Greg Torti awakes in darkness, usually before four. Any little sound will do it. A dog barking down the street. A rabbit bumping against the trailer. An armadillo rooting for grub worms. The wind. Occasionally he awakes in terror that he’s back in prison, where guards allowed other inmates into his cell to beat him while he slept. Where kitchen workers put a razor blade in his coffee cup. Once, he was ambushed by two men who hit him in the head with a two-by-four, busting his eardrum and temporarily blinding him. Another time, in the cafeteria, a guy sneaked up and choked him from behind. Greg didn’t ask for mercy, and he didn’t expect it.

He gets out of bed and heads to the bathroom, where he washes his face and looks in the mirror. At forty, he’s still boyish, with short brownish-blond hair and pale blue eyes. He brushes his teeth, the front ones prosthetic, and straightens to his full five foot eleven inches. He’s a brawny 185 pounds, with thick muscles that run along his shoulders and down his calves. He gazes at the tattoos covering his broad chest and upper arms, a swirling mural of demons, skulls, and angry faces. They are a reminder of the evil inside him, a violence that’s always waiting to be loosed. He has to be careful every minute of the day. He stares into his eyes, which are inviting, almost kind. What kind of man are you? He blinks. What kind of person ruins another’s life?

Greg goes to the kitchen. He puts on a pot of coffee, turns on the computer, reads the news. He makes breakfast, gets dressed. His wife, Ticey, and their four-year-old, Anthony, won’t rise for a couple of hours. He kisses them both goodbye, then walks outside, into the glare of bright floodlights in the yard. The family lives in a double-wide trailer on a dead-end street just outside tiny Ferris, about twenty miles southeast of Dallas. It’s far from any school playground, any park, any restaurant that might serve chicken fingers or ice cream. Kid food.

He walks down the gravel driveway. To his left, toward the end of the cul-de-sac, there’s a yard piled with tires, cinder blocks, rusted bikes, and crumpled blue tarps, guarded by a tied-up dog. Across the road sits a trailer occupied by a dozen immigrants, he doesn’t know from where. Down the way, there’s another trailer, one that may or may not be a meth lab; Greg is certain the people who live there are speed freaks. It’s still dark out, and quiet—country quiet. He stops and listens to the bleating of his neighbor’s goats. A rooster crows in the distance. He climbs into his truck and sets out for Midlothian, about 25 miles west, to do work for a friend who installs wood flooring. Greg can’t find a regular job, because who in his right mind would hire him?

Driving the unlit country roads, his mind takes off too, down a dozen different rabbit holes, dark, twisted places from his past. Inevitably, he finds himself reliving that terrible day almost twenty years ago. That day at the goddamn pool party. He goes over every detail: the sun, the water, the laughter, the bathroom. The boy was only 6. He was only 21. He’d met the kid when he was a baby. Should have known better. His ears still burn when he thinks about it—and he thinks about it all the time. He knows what people say.

Greg sucks in his breath, tightens his grip on the wheel. His whole life, he has fought people—hurt them deeply, been unbelievably reckless. But it’s also true he’s had bad luck, really bad luck, the kind of luck that can be distilled into a bitter headline and, if you’re the kind of guy Greg is, inscribed onto your body as a point of outlaw pride. Passing the homes of normal citizens who are just waking to start their normal days, he thinks of the words tattooed across his chest, in dark-blue ink, above the congregation of demons—words he adopted in prison and has lived his whole life. He can feel them under his shirt, can hear them in his mind.

Cursed at birth.

He remembers the heat of the day and the cool of the water. It was a Sunday afternoon, June 9, 1996. He and his girlfriend, pretty Joellene Stevens, had just had Morgan* the year before, a beautiful baby with her mom’s blond hair and her dad’s blue eyes. The young couple often fought—she had left him once already—but they were trying to make things work, living with Greg’s mom in Red Oak. He’d even found a decent job, as a mechanic-in-training at Mack Trucks.

He was hung-over from the night before and hadn’t wanted to go. But Joellene was feeling a little stir-crazy, and the invitation to hang out by their friend Donna Gray’s pool, at an apartment complex in nearby Grand Prairie, was too good to pass up. Leaving Morgan with a babysitter, the two caught a ride with another couple, a pair of high school friends: Brenda Hines,* a tall 23-year-old with dark hair, and John Cornelison, a good-looking warehouse worker and Greg’s best friend. With them was Brenda’s son, a sensitive boy named Luke.*

At the pool, the group cracked open beers and cranked up the radio, and soon there were nine or ten of them, laughing and telling old stories. They’d been a wild bunch back in high school, drinking, partying, doing drugs, fighting, sleeping with one another—and Greg’s past with Brenda, in particular, a mess of arguments and casual hookups, was no secret to anyone. But they’d all been settling down lately, getting serious, having kids. Luke, one of four children at the party, splashed at one end of the pool, and among the adults, a volleyball game broke out. Greg, his mind and body fuzzy from the night before, felt reinvigorated by the water. He swatted the ball and nursed a beer.

