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Guilty until proven innocent

21 years, 10 months, 23 days. For a crime he did not commit

LEONORA LaPETER
Published November 14, 2004

A hint of a smile played across Wilton Dedge's face, hardly noteworthy except that the man does not show emotion. It's not that he doesn't want to smile or laugh or even cry about his life, it's just that you can't change the way you've been for 22 years in the space of two weeks.

But working on his 1988 Nissan at a friend's auto repair shop in Cocoa, Dedge's lips curled up, just a little, when he learned that his buddy's brother drives a school bus for a living.

"Geez, how do you deal with that?" Dedge asked Dave Kryston. "I know how crazy we were."

Kryston's 1987 Monte Carlo was parked next to the Nissan. Smoking a cigarette in one of the greasy bays, out of the hot sun, Kryston looked with pity and sadness at the friend he hadn't seen in more than two decades.

"Glad to see a smile on your face," he said, nodding. "Glad to see you smile."

Dedge lit a Marlboro and moved into the bay next to Kryston. He stared at the oil-marked floor, exhaled, and finally broke the silence. "Well, it's been a while. It really has."

* * *

Dec. 8, 1981, New Smyrna Beach, after lunch

Dedge leaned under the hood of a Dodge van, working on the transmission. Two guys who owned the garage had hired him for a few days.

He had just turned 20 and lived with his parents in Port St. John, a town of 400 anchored by the twin towers of a Florida Power & Light plant, where his father worked.

He did a few days in jail once for reckless driving and running from police, charges that were dropped. He had a motorcycle and plenty of girls after him.

A high school dropout, he surfed, drag-raced, skateboarded and partied, flitting from job to job, a couple of weeks here, a few months there. Mostly he worked for a phone cable company and in car garages. He was broke.

After Dedge installed the rebuilt transmission, owner John Paul gave him a check for $25, which he cashed at the gas station across the street.

Four people at the shop were sure Dedge stayed till closing, between 5 and 5:30 p.m. Paul wasn't sure when Dedge left.

The other shop owner, John Huey, said he and Dedge closed the shop and hopped on their motorcycles for the quick ride to Pub 44. Dedge downed a sandwich and five or six beers in half an hour. As darkness fell, they rode to Moe's Bar.

* * *

4:35 p.m., Dec. 8, 1981. Canaveral Groves, 46 miles away

She heard a noise and he was there, in the doorway of her bedroom.

He wore jeans, a white T-shirt cut off at the sleeves and brown motorcycle gloves. He had long, fine blond hair bleached from the sun, a fine mustache and greenish-blue eyes. Muscular, he looked like a construction worker or a surfer.

"Hi, Trish," he said.

She was 17. Trish was her nickname; it was in big letters on her cosmetology case on the floor and on plaques around her room.

Her eyes went to the box cutter in the stranger's right hand.

With the retractable razor blade he sliced off her clothes, cut her and threw her on the bed. He held the blade over her face.

She did not scream, did not cry. Don't hurt me, she thought.

He sliced her face and neck, stomach and chest, arms and legs, working the razor back and forth, sometimes making X's on her skin. The weapon at her neck, he looked her in the eye and raped her.

He emptied her purse, picked up her wallet, put it down. He raped her again and slugged her in the face.

Through her bedroom window, she spotted a neighbor getting his mail. She grabbed a glass from atop her stereo and threw it at the bedroom door.

Again he punched her in the face, and he was gone.

In 45 minutes, he had cut her 65 times.

* * *

Dec. 12, 1981. Port St. John

Trish's boyfriend took her to the hospital. Most of her external injuries were superficial; one cut on her calf measured 7 inches long.

After four days, it was time to get out of the house. Trish and her sister drove to nearby Port St. John to check out the home they lived in before their parents divorced.

About 9 p.m., Trish pulled her Pontiac up to a Jiffy Mart and popped in to buy her sister a Coke and cigarettes.

Feeling someone staring at her, Trish turned. He was standing by a video game. His mustache looked slightly darker, he seemed shorter, and yet . . .

She ran to the car, shaken.

"What?" her sister said.

"I think the guy that did it is in the store."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm pretty sure. . . . It looked like him," she said, tears running. "But he (the rapist) looked taller." She had told police he stood maybe 6 foot, 160 to 180 pounds.

Just then he exited the store. Trish's sister recognized him, they rode the bus together to elementary school; she thought his name was Walter. Did Trish want to call the police?

Trish said no.

