.
“What’s done is done. I have to live with what I did,” he said. “Everyday of my life, I live with what I did. If there was anything I could do to make it up, I would.”
The author of the e-mail that revealed Winters’ history, who castigated USUAA President Anthony Rivas for his initial support of the business, called himself a “concerned citizen,” denying that he was affiliated with the student government.
“If I had known this in the first place, I would have never granted him my support,” Rivas said. “I usually don’t make a habit of checking to see if everyone that talks to me is on the sex-offender registry.”
Winters, described in court records as “the live-in father figure” of the victim, was convicted of sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl.
He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, with four suspended, but after serving five and a half he was released on parole. Judge Jonathan H. Link of Kenai Superior Court also ordered Winters to seek substance abuse and sex-offender treatment programs.
“I’ve learned to understand what I did and it was wrong,” Winters said. “It will never happen again.”
But Winters is also learning that moving on with his life might be a difficult proposition.
“I would highly doubt that the university would allow someone with a criminal background such as that to have a food service venue,” said Debra Lovaas, director of housing, dining and conference services.
She said Aramark’s employees as well as most university employees are required to submit to a background check to qualify for employment.
“In fact, we also check all of our housing applicants- and when we find that someone has either self-reported or if they’re on the sexual offense registry, then we send them to the Dean of Students’ office, and it is 100 percent likely they will not be living in housing,” she said.
Despite Winters’ background, he would have had considerable difficulty starting a hotdog cart on campus because it would first have to have been approved by Aramark, then the university would have to have gone through a procurement process in which it would have to have put a contract up for bid, said Director of Business Services Bill Spindle. Even if Winters had won a contract, a subsequent background check would have stymied his efforts.
“Generally, we don’t hire felons,” he said. “If we think that that person is now a responsible person, we don’t want to condemn someone for the rest of their life. But a sex offender is a tougher issue just because of the perception of it.”
Spindle said the university has a responsibility to the community to make sure its employees can be trusted.
“We have all kinds of summer groups, lots of kids coming on campus-it’s something we would have to look at very closely,” he said. “The problem you have is perceptions. I think if you were a parent you would be concerned.”
Those perceptions can make it difficult to move on with life, Winters said, especially when his past keeps reemerging.
“It’s hard when people make it hard for me,” he said. “I got out of jail on a Monday; Tuesday I had a full-time job, Wednesday I went to work, 30 days later I had two full-time jobs.”
UAA does not discriminate against a student’s past, although students can be reprimanded for crimes committed while attending the university, said Peggy Byers, assistant director of enrollment services.
“We don’t do background checks on any students for admission purposes,” she said. “Certainly people have the right to pay their dues and to come back into society and make a better life for themselves. We don’t intend to exclude ex-convicts from getting an education.”
In addition to attending school, Winters holds a full-time job and has been doing well in his treatment programs, he said. He is living at a Salvation Army transitional housing facility while he tries to start over.
Winters is not permitted to come into contact with anybody under the age of 16 without another adult who knows of his circumstances present. But he said he also avoids going into people’s homes to avoid an awkward situation.
“I feel that I have the right tools (to rehabilitate),” he said. “I don’t put myself in the wrong positions or the wrong places.”