Then Luke announced he needed to go to the bathroom. The boy had diarrhea. Brenda had downed several beers by that point, and John offered to walk the boy to Donna’s apartment. Donna, who had to make a phone call, led the way. Greg decided to follow. He hadn’t eaten that morning, and now he was starving. Inside the small one-bedroom, he raided Donna’s refrigerator while she got on the phone. Finding some hot dogs, he ate one cold, then spotted a tray with several more that Donna had cooked in her oven. He grabbed a couple, began eating one, and wandered over to the bathroom, where John was already helping Luke wipe himself.

Even now, Greg can’t really explain why he did what he did. What had come over him? Maybe he was a little buzzed, acting stupid. Maybe he was just a screwed-up person. The images still rush back to him like scenes from a bad movie. The boy in the bathroom. The remaining hot dog in his hand. Brenda screaming at him by the pool. Getting arrested. The words in the police report, which spelled it all out with sickening clarity: how Luke, after returning to the party, had been “holding his rear end.” How, when asked what was wrong, he’d said he was in pain because Greg “made him bend over in the rest room and put a hot dog into his rear end.” Those words still swirl through Greg’s mind.

It had been a blur after that. Joellene and his mother put up money for his bail and hired a lawyer, who, convinced a jury would find him guilty and give him life, recommended a bench trial. It was all a mistake, Greg tried to say; he just needed a chance to tell his story. But three months later, he found himself in the same courtroom with Brenda as she described the party to Judge Thomas Thorpe, a 67-year-old devout Catholic: how she’d seen her son come back to the pool with a scared look on his face, how he’d told her what Greg had done with the hot dog, how she’d flown into a rage. Greg watched as a police officer also took the stand, asserting that the kid was credible, and then the boy himself, who nervously answered the prosecutor’s questions, clutching a teddy bear he called Snuggles. Wide-eyed, the boy stared at his grandmother in the courtroom when asked about the hot dog, looking at her for comfort. Greg had told him to bend over, Luke said, and then “stucked it in my bottom a little.”

The case was clear, the judge declared. Greg was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. His depravity was only confirmed by his history: Greg, it was revealed during trial, was already on probation for burglary, assault, and selling speed. He needed to go away for a long time. He stood as the judge read his sentence: ten years for breaking his probation and twelve for aggravated sexual assault of a child, to run concurrently.

This was how he’d ended up at the Middleton Unit, in Abilene, in a white uniform that might as well have had a scarlet P emblazoned on it. Pedophile, the inmates snarled at him. Child molester. Bitch. He was sucker-punched in the dayroom. Jumped in his cell, in the cafeteria, in the shower. A sex offender, more than a killer even, deserved a special place in hell—for robbing children of their innocence, for leaving scars that never healed.

But no one needed to tell Greg that. He already knew.

Greg had always invited trouble. Even as a toddler, he was headstrong. This trait had put him at odds with his father, a quiet, sometimes brooding plumber named Mike who worked late and didn’t have time for foolishness. An old-fashioned disciplinarian who wasn’t afraid to use the belt, he whipped his son often and hard. Greg learned early not to complain. “You can’t hurt me,” he’d taunt back, finding strength in defiance.

The family lived in a succession of rough-and-tumble neighborhoods and trailer parks in Irving. Greg, the middle child—with an older sister, Shannon, and a younger brother, Kevin—was a fast, athletic kid. He loved to run. He loved to fight too. His father encouraged it; so did his grandfather Papaw, who had boxed in the Army, and his uncle Jeffrey, who had been a kickboxer. They hung a punching bag from a tree so he could practice and made him slug it out with neighborhood kids. “Don’t cry,” Papaw would say after a hard blow. “You don’t need to cry.” Greg swallowed his tears, got good at the fighting. He was not going to be a sissy.

Girls loved him. He grew into a handsome teen, and they’d stop him on the streets just to stare into his blue eyes. He was sweet and knew his manners, opening doors, carrying books, picking a flower for a date while stopped at a red light. He was smart too, playing chess for hours with his uncle Jackie when the man lay paralyzed in a hospital bed after a motorcycle wreck. He developed a wicked sense of humor, with a penchant for playing pranks—placing a dead bug on a girl’s pager, leaving a dead mackerel under the driver’s seat of a friend going on a big date, tying fishing line to a dead squirrel and making it jump around like a puppet. He loved that reckless feeling of going too far.