* * *

January 1982, Brevard County

Trish returned to the Jiffy Mart a week later and saw him again. She thought maybe he looked shorter in the store because she wore 3-inch heels when she saw him there the first time.

Now, certain it was him, she called police. Her sister had thought his name was Walter Hedge. Later Trish corrected it to Walter Dedge.

On Jan. 8, Brevard sheriff's Sgt. Steven Kindrick arrested Wilton Dedge's older brother, Walter. Two days later, he showed Trish's sister a photo lineup that included Walter.

"I hope you haven't put him in jail," she said. "It's his brother."

Kindrick released Walter and arrested Wilton the next day. The officer had showed Trish a new photo lineup. "That's the one," she said, pointing to Wilton's photo. No doubt.

* * *

March 10, 1982. Brevard County Courthouse

Dedge wet both hands at the restroom sink, dried them on paper towels from a wall dispenser and handed them to state attorney's investigator George Dirschka.

Holding the towels by their edges, Dirschka hooked them into a paper clip. He hung them to dry from the window ledge of his office for 30 minutes. He folded and put them in a clean paper bag from the coffee shop downstairs, sealed it with a red evidence tag and placed it in his desk drawer.

Eight days later, Sgt. Kindrick took the bag to the fifth-floor jury room, where a crime scene investigator arranged a lineup of five sets of bedsheets. In the No. 3 position were Trish's sheets - a white top one and a bottom one with a desert scene in tan, brown and blue with some blood on it. The other four sets were white sheets from the jail's dirty laundry.

In came dog handler John Preston, a former Pennsylvania patrol officer, and his man-trailing purebred German shepherd, Harrass II. Preston stuck the bag with the paper towels in front of his dog.

"Suche," he commanded in German. Search.

Twice Preston walked the dog past the five piles of sheets. On the second run, Harrass II stopped, put down his head and sniffed at pile No. 3.

* * *

March 23, 1982, Sanford Regional Crime Lab

David Jernigan, a microanalyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, removed Trish's twin bed sheets from a paper envelope. He hung them from a clothesline over an 8-foot long table covered with butcher paper.

He "swept" the sheets, removing all debris. Two pubic hairs dropped to the paper; one of them was light brown. He placed it on a slide, side-by-side with a pubic hair collected from Wilton Dedge, and viewed them under his microscope.

"Both similarities and differences were noted between this pubic hair and . . . the sample from Dedge," Jernigan wrote in his report. "However, the differences were not sufficient to entirely eliminate Dedge as a possible source."

Prosecutors were sure Dedge was their man: Trish was convincing, the height difference now attributed to the attacker possibly having worn boots; the police artist sketch Trish did right after the rape turned out to be a dead-on likeness of Dedge; they had the dog-scent evidence, and now, the pubic hair. It all fit.

* * *

Sept. 20, 1982, Brevard County Courthouse

The trial lasted eight days. Trish said Dedge was the one. The dog handler and the hair analyst testified.

Dedge said it wasn't him. His alibi witnesses - five in all - put him at the auto shop, nearly 50 miles away.

The jury deliberated four hours and pronounced him guilty as charged.

At sentencing, Dedge's father beseeched Circuit Judge J. William Woodson. "Your honor," Walter Gary Dedge Sr. said, "there is someone out there that did this, and they have not been apprehended."

"Maybe," the judge answered, "but the juries I have seen let a lot of guilty ones go, in my mind and the defense attorneys minds, that they know are guilty."

Dedge's lawyer, Joseph Moss, jumped in. "As a practicing attorney of 12 years, I have got to tell you, I have never had a case that I thought was as wrong from a jury as this one."

Moss said the dog handler's scent test seemed unreliable. The judge said he had heard somewhere that the jury had based its verdict on the victim's testimony.

Trish originally said the rapist was 6 foot, maybe 180 pounds. Dedge was between 5-5 and 5-6, 125 pounds.

"Your honor, you heard the testimony," Moss said. "The physical description of her assailant was - the first three days - clearly a much larger man than my client."

"They (prosecutors) argued that somebody with a knife in their hand looks mighty big," the judge replied.

Dedge didn't hear much after the judge said "30 years." His mind went blank, all sound left the room.

* * *

Late 1982, Sumter Correctional Institution

So many inmates had knives and sharp instruments that the prison in Bushnell was known as "Gladiator School." Anger and racial tension permeated the place.

Dedge sought out old-timers for advice. He learned that to talk about what you're in for is a sign of disrespect.

