Age Inappropriate

A casual fling can earn a lifetime label as a sex offender.

People say you make your own luck. That seems to apply to bad luck, too, and Curtis Franks has made more than his share. His mother, Jamie, believes that her son's losing streak began when his father left home, in 1990. Curtis was ten at the time; he started doing drugs two years later. It was always low-level, but he didn't really outgrow it, either. By the time he left school, he'd been busted for theft and had even spent a few nights in jail for a motor-vehicle offense. But his big weakness was drugs. The habit kept him down.

A few years back, it looked as though Curtis might get a new start. A car accident left him with a tidy settlement, and he used it to buy his own townhouse in Aurora. Jamie found him a job at the airport, where she worked. But Curtis discovered the cruel thrill of crystal meth, and the townhouse became a party pit. People were always around, playing video games, watching the tube.

In late 2000, a new girl started hanging around the place. Curtis says he didn't know all that much about her, but she quickly became a regular. "She had short blond hair, nice body," he says. "She seemed like a nice girl." She lived nearby, and she'd stop by at all hours, sometimes well after midnight.

"She told me she lived on her own," Curtis remembers. "We'd just hang out. We were mostly with a bunch of people, listening to music. I was never really all that into her."

In mid-February, however, one thing led to another, and the relationship changed. On the night of February 17, 2001, they had sex, downstairs in Curtis's room. Curtis says she even planned it, setting up the tryst close to Valentine's Day to make it seem more romantic. She brought over flowers, he recalls.

He says he began having doubts about the relationship almost immediately, though, and he called the girl the following weekend to break it off. "At first she seemed cool with it," he says. "Then she was all passive-aggressive, like, 'Whatever.' And then she got mad and hung up."

At around 9 p.m. on the night of February 21, there was a knock on Curtis's door. Behind the knock were five cops who had an unpleasant surprise for him: The girl had claimed that Curtis raped her. But the bigger surprise was that she was only fourteen years old.

"I flipped out," Curtis says. "I didn't believe it at first. I thought they were lying. I assumed she was nineteen or twenty, maybe eighteen. I usually go for older women; that's why I wasn't interested at first. But fourteen?" Curtis was 21 years old at the time.

The Aurora cops started their investigation. The girl's story was clear-cut: Curtis had dragged her down to his room and forcibly assaulted her. But as the police conducted more interviews, the events of the evening became fuzzier. For example, the girl had insisted that she fought Curtis off, at one point biting him on the shoulder in protest. Yet there were no marks on his body. Recollections of other witnesses also conflicted with the girl's version of events.

An interview with a child sexual-assault specialist in early March was pivotal. At first the girl stuck with her story. "I was raped," she said simply. But as she talked, the inconsistencies piled up. Her body language, tight and withdrawn, suggested lies. The interviewer took a break, conferred with the detective watching from behind the one-way glass, then re-entered the room. She asked the girl to tell the truth, and that's when her story changed.

By the time the girl left the interview, the events of the evening in question were much less black and white. Yes, she admitted, she'd flirted with Curtis and made out with him. She might even have permitted him to rub his naked penis against her bare vagina; it could have slipped in, too.

In early April, the police finished their investigation. In his report, the lead detective concluded that the sex between Curtis and the girl most likely was not rape. He wrote that the girl "originally stated that the sexual intercourse was forced as a result of being embarrassed and not wanting to get in trouble with her mother. However, later statements indicate that the intercourse was non-forcible." Rape charges, in other words, would never stick.

Then again, they didn't have to.

Because of the girl's young age and the difference between her age and Curtis's, the charge that Curtis would face was sexual assault on a minor, also known as statutory rape. Even though he'd had consensual sex with a girl whose age he did not know -- a girl whose age he'd simply assumed was close to his -- Curtis would now be regarded as a child sexual offender. It was the same as if he'd grabbed a four-year-old girl he met on a playground.

The next two years were a blur of bizarre accusations, Orwellian self-examination and, ultimately, prison. "I've done a lot of soul-searching to see if I am this awful person," Curtis would regularly tell his mother during the legal journey. "And I don't think I am."

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