But as he moved through adolescence, he got more and more foolhardy, his brashness fueled by a rage that seemed to overtake him—an inner, howling fury he couldn’t quite explain. In between the pranks and the chivalry, he began acting deranged, picking fights with grown men, jumping from the hood of a speeding car onto an eighteen-wheeler, riding his bike off the roof of a two-story apartment building into a pool. His high school buddies could be unruly too—they all broke curfews, drank, fought—but Greg seemed to harbor a death wish. “We were all a little crazy,” one friend would later say. “Greg was a little crazier.”

He cussed out his mom. He hated his dad—for being so hard on him, for working all the time, for never coming to his football games. He escaped to Papaw and Granny’s house, staying for weeks at a time. They alone seemed to understand him, had seen enough hard living during their time to not be frightened by the turmoil inside him. Especially Granny, who showed him how to cook on her old cast-iron stove and reminded him that he could do whatever he put his mind to; to prove her right, he roofed their house all on his own. “I love you,” she’d say whenever he left the house. “Be strong.”

He was strong—but he was also wild and mean, one minute the life of the party, the next provoking the biggest guy in the room. By fifteen he’d dropped out of school and was spending nights on friends’ couches; by seventeen he was doing drugs. That year he was accused of stealing a purse and, a few months later, busted for dealing meth. He was arrested for assault the next year when he took a bottle to the head of a guy who was picking on his brother.

That was the breaking point. His long-suffering mother, Sheila, confronted him, desperate. “Why are you acting so crazy?” she pleaded. “What is wrong with you?” And with that question, in that one moment, something snapped inside Greg.

“You really want to know?” he yelled, his body throbbing, his heart beating so loud he thought it would explode. Anger, hatred, shame, and tears—tears he’d never allowed himself to cry—all poured out, as he confessed to the events of an unspeakable day years before, a day that had ruined him forever. He’d been nine, a camper on a church youth group trip to Galveston in the summer of 1984. The group—about twenty kids, a few chaperones—had stopped at a Walmart to buy fishing supplies, and when Greg emerged from the aisles with his pole, he’d found himself alone. The bus was gone. Greg wasn’t the kind of kid to ask for help, so he’d started walking. He could find the camp by heading down the main road. Self-sufficient. It was how he’d been raised.

That’s when a man, driving an old Camaro, had passed him—and stopped and turned around. “Need a ride?” he called from the window. “No,” Greg said. But the man persisted. “Where are you going?”

“A camp down the road.”

“I know where it is. I’ll take you.”

No, Greg said again, but then the man stopped and got out. With a gun. “Get in the fucking car,” he hissed. And so Greg had, terrified. And then—

And then. Greg, feeling nine years old all over again, telling his mother what he should have told her half a lifetime ago, back when she could have protected him, when someone should have protected him, explained how the man had raped him right there in the car. Then he’d taken Greg to a motel, pulled his hair, slapped him around, raped him again. When the boy defecated on himself, the man made him shower, threw him back in the car, drove near the beach, and stopped. It was three in the morning. “Don’t you tell anyone about this,” he said. “Or I’ll kill you.”

Greg had felt stupid, ashamed, like it was all his fault. Did this make him gay? What would his father think? He’d been raised to fight, to be strong. How could he have failed so miserably? As his tormentor went to open the passenger door, he noticed the man’s wallet sitting on the dashboard. He grabbed it, kept it as the guy drove away. He was rinsing off again in the saltwater when a police officer found him. They’d been searching for him, the cop said. Greg nodded in pain, trying hard not to throw up. He did not mention the man. Did not mention the rape. Did not cry. The next day, as the other kids went fishing, he stayed at the cabin.

After that, Greg told his mom, he didn’t trust anyone, didn’t care if he lived or died. He hated himself, hated everyone. Hated men especially. When his father heard the story, tears welled in his eyes—the first time Greg had ever seen him cry. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. “You could have told me.” Though his mother called the youth-group leader, sobbing, chastising him for not doing a proper head count on the bus all those years ago, the church could offer little more than counseling. It seemed too late to go to the police; during the time he’d spent moving around and crashing at friends’ places, Greg had lost the wallet and no longer had any proof.

Besides, he now had a rap sheet to take care of. He pleaded guilty to the burglary and meth charges, received probation for the first and ten years for the second. He was sent, in May 1994, to an alternative incarceration program, the Roach Boot Camp Unit, near Childress. The days were brutal and militaristic—early-morning drills, long marches—but five months later he was released, still on probation.