He learned that he had to fight anyone who robbed or tried to rape him. He got into six or seven fights, he says, and was not raped. He was shocked the first time he saw two men lip-locked in the recreation yard.

Those first 18 months he kept to himself, unassuming, observant, until good news came as the calendar turned to 1984.

An appeal court ruled that Dedge's trial judge should not have barred his side from putting on an expert to challenge the dog-scent evidence. He was entitled to a new trial.

* * *

Jan. 23, 1984, aboard a prison transport vehicle

Dedge left Sumter Correctional at 7 a.m., bound for Brevard County to request bail while he waited for his second trial. At prisons and county jails along the way, the van picked up and dropped off inmates.

Three prisoners got off at the Reception and Medical Center at Lake Butler; Clarence Zacke got on.

A one-time millionaire with an auto salvage business, Zacke had been sentenced to 180 years for three murder-for-hire plots. He tried to hire two hit men to kill a witness in a drug-smuggling case against him. He tried to get someone else to murder one of the hit men. In jail, Zacke tried to hire another inmate to kill the state attorney who prosecuted him, to "get even."

For testifying against others, Zacke already had gotten his sentence cut. Now he was being transported to Brevard, to testify against someone else.

Shackled and seated on wooden benches opposite each other, Dedge and Zacke talked for two hours. The next night, Dedge's prosecutor, John Dean Moxley Jr., got a call at home.

"Does the name Dedge mean anything to you?" asked Zacke's son, Richard.

At Dedge's bail hearing a few days later, Clarence Zacke testified that Dedge told him he "raped and cut up some old hog."

Zacke knew details: that Dedge worked at the auto shop in New Smyrna Beach, that five people there were his alibi. That one of them, John - a biker with a scraggly beard, long hair and a prison record - made a poor impression on the jury.

Zacke said Dedge told him he drove his souped-up Kawasaki motorcycle more than 160 mph, made the 45-mile drive to the victim's double-wide in 15 minutes and got back to the shop before anybody noticed he was gone.

He said Dedge told him that if he saw his victim again, he would kill her.

Bail? Denied.

* * *

August 1984, Dedge's second trial

Dedge's new lawyer, Mark Horwitz, had a slew of ammunition ready - transcripts from other cases - when the dog handler took the stand.

Preston testified he was a member of the United States Police Canine Association. He was not.

Another time Preston had misrepresented his level of training at the Tom McGean School for Dogs in Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Postal Service had investigated Preston, questioning the reliability of his tracking in a number of criminal cases.

Dog handling experts had accused Preston of cuing his dogs and had questioned his assertion that his dogs could track someone years after the fact. In one case, a judge ordered a test after just four days; Preston's dog failed.

Now Horwitz asked: Various investigators handled the paper bag containing the paper towels Dedge had touched; wouldn't that contaminate the evidence? The lawyer read Preston his testimony that a person's scent could pass through the leather soles of his shoes.

Preston caved. Maybe scent could travel through a paper bag. He wasn't sure.

Though the scent evidence was undone, for this trial prosecutors had something new. They had Zacke.

A veteran snitch, his testimony in other cases shaved 130 years from his sentence and got a confiscated pickup truck returned to his girlfriend. He also got the prison transfer he wanted. For testifying against Dedge, he hoped to improve his chance for parole.

Wearing prison blues and rubber sandals, Zacke told the jury that Dedge bragged he had to fight off girlfriends he had so many. Then why rape somebody? Zacke said he had asked.

"He kind of grinned back at me," Zacke testified, "and he said, because, those girls that flock all over me . . . he said there's no challenge to it."

Dedge's alibi witnesses did not testify this time; his lawyer counseled that their rough exteriors had not played well at the first trial. Defense experts challenged the state's dog scent and hair evidence; Dedge testified that he was innocent and that Zacke had lied.

The all-male jury deliberated seven hours and reached the identical verdict as had the first jury.

At sentencing, Dec. 12, 1984, prosecutor Robert Wayne Holmes pointed to Zacke's testimony that Dedge had threatened to kill the victim. That gave the judge the leeway to exceed the 30 years Dedge got the first time.

Wilton Dedge had himself a new sentence: life in prison.

* * *

Prison: life inside

One of his best buddies was a murderer ("it was self-defense"), and he counted drug dealers, burglars, kidnappers and counterfeiters as friends. ("I would rather not even know what they are in for. I'd rather see what they are like.")

He got his GED.

He carved a miniature piano out of red oak, with tiny black walnut keys.

He saw a man a few beds over get stabbed six times for turning down a lover.

