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His wounds healed, but not his sense of betrayal

By MARY JO MELONE
Published April 28, 2004

There's not a morning Paul Pioli doesn't wake up thinking about it.

There's not a night it doesn't interrupt his sleep.

That night, June 22, 2002, he was at the intersection of Park Boulevard and 66th Street in Pinellas Park.

He and a friend had been rear-ended by a late-model tan Volvo station wagon. When Pioli got out of the car to see what happened, the Volvo backed up and sped away. He looked up and saw another car coming at him. It was a white Honda Civic hatchback, an early '90s model.

Pioli, 25, thought he had time to get out of the way. Then crack. He felt a pain like he had never known. Maybe like a point-blank gunshot, he later thought, but worse. The impact with the Honda hurled him across the hood of his buddy's car. Like the Volvo, the Honda sped off.

Nearly two years have passed, and the driver of the Honda - and to the extent that he's responsible, the driver of the Volvo - have committed the perfect crime. The Pinellas Park police haven't caught them. Nobody has turned them in. They haven't come forward.

And they have left Pioli to, as the cruel expression goes, just deal with it.

This is what he has had to deal with: a right leg so mangled that other parts of his body had to be used to put the leg back together. Approximately seventeen surgeries. A million dollars in medical bills.

Muscle from his back replaced the muscle torn from his right calf. Skin from his left leg was grafted to cover the scars on his back. A vein from his left leg replaced a vein torn from his right. Bone from his hip was attached to a titanium rod that runs from his knee to his ankle. Even his toes were operated on just seven weeks ago.

The Tampa hit-and-run accident that killed two children and injured two siblings last month has brought it all back for Pioli - although, as you can tell, what happened to him is never far from his consciousness.

Pioli thinks that if the driver who hit him knew what he has endured, that person might be moved to do the right thing. Or else, and this is the worst possibility, they're flat out heartless.

There is extraordinary aggression in the act of striking somebody with your car and then driving away. You make a conscious decision when you flee. You decide that your own welfare - avoiding blame - is more important than the welfare of your victim, somebody like Pioli.

I asked him if he could forgive the people who changed his life.

Only then did he hesitate.

"I don't really say I can forgive them. I just want to know who it was. It might help me get over it."

He's trying. He sets goals for himself, and having reached one, sets another. He made himself ride a bike again, not bad for a guy told he might not walk. With the brace for his foot that he expects to get today, he plans to try a jog.

And he does what he can to make his dreams come alive. He's engaged. He was studying to be an airplane mechanic when he was hit. He finished his training. He's about to start looking for work. "Whether I'm disabled doesn't mean I can't work," he said. "You turn wrenches with your hands, not with your legs."

Yet some thoughts still nag. He loved playing soccer and basketball at St. Petersburg Catholic. Those days are gone. He pictured himself roughhousing with his sons to be. Those days will never come.

Pioli spoke to me partly out of the wish that our conversation could shake loose some bit of information that would lead to the drivers who sped off that night, particularly the driver of the Honda that hit him.

Maybe somebody has knowledge that he has trouble living with.

Maybe the recent Largo case, in which two hit-and-run drivers struck Sarah L. Landry as she crossed Seminole Boulevard, made the burden heavier.

Or perhaps the death of Lisa Wilkins' two children revived a feeling of guilt over what happened to Paul Pioli.

Come on. Somebody's got to know.

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 813 226-3402.

[Last modified April 28, 2004, 01:05:41]


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