He seemed better then, calmer, on track. He and Joellene started dating, they soon became parents, and he landed his gig at Mack Trucks, making good money and attending the company’s on-site training school. Life was falling into place, one day at a time. And then came a hot June afternoon, when all he’d wanted to do was relax in the pool and play a little volleyball with some friends.

Greg (left) and his brother at the Middleton Unity, in 1999.
Greg (left) and his brother at the Middleton Unit, in 1999.Courtesy of Greg Torti

“Be strong,” Granny had said that day in the courtroom, right before they took him away in handcuffs. She and his mother stood behind him, crying, when the verdict was read. Granny’s confidence had always kept him going, but it wasn’t enough now to be strong. He had to be stronger. Stronger than everyone he was about to meet—and meaner, more dangerous. He was not going to be an easy target. As soon as he got to prison, he began lifting weights. Did a thousand push-ups a day, shadowboxed until he dropped.

But someone at the Middleton Unit stole a look at his paperwork, and one morning in the dayroom, an inmate asked if it was true that he was a child molester. Greg had been waiting for this moment. He stood up. “I’ve never touched a fucking kid, and I never will,” he announced, looking around. “If anybody don’t fucking believe me or has a problem with me, you know where I am.”

They knew, all right, and came for him day and night, pummeling him, insulting him. He fought back, immediately, relentlessly, sustained by a hostility that never waned. He refused to be humiliated—even on the day he earned his GED and had to sit behind glass, in a special cage for sex offenders, so that his parents and Morgan could visit with him after he’d been handed his diploma. Sure, he was bad. But child abusers were the worst of the worst, and he was not one of them.

He was not one of them. That was the thing—the bizarre, unreal thing. He’d never touched Luke, not in that way, at least. When John had stepped into the bathroom to help the boy clean up, Greg looked at the hot dog in his hand and decided to play a joke—like he always did, like the prankster he was. He moved toward the boy, slapped the weenie on the side of his buttocks, let it drop to the floor, and said, “Look! You shit a hot dog!” It was stupid. And he’d embarrassed Luke. But that was all it had been: a thoughtless, stupid joke. He knew what it meant to be sexually assaulted. He’d never in a million years wish that on any kid.

He’d told the police as much—that he was innocent. When he heard the day after the party that Brenda was pressing charges, he and his mother drove to the station in Grand Prairie so he could clear things up. He could explain everything: that John had witnessed his dumb joke, that Brenda had misunderstood her son’s words, that she’d been too drunk to hear that Greg slapped the hot dog on his bottom—so drunk, in fact, that her friends hadn’t allowed her to drive home that night. But instead he was arrested on the spot, for aggravated sexual abuse of a child. Brenda had already taken Luke to be examined at Children’s Medical Center, and the police officer who interviewed the boy afterward said she believed him. Who was going to listen to a troublemaker like Greg?

Lying at night in his prison bunk, he went over every moment, tried to make sense of the details. How the hospital report had found nothing to confirm the boy’s accusation: “no physical findings suggestive of abuse at this time.” How Brenda had admitted in court that she’d had five or six beers and didn’t think to contact the police until the next day, when she finally had her “head together.” How John had corroborated Greg’s account at trial, stating under oath that Greg had never been alone with Luke in the bathroom and that he’d seen Greg slap the boy specifically on the “left butt cheek.” How Luke had contradicted himself in his testimony, even saying at one point that Greg put the hot dog “on my bottom.” How the boy had admitted to Judge Thorpe that his mother and grandmother had rehearsed testimony with him six times; how the judge had even admonished Luke’s grandmother for coaching the kid from her seat, nodding and shaking her head after lawyers’ questions.

How none of that mattered. The prosecutor had ultimately asked Luke the most pointed of questions—“Did he stick it in the place where the poo-poo comes out?”—and the boy answered yes. That was what mattered. Listening to the boy’s words, Greg’s stomach had closed like a fist. He’d known then that his fate was sealed.

But if the cops thought he’d assaulted Luke, why had they apparently never retrieved the hot dog and tested it? The question bothered Greg, but it especially bothered his lawyer, who appealed his verdict, and in March 1997, after seven months in prison, Greg was released on appellate bond. The stress of his incarceration had led to a breakup with Joellene, but still, he felt hopeful: after moving in with an old friend, he found work in construction and struck up a relationship with a woman named Tiffaney Thaxton. When his appeal was turned down, his mother and Tiffaney hired a new lawyer who felt so strongly that Greg’s charges had been trumped up that he worked practically pro bono to file a petition for discretionary review with the Court of Criminal Appeals.