He gathered plastic spoons from the canteen and melted them together to make an airboat.

He got a Grim Reaper tattooed on his arm by an inmate with crude instruments - a sharpened staple attached to an ink pen cartridge filled with a mixture of oil, water and soot from burned spoons.

He got out for a few hours in 1986, to attend his grandmother's funeral. He wore a gray suit and shackles, and he was embarrassed.

He held his brother's new baby in the prison visitation room, where he would see three of his grandparents for the last time.

He joined prison Toastmasters to overcome his shyness, speaking in front of other prisoners about surfing, pollution and prison conditions.

He saw an inmate raped by 20 others.

He would write down his anger about the system and the prosecutor, then rip up what he wrote.

He glued matchsticks together to make a galley ship, with sails made of resin paper.

He paid an inmate clerk $10 to get to the head of a waiting list to take a class to become a certified water and wastewater plant operator.

He trained for more than a year and gained 10 pounds to compete in a U.S. prison weightlifting competition. At the last moment, the competition was canceled.

His softball team won the prison tournament and, for a few minutes, he forgot where he was.

He did not show emotion. He trusted no one.

Two men targeted him to become their "pressure punk," a sex partner. An inmate gave him a knife and told him to stab one or both of them, it was the only way. Dedge sought advice from a guard, who he said told him: stab the men.

"I can't see myself stabbing someone. Fighting is one thing, something you have to do in there, but sticking someone with a knife is personal."

Instead, he reported that he feared for his life and twice was put in protective custody away from other prisoners, for a total of two years. He said it was like solitary confinement.

* * *

Prison: seeking DNA

Five years he lived court document to court document until they slowed to a trickle, his appeals exhausted. He spent two years with nothing to cling to, until he read a newspaper article about a new DNA test.

Dedge had his former lawyer's secretary check: The pubic hair and semen sample evidence still remained.

He wrote to 35 lawyers. Not one would take his case.

Four years passed.

1990.

1991.

1992.

1993.

Home in Port St. John, his parents took down the black-light posters in his bedroom and gave his bunk beds to his brother for his kids. They moved in his grandmother's bed and hung pictures of snow-covered mountains and palm trees at sunset. They visited their son at least once a month.

In early 1994, watching Good Morning America, Dedge saw lawyer Peter J. Neufeld, who along with Barry C. Scheck had started the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that works to obtain new DNA testing for inmates. Back then it consisted of the lawyers and a handful of New York law school students.

Dedge wrote and the Innocence Project started investigating. The pace was excruciating. A college student would write Dedge, introducing himself or herself and counseling patience. That student would graduate and Dedge would get another letter of introduction.

Three more years passed.

1995.

1996.

1997.

Dedge earned certification to operate water and wastewater plants and got a transfer to Cross City Correctional, a prison with a water plant inside its maximum security gates. He ran the system, repaired the equipment, adjusted the chemicals.

In 1997, Scheck's team, unable to get Dedge's prosecutors to agree to test his DNA, asked a judge for permission, one of the first such requests in Florida.

The state fought the request to apply new science to an old case, saying the time for postconviction relief had passed.

"Without rules, we would never have finality in any case," said Holmes, the prosecutor at Dedge's second trial.

Appeals courts agreed that Dedge was "procedurally barred" from obtaining the evidence.

By now, prominent Miami lawyer Milton Hirsch, an expert on criminal procedure, had joined the case. Working for free, he appealed to a judge to allow the test for the sake of justice. In 2000, the judge agreed.

The semen sample had degraded across 18 years; that DNA test was inconclusive.

But the test on the pubic hair was definitive: It had not come from Dedge.

At trial, Holmes had told the jury that the pubic hair all but put Dedge in the victim's bed. Now he said the hair was irrelevant, it could have come from anywhere.

Hirsch demanded a new trial. Holmes eventually argued that Dedge's timing was off.

Having earlier argued that Dedge was too late - the time for appeals had passed - the state now argued that he was too early.

The Florida Legislature had just passed a law providing a mechanism for prisoners to seek DNA testing in older cases. Because Dedge got permission for DNA testing before the state passed its law, Holmes said, he should not get to take advantage of it.

The state argued to the Fifth District Court of Appeal that Dedge's possible innocence was beside the point. Rules are paramount.

The appeal court issued its ruling Jan. 13, 2003: Dedge could use the DNA evidence to seek a new trial.

* * *

Oct. 26, 2001, Daytona Beach

The private investigator knocked on Trish's door. Lorraine Yuen says she identified herself as working for Dedge's attorneys.

