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Freedom and celebrity

Now that he's back, everyone wants to get close to the miracle that is Alan Crotzer.

Published January 30, 2006

[Photos by Vance Jacobs]
Alan Crotzer takes a few moments to enjoy the beach again, just a few yards away from the Don CeSar Beach Resort where he was treated to lunch by Dr. Scott Plantz and his wife, Cynna, on Friday.
Crotzer breaks down as he tells one of the lawyers who helped free him about the generosity of the doctor and wife while having lunch with them.
Alan Crotzer can't hide his excitement as Cynna Plantz adjusts the seat on the 1997 Crown Victoria she and her husband, Dr. Scott Plantz, gave him Friday.
Crotzer takes a tour of St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg with recruiter Darlene Lauterbach. He received a janitorial job offer.

ST. PETERSBURG - The old neighborhood was almost unrecognizable. Alan Crotzer scanned the corners, searching for something, anything, that would tell him he was home. Back in St. Petersburg after 24 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, he could see the landscape had changed.

And so had he.

Last Sunday, he was inmate No. 069010, a frowning face in a prison mug shot. Dressed in orange prison scrubs, Crotzer, 45, was then restlessly awaiting the moment when a Hillsborough County judge would tell him he was finally free. Still in jail, he was just Dorothy Crotzer's son, a man chewed up and swallowed by the system.

He was not yet the one with the laughing eyes, who joked with the reporters and camera crews who swarmed him after his release Monday. It never occurred to him he'd be fielding calls from Wolf Blitzer, NPR, Voice of America in China and dozens of others the next day.

Crotzer's story was out. Years ago, a jury had wrongly convicted him of a July 1981 robbery and two rapes. But DNA and other evidence exonerated him.

Now he's on the outside and people from the neighborhood can't wait to get a look at him. They pound him on the back, tell him it's good to see him again.

Strangers stop him everywhere and ask to shake his hand. Everyone wants to touch him, to get close to the miracle he has become: the man who went to prison for life and came back free after a quarter century.

"It's like that everywhere I go," Crotzer said. "There was a woman at the county building when I went to get my birth certificate. She was looking at me funny, and I thought, "Man, I hope I didn't do nothing to offend her.' Then she came up and said, "You're Alan Crotzer. I saw you on TV. I just want to shake your hand and tell you how sorry I am that happened to you."'

Lots of people are sorry about the way the criminal justice system failed him.

His attorneys will fight to convince Florida legislators to compensate Crotzer for all those lost years.

Even then, compensation is far from certain. So local doctors, massage therapists, receptionists and restaurant owners have been lining up to help Crotzer.

"I'm 45 years old, and I immediately associated his story with mine," said Dr. Scott Plantz, a St. Pete Beach emergency physician who's trying to raise funds and assist Crotzer with his transition.

"I asked myself what part of the last 25 years would I have been willing to give up, and I can't think of a day. There's nothing you can do to replace this man's 25 years."

When the doctor's employees read about Crotzer's journey from guilt to innocence, they decided to each donate a dollar for every year he was in prison. In addition to helping him find a job and a car, the doctor has offered Crotzer free medical care. Plantz hopes to persuade thousands of others in the community to do the same.

"People shouldn't charge this guy for anything for a very long time," Plantz said.

Crotzer knows he's lucky and takes nothing for granted.

"Four days ago I was in jail, I had a guilty verdict and a 130-year sentence hanging over me. It looked like there was no hope," Crotzer said as he sipped orange juice at a bustling St. Petersburg sports bar Thursday. "I've got blessings, man. I've got blessings."

He wishes his siblings felt the same way about his sudden good fortune. A day after Crotzer's release, the mood at home with his brother and sister in her small apartment near Bartlett Park seemed upbeat - at first. But after prison had separated them for so many years, his family's struggle with addiction and loss was suddenly more real up close.

It's not just them. It seems like so many people in his old neighborhood have developed a habit. In prison, he heard how crack had leveled neighborhoods from St. Petersburg to San Diego. But he didn't believe it until he rode past his old haunts and saw decay on streets he remembered as vibrant.

"Drugs have destroyed that part of St. Pete. It used to be a nice neighborhood," Crotzer said as he looked toward a row of houses on 18th Avenue S with unkempt lawns. "I wanted to stay because I wanted to help, but I have to help myself first."

Pizza shop owner Mike Dodaro wants to help him, too. A burly man with powerful arms and a sharp Chicago accent, Dodaro, 45, said he almost cried when he saw a TV news report about Crotzer.

"It kind of depressed me a little bit to see that the system is so broken that this could happen," Dodaro said. "I have two beautiful children, a beautiful wife, a good business. I mean, not to be able to experience that because of a mistak e ... I couldn't sleep that night."

At Dodaro's Clearwater pizzeria Thursday, Crotzer sat briefly for a job interview. Dodaro and Crotzer shook hands like old friends who hadn't seen each other for years.

"So, I hear you got a raw deal," Dodaro said.

"Yes, sir," Crotzer said.

They talked for a while. Crotzer was interested in the job but he wanted to consider all his options. No problem, Dodaro said, before ushering Crotzer and a couple of friends into a garage across the way to look at Dodaro's classic black 1979 Pontiac Trans Am.

"It's got 900 miles on it. Never really been driven all those years. It was in a bubble just like you," Dodaro joked with Crotzer.

Crotzer's eyes pop when he sees it. Gold firebird emblem on the hood. Tan leather interior. CB in the dash board.

"This was the car back then," Crotzer said as he admired the interior.

The next day Crotzer found out he'd soon be driving a car of his own. On Friday, Plantz and his wife, Cynna, presented him with a 1997 green Crown Victoria and treated Crotzer to lunch at the Don CeSar Beach Resort.

For the first time in 25 years, he knew he was home again as he walked along the beach and stole a few moments of quiet.

"The closer I got to the water the better I felt," Crotzer said. "It was a beautiful thing."

Even more beautiful, he said, was what came next: a janitorial job offer from St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg. The midnight shift position comes with full benefits and offers the possibility of tuition assistance, said St. Anthony's human resources director Jim Bacon.

Hospital staffers, Bacon said, are committed to helping Crotzer get on his feet again.

"He's a very humble person, one that is very appreciative of everything," Bacon said. "There doesn't seem to be a sense of a chip on his shoulder or sense of wrongdoing or bitterness that I would have anticipated."

Crotzer said he's not bitter. He knows he has to put some distance between himself and his past.

He learned from his sister that someone was fatally shot early Friday morning steps away from her apartment - near his old neighborhood - while Crotzer was out catching up with old friends.

He needs peace, he says, and he can't go back to all that.

"I can't afford to go backwards," Crotzer said. "I've got to go forward."

-- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 813 226-3337 or

[Last modified January 30, 2006, 05:55:54]

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