To help with the petition, Tiffaney and his mom called almost everyone who’d attended the pool party, including a few who had arrived late and had not been questioned by any lawyers; everyone they talked to was certain that Greg had not sexually assaulted Luke. His mom also tracked down two women—mutual friends of Brenda’s and Greg’s—who said that Brenda had told them she’d concocted the abuse story in anger. One of them, Lisa Moore, signed an affidavit saying that Brenda had “admitted that Greg Torti did not sexually abuse or physically injure the child in any way.” The other, Wendy Buie, wouldn’t sign an affidavit but, according to the petition, told Greg’s lawyer that she’d heard Brenda brag at another party about how she’d “set Greg up” and “really burned him.”

Nevertheless, the petition was turned down. In February 1999, as his lawyer worked on a writ of habeas corpus, Greg was sent back to prison, this time to the Lewis Unit, in Woodville. “Can you fight?” the major asked when he arrived. “Yeah,” he replied. “I hope so,” said the major. One day shortly afterward, Greg took a seat at what turned out to be a gambling table—for gang members only. When a Crip told him to beat it, Greg refused. The Crip threw a punch; Greg parried and hit back, knocking him down. Then a Blood took off his shirt; soon he and Greg were battering each other. Greg remained standing. A member of the Tango Blast came after him; when Greg bested him, a guy from the Mexican Mafia did the same. He beat him too. In pain, out of breath, and nauseated, Greg sat back down at the table. He was not going to show weakness. This time, no one said anything.

He spent more time lifting weights, bulked up to 228 pounds. The fights didn’t end. He lost his front teeth and a couple of others. He earned a nickname—“Turtle”—for being the tough guy with the hard shell. And yet, despite everything, he found a certain peace with himself and his sentence. Yes, he had twice been a victim—of a pedophile and then a friend—but he’d also done plenty of horrible things of his own accord. Now he just had to survive for the next ten years—alone. He told his family to stay away, so they wouldn’t have to sit at the table for sex offenders on visiting day. He broke up with Tiffaney, telling her in a letter that he didn’t love her anymore. It was a lie, one of the hardest things he’d ever done, but she deserved better.

He thought of his elders, found strength in blood. His uncle had been paralyzed, and Papaw had been shot in World War II and then gotten cancer, but they hadn’t quit. Neither would he. “You’re stronger than everyone else,” Granny wrote him. “Look what you’ve been through—look what you can go through.” He decided to ask a tattoo artist, an inmate named Ice Man, to design something grand to mark his life’s course, something that would reflect the bad sign he’d been born under and the evil he felt in his heart—but also acknowledge the fact that somehow he’d survived his desperate youth. So in addition to demons on his chest, he’d had eyes inked on his arms, because he knew someone, maybe a guardian angel, had been watching out for him.

Cursed, yes. Doomed, no. Something good would still come.

It did, in the form of a pretty massage therapist from Lincoln, Nebraska. Greg met Ticey Bell in Irving, not long before going back to prison; he’d helped her move into the apartment next to his. She was petite but strong, with blond hair and a calm, sensible air. They became friends, and when he ended up in Woodville, she began researching his case, reading copies of the court transcripts and briefs. When he decided to write letters to lawyers around Texas who might help him out, Ticey sent him copies of other cases to read.

What he learned filled him with despair. Texas courts consistently upheld cases of child sexual abuse allegations, even when the only evidence was the word of the child or that of the outcry witness—in his case, Brenda. In 2000, true to form, his writ of habeas corpus was denied. To make things worse, Greg, so determined to stand alone in the world, began to realize that Ticey was falling for him. He pushed her away, refusing to answer her letters. “You don’t want to be involved with a sex offender,” he told her. Ticey reached out to Granny for help. “He’s testing you,” said the older woman. “Keep after him.”

She did, and despite himself, Greg slowly came around. Ticey was smart and loyal; the more she learned of his past, it seemed, the more she loved him. She was tireless, writing letters on his behalf to journalists, lawyers, and judges. She hired a private investigator, who reinterviewed pool party witnesses; each one reaffirmed what he or she had said before—and raised details that had not come up at trial. John, for example, had never been asked what he heard Luke tell his mom at the pool; now he informed the investigator that the boy had clearly said that Greg slapped him with the hot dog on the butt. Donna, for her part, said that she recalled laughing at Greg’s comment about shitting a hot dog, as had John, because it was so obviously a joke. According to the investigator’s report, she also stated that Brenda had shown up at her apartment after Greg’s arrest and “threatened to kill her for taking Greg’s side.”