Trish refused to talk but followed when Yuen headed to her car to leave.

"What do you want to know?" Trish said. She was 17 when she was raped; now she was 37.

Could she have identified the wrong man? Yuen asked.

"No, why?"

The hair is not Dedge's, Yuen said.

"That can't be."

Trish asked Yuen if she was a reporter; she had dodged them for years. Yuen produced her ID.

Trish said she always wondered about the hair because she had been a hairdresser; the hair could have belonged to anyone.

Yuen clarified. This was pubic hair.

Trish said only three people ever were in her bed - herself, her sister and Wilton Dedge.

"Could I possibly have put the wrong man behind bars for 20 years?" Trish said.

She said she forgave Dedge and would not stand in the way of his release. But she told Yuen she wouldn't help him get out unless it was proven beyond a doubt that he did not rape her.

She said she wanted to talk more but needed time to think and pray.

But after their 30-minute conversation, Trish took no more of Yuen's calls. She told prosecutors that Yuen tricked her by pretending she worked for the State Attorney's Office. Yuen denied it.

* * *

Aug. 12, 2004. Freedom

After the inconclusive DNA test on the semen sample in 2000, a more advanced test, known as Y-chromosome, became available.

The two sides now flopped positions.

The state, which had opposed tests, wanted this one. Let the chips fall where they may. If Dedge is innocent, let the test prove it.

The defense, which had demanded tests, opposed it - for now. It had been three years since DNA proved the pubic hair came from somebody other than Dedge. His lawyers said another test was just a stall tactic.

The state got its way.

On Aug. 11, Dedge got a call from Nina Morrison, one of his lawyers. The results were back, the semen was not his. He was getting out.

At 1:15 a.m. Aug. 12, he was released into the arms of his parents.

They took him to Port St. John, back to his old room. His mother's pink flamingo collection had grown exponentially, the house seemed a whole lot smaller and the vegetation had grown so much the neighborhood looked like a "jungle."

That night, he and his 65-year-old father walked the streets, holding hands.

* * *

The state: Sorry, but no regrets

State Attorney Norman Wolfinger wrote Dedge a letter the day he got out.

"I have no words that I can say to you that will ever be able to adequately express my heartfelt apology," he began.

"There is also no way that I can give back to you the precious time you lost in prison as an innocent man away from your family and loved ones. But I want you to know that I am sorry this has happened to you."

The letter is better than nothing, Dedge said, but not enough.

"He (Brevard prosecutors) got up in a courtroom and said a lot of bad things about me," Dedge said. "Why can't he apologize to my face?"

Wolfinger, who became state attorney after Dedge's second trial, said the office is blameless.

"It hits in the pit of my stomach about what happened, and it should," Wolfinger said. "But did I personally or this office do anything wrong? No!

"What you have here is the miracle of science coming forward. I don't know anyone who's perfect and makes the right decisions every time except for God. All you can do is be as honest and as vigilant as you can to search for the truth."

The victim's identification was strong, he said. The composite sketch she dictated to police closely resembled Dedge.

"The issue is does that composite sketch look like Dedge? Jury No. 1 thought it did. Jury No. 2 thought it did. Should we punish them?"

What about the state using the "innocence doesn't matter" argument to block the DNA testing?

"I don't think we were saying it (innocence) wasn't relevant," Wolfinger said. "I think we were talking about time frames. I think it's a legal thing. I don't know. . . ."

He blasted Dedge's lawyers.

"The bottom line is they had evidence that could exonerate him and two months ago they objected to it being tested," Wolfinger said. "If it weren't for (the state attorney's) office asking for this DNA test, he might still be in jail for years. I'm proud of this office for having that test done."

He continued, indignant. "If I knew I had semen of my client that is innocent and it could prove his innocence, would I let him languish in prison? No! Absolutely not. I'd ask for the test."

"That is just a big fat lie," Hirsch said. He said he had argued that before the judge ordered another test, he should rule on whether the pubic hair evidence warranted a new trial.

A last-minute wrinkle emerged 10 days before Dedge was released. A woman who knew Dedge as a teenager gave prosecutors a statement, accusing him of raping her 26 years ago. She said she was 14 and said she didn't report it because she was afraid.

The state did not investigate her allegation because the statute of limitations had long since expired. Her statement went into Dedge's file.

"When people make complaints, it becomes part of the public record," Wolfinger said. "Right now it's just an allegation. But all that's ended. There's nowhere it could go."