Greg asked Ticey to marry him by letter in 2004. Their wedding was by proxy; as his friend Mark Rutter stood in for him at a ceremony in an Arlington sub-courthouse, Greg sat in his cell 250 miles away, trying to picture his bride. He couldn’t kiss or touch her—wouldn’t be able to for a while—but he was happier that day than he’d ever been. He couldn’t wait to get out and start a new family, he wrote her; he wanted a big one. Energized, he sent out more letters: to the Texas Center for Actual Innocence at the University of Texas, the Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston, the West Texas Innocence Project, and the Second Chances Legal Review and Investigations. Ticey hired a new firm to do legal research into the case. To pay for it, she cashed in her 401(k) and asked her parents for a loan. They took out a second mortgage on their home and gave her $20,000. No one, thought Greg, had ever been so good to him.

When he was relocated two years later to the Goree Unit, in Huntsville, Ticey followed. She moved to nearby Houston and then Porter, a tiny town north of the city, finding work as a massage therapist wherever she could. Now that they were married, they could have contact visits, and she came to see him often. Once, in violation of prison rules, he picked her up and cradled her in his arms; when he was told never to do that again, he simply shrugged. He cared about bigger things now. He even asked his family to start visiting again. The prison unit had a good library, and he threw himself into its books, researching more legal cases. In 2007 he finally got some good news: the Dallas County public defender’s office had agreed to work with him. Lawyers filed a request for DNA testing and asked Luke and Brenda for interviews.

The two refused to talk. Greg was undeterred. He wrote more letters for help: to his trial judge, Thomas Thorpe, as well as to a judge who had originally been scheduled to hear his case, John Creuzot. He wrote the newly elected district attorney for Dallas County, Craig Watkins, who was making a name for himself reinvestigating wrongful convictions. Ticey and his family had spent almost $50,000 on attorneys and investigators, he explained in writing. “Once you get [into my case],” he wrote, “you won’t be sorry, especially if you are trying to help the wrongfully convicted.”

The problem: without DNA evidence, no one could help him, and the police had never collected the hot dog in the first place. Unless Luke recanted his testimony, there was nothing anyone could do. Greg settled in for the final two years of his sentence, but in the summer of 2008, he was shocked to be told to gather his things. He was being granted early parole. No reason was given. On July 21, as Ticey and his brother waited outside, Greg was led beyond the prison’s cinder-block walls. He’d gone in a rough boy and come out a 33-year-old man. Heading straight into Ticey’s arms, he lifted her off the ground and kissed her hard.

He couldn’t wait to start his new life.

The State of Texas had other ideas. Since 1994, the year Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration Act—a law named after a boy in Minnesota who was kidnapped and never found—any convicted sex offender in the United States is required to register his name in a database; a subsequent law passed that same year made the database public. For the nearly 85,000 registered sex offenders in Texas, whether they are low-level offenders, such as streakers or public urinators, or more dangerous ones—rapists, pedophiles, or child pornographers—this leads to a tightly circumscribed existence. Most must remain on the registry for life. Employers, landlords, and homeowners’ associations can legally discriminate against them, and cities with “child-safety zones”—officially designated areas around schools, libraries, parks, theaters, and malls—are essentially off-limits. An offender caught walking next to a park, for example, faces a return to prison.

The day after Greg’s release, Ticey drove him to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, where his name, age, address, and photo were uploaded into the state’s database. His DNA profile was sent over to the Department of Public Safety. He was issued a blue “sex offender registration” ID card to carry with him at all times. He was instructed to inform local authorities in person of any changes in address or job—or if he went to the hospital or repainted his car. Until he got off parole, he was not allowed to enter any child-safety zone in Texas. He was out of prison, but now he was in a bigger cage.

Soon afterward, Greg asked Ticey to get on her computer and search for his name on the registry. He wanted to see it. As soon as his profile came up, he felt nauseated. He then asked Ticey to search for another name, the one that had haunted him for 24 years: Jaime Palacios.* He remembered it from the wallet he’d stolen from the car that day in Galveston; as a teenager, he had stared at the photo on the man’s driver’s license and plotted how, one day, he would kill him. He’d always wondered: had the monster been caught?

It didn’t take long to pull up the familiar, cruel face with squinting eyes. Palacios had been convicted in 2001 of sexually assaulting a fourteen-year-old boy. He’d been given five years. He lived in a town near the coast, was required like all offenders to check in with the local sheriff.

Greg felt his rage return, the old instinct—to fight, to hurt—rushing in. How had he, a victim of this same man, ended up getting twelve years? He considered tracking Palacios down in person; his address was right there, online. Except he knew what would happen. He’d be unable to contain himself. He’d beat the guy, maybe even kill him. Go back to prison. God, how he hated sex offenders. Hated their perversion, their callous self-absorption. Greg walked away from the computer. He was glad there was a registry for such scumbags. At least Palacios was leading a miserable life, he knew that much.