Dedge did not know about the allegation. He said he didn't do it.

His lawyers investigated and provided affidavits from two witnesses who contradict the woman's statement. They say it's a shame to tarnish Dedge's reputation after everything he's been through.

Trish's sister said Trish did not want to be interviewed about Dedge's release or about the pain of discovering, after all these years, that whoever raped her was never called to account.

Wolfinger said Trish still wants her attacker pursued but said it will be a tall order to find him after 22 years. He said it's up to the public to help solve the crime.

"If anyone sees someone who looks like Dedge or that composite picture," he said, "certainly they should call the sheriff's department."

* * *

Epilogue

The guys at his brother's metal fabrication plant chipped in $300. A lady sent a $100 coupon for Wal-Mart. Someone in the checkout lane at Publix handed him $10. A dentist offered free service. Someone sent him $5,000 anonymously through a church.

"I'm not used to all this kindness," Dedge said.

Seven job offers streamed in, many in the wastewater and water plant businesses. But he's not ready for a full-time job. He's working for a concrete business and in home improvement.

"I'm not quite ready to be tied down. I'm trying to stay busy so I don't have to think about it. Sometimes, I listen to the radio when I'm driving down the road just to keep from thinking. Basically, I'm trying to put it behind me."

Leading the effort to compensate Dedge for his lost 22 years is Sandy D'Alemberte, a former legislator and Florida State University president whose office is next door to the Florida Innocence Initiative. The law caps claims against the state at $100,000; to get more, the Legislature must pass a special claims bill.

Dedge's attorneys say they intend to file a civil rights lawsuit for wrongful imprisonment. J. Cheney Mason, an Orlando lawyer, said he is investigating whether Zacke, the snitch, was planted on the prison transport bus to get Dedge to talk. Zacke has said that prosecutors from the Dedge case fed him information to make another case, against Gerald Stano, an accused serial killer who was later executed.

Zacke was sentenced to 180 years in 1982. By testifying against others and with good behavior, he is due to be released in January 2006.

Dedge says he's trying not to focus on how wrong the justice system treated him. Like his parents, he believes it best to live in the moment.

"I don't want to have a bad attitude. It's there in the back of my mind, but I don't want to dwell on it right now. I'm having too much fun with new things.

"I'm very, very disappointed. There's anger there. But I can't dwell on anger or I'll mess up my life. I'm trying to enjoy things instead of dwelling on anger."

Hirsch vents for them both. He has called the prosecutors' actions "moronic," "monstrous, shameful" and "Orwellian."

"When Wilton got out, he was pleased and forward-looking and capable of not dwelling on the bitterness of the past," Hirsch said.

"But when it occurs to me that some prosecutors got up the next day and put on their pants and go to work and prosecute the next Wilton Dedge defendant with no consequences and no change in the criminal justice system, I can't get past that."

Dedge is focused on learning to be a grownup. For 22 years, he hasn't paid rent or an electric bill. Others told him what to wear, what to eat. He lives with his parents and wants an apartment of his own.

He walked around an island of belts at JCPenney recently, finally settling on a brown one with two rows of metal-lined holes running the length. It cost $19.99.

"We'd make these in leathercraft," he said, pointing to a cognac-colored braided belt. "Cost me about $4 to make."

A woman trying to pick a belt for someone asked Dedge his belt size. "He's bigger than you are," she said.

He's heard that before.

He turns 43 next Sunday. His once-long blond hair is cropped above his ears. He displays a soldier's stoic countenance - except when he looks at his parents and his eyes soften, a little.

People approach, and he wonders what they really want. He looks for the bad rather than the good.

It has been awkward going from guilty to innocent of doing something so awful.

"Sometimes, I'm self-conscious about how I act around people. Like women, I'm thinking, "Should I do this? Or will they take this the wrong way?' Out of the blue it will pop in my mind: I wonder if they're thinking I did this or not."

He regrets that he didn't get to marry and have kids. He has a girlfriend but isn't sure about children.

"I don't want to be an old man going out to play ball with my kid." He thinks it unwise to bring a life into a world where he just got a bank account.

Two weeks after his release, driving the '88 Nissan his father gave him, Dedge stopped at a red light in Titusville. A sheriff's deputy pulled up alongside, waiting for the light, just like him.

For the first time since Dedge got out, he was afraid.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from court records, State Attorney's Office files, Milton Hirsch's files and Florida Today.

Staff writer Leonora LaPeter can be reached at 727-893-8640 or lapeter@sptimes.com

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