He knew because he himself was. He couldn’t own a computer or a smartphone or even visit his daughter, Morgan, now fourteen and living in Dallas, without his parole officer’s permission. And his PO was extremely strict. “Don’t let your kids come over here,” he recalled her announcing to his neighbors in Porter. “He’s a sex offender.” He was warned that if his next-door neighbor’s grandkids ever wandered into the yard, or if he drove by a school even by mistake, he’d be sent right back to prison. Greg and Ticey mapped out a route every time they left the house, but it was hard not to feel constantly on guard. He couldn’t find a job—the PO would not allow him to go to neighboring Harris County for work or let him attend church there with Ticey—and when he tried to sign up for a welding course in Houston, he learned that it would be a parole violation because the building was next to an elementary school. Worst of all, he was required to attend group counseling—that he had to pay for—and listen to other offenders confess to raping their daughters or other men’s sons. “My name is Greg Torti,” he’d spit. “You guys make me sick to my stomach.”

It was his brother who came to the rescue, suggesting he move back to the Dallas–Fort Worth area. Kevin was an electrician now, raising a family in Keller, and though their sister, Shannon, had moved to Nebraska, their parents remained nearby; after divorcing in 2002, their father lived in Irving, their mother in Quinlan. Greg didn’t want a nice neighborhood with nosy neighbors, so his dad and brother found him the trailer on a dead-end street in Ferris, a town with no child-safety zones. He and Ticey bought it sight unseen, moving there in January 2009 after receiving permission from the sheriff and his parole officer. He fixed up the place, tore out the carpet, laid down wood floors. He found work with old friends—Greg Salinas, who hired him as a painter and welder, and Cliff Massey, who paid him to rip out other people’s carpets and install hardwood flooring. Neither man had ever believed the charges against him. When an anonymous caller phoned Salinas one day and asked if he knew he was paying a sex offender to work for him, Salinas was nonchalant. “Yes, I am aware,” he replied. “He feels the same way you do about them.”

Of course, Greg still had to check in regularly with the local sheriff, get a new parole officer, sign up for counseling again. But that first day of group therapy, he decided enough was enough. He stalked out, refused to go back. His PO told him he’d be forced to return unless he could pass two polygraphs: one about the pool party incident, the other about his own sexual history. (Polygraphs are used regularly in the evaluation and treatment of sex offenders.) Greg agreed immediately. He sat first for the “instant offense” test, in which the polygrapher, a woman named Marla Williams, asked three relevant questions, bracketed by four control ones: Had he inserted a hot dog into Luke Hines’s anus? Had he attempted to insert a hot dog into Luke Hines’s anus? Had he ever had any sexual contact with Luke Hines? Greg answered no to all three. “You passed,” was Williams’s verdict. “You’re telling the truth.”

There it was, finally. Proof of what he had been saying all these years, from someone who actually did work for the State of Texas. Someone who believed him. In all the years she had administered the test, Williams told Greg, she had seen only a handful of accused sex offenders pass—he was in rare company. He’d wept then, in front of this total stranger, his whole body shaking uncontrollably. When he passed the sexual history test too, he was officially cleared of counseling.

He was released from parole in August 2010. But his photo and status remained online for anyone to find, and he had to carry his blue sex offender card everywhere he went. He couldn’t own a gun or enroll in college without permission from the sheriff and administrators, and his parole officer continued to visit every month. The sheriff came by every three months. He was still a public menace. In November, a story came out in the Ellis County Press. “High-Risk Sex Offender Alert,” read the headline. “Living in Your Community.”

Listed were the names and addresses of nineteen Ferris residents, including Gregory Lee Torti.

Greg with his wife and son at their home in Ferris.
Greg with his wife and son at their home in Ferris.Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Greg celebrated his fortieth birthday in January at the local DPS office, fulfilling the sex offender’s annual requirement of renewing his driver’s license. The room was crowded with adults and children, and a clerk instructed everyone waiting to renew licenses to come to the front. Greg was the first to step up, wanted to get things over with. When the clerk asked why he needed a renewal, he handed her his blue card. He felt the room go quiet, all eyes turned on him. “Oh,” said the clerk. “You’re a sex offender. Fill this out first.” He had to walk to the back of the room to complete the form, face burning.

At least people in town leave him be. He and Ticey started their family in October 2011, when blue-eyed Anthony was born. Greg is cautious—he pays with cash so no one sees his name on a debit card, he rarely takes trips lest he drive mistakenly by a park in some town with a child-safety zone and get arrested—but he tries to take his family out when he can, like when they strolled through downtown for Brick Festival, a yearly celebration of Ferris’s brick-making history, in the spring. Greg showed his son the souped-up engines in the muscle cars, took his photo riding a pony.

He cherishes the boy’s sweetness, his innocence. Anthony is only in preschool, but soon will come kindergarten, playdates, sleepovers. Greg dreads the day he and Ticey will have to explain why a friend can’t come over to play, or why Dad can’t pick him up at school, or why classmates may suddenly start whispering on the playground. It’s why, more than anything right now, Greg loves spending time at home—away from prying eyes and suspicious minds. After work, his hands red from knuckle-walking on hardwood floors, he cooks dinner, like Granny taught him—testing a manicotti recipe one day, pickle soup the next—and then plays in the yard with Anthony. Later, as the boy speeds around inside, pushing toy monster trucks and speaking a language only his parents understand, Greg leans back in his recliner, watches and smiles. Here, at home, he’s not a sex offender. He’s a dad.

He tried to reconnect with Morgan, but his years away left her feeling abandoned, and they don’t talk much. Things are different with his own father, though—his burly, rough dad, who, in one of those crazy life twists, now comes around all the time. He takes his grandson to the park, helps his son work on the trailer. Greg’s time in prison affected the old man deeply, and after all those decades of anger, the two have grown close. Greg is careful to avoid repeating history; after raising his hand once to spank Anthony, he’s asked Ticey to discipline their son. Instead he rehearses the words he plans to impart in the future: “No matter what happens, you can always tell me. There’s nothing so terrible you can’t tell me.”

Some days, the fact that his face and name are out there, for everyone to see, is too much for him.

He knows what people will think of his story: that he’s lying, that being abused as a kid makes it likely he abused a kid himself. Never mind the studies out there that say that this idea is a myth, that there is no data to back up such thinking. He knows, too, that there are vigilantes who’ve looked up the addresses of sex offenders in South Carolina, Maine, Washington—and then shown up on their doorsteps and killed them. Anyone with an Internet connection could do the same to him.

He knows he will never be free of fear, and this can be so overwhelming that he sometimes feels the old rage bubbling up again. On those days, he tells Ticey he’s going fishing. He takes his rod and heads for a neighborhood creek, or goes for a drive over the rolling hills south of Ferris. Sometimes he stops and listens to the quiet until the calm returns. Be strong, he tells himself. He’s not religious—he has not yet forgiven God for Galveston—but he does pray. Prayers of thanks for his wife and son. Prayers of hope that Luke will one day reconsider what really happened in that bathroom.

That 6-year-old boy is now a man of 25. He lives in Irving. Greg can’t use Facebook, but he’s been told that Luke, an active churchgoer, posts often about his church activities and his love for Jesus. This idea pains Greg. He feels a lot of sympathy for Luke, who was only a boy, after all, who couldn’t have understood the implications of what he was saying. But Greg can’t help but wonder if Luke ever has doubts. Shouldn’t someone who loves Jesus also love the truth? Seek restoration for ruining a man’s life? (Despite repeated attempts to interview both Luke and Brenda, neither would comment for this story.)

Everybody gets dealt a hand in life, Greg thinks, and it’s not always a fair one. So he focuses on his blessings. He’s alive. He knows what love is. And Ticey is pregnant again, due in December. This helps him dream: after hustling so long for work—and almost severing a finger on the job a few months ago—he’s decided to start his own business. He studied for his commercial driver’s license all summer, passed it in September. Now he’ll buy a big dump truck. It’ll cost at least $25,000, but eventually he should make good money hauling rocks and gravel around North Texas. And then, someday, he and his family might be able to leave. Maybe for one of the Dallas suburbs, or maybe Waxahachie or Midlothian—somewhere they can put their kids in a good school, somewhere Greg can build them all a home from the foundation up.

Anywhere but on this dead-end street, with these meth-head neighbors and junkyard dogs.

Greg goes to bed around ten. He closes his eyes, prays for Ticey and Anthony. Prays for Luke. He stares into the darkness and plays the details of his life once more, details he can’t stop fixating on. A failed head count on the school bus. A hot dog never collected by police. The look on Granny’s face as deputies took him away.

He never saw her again. Though she wrote him every week, she was too infirm to visit him in prison, and she died in 2006. In her last letter, she wrote that she had something really important to tell him, but he never found out what it was. So sometimes, as he lies in the darkness, he tries to make himself dream about it. Maybe she’ll come to him, instead of the prison nightmares. Maybe she’ll tell him what was so crucial.

Of all the things he’s had taken—his teeth, his twenties, his first family, his innocence—it’s the one thing he thinks he may be able to get back.

*The names of certain people have been changed to protect their identities.