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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
THE STORY: It's not too late, the cop told the judge. The 23-year-old prostitute had been arrested 17 times. But if she got help, the cop said, she could still be saved.
St. Petersburg police Sgt. Tim Montanari had known Melissa Collora most of her life. She grew up next door to him. He used to babysit her. When Melissa was 13, and her mother hanged herself in the garage, the cop went to the funeral. Five years later, he arrested Melissa on Fourth Street with a semi-nude man and a rock of crack cocaine.
In October 2003, Melissa was facing 10 years behind bars for felony prostitution. The cop asked the judge to send her to a Christian rehab home in New York instead. Two women from Praise Cathedral in Pinellas Park raised the money to support her there.
The judge agreed. Melissa spent a year at the Walter Hoving Home reading the Bible and watching Christian self-help videos. In October 2004, she came back to Florida and testified at the church. "I have no desire to return to my old lifestyle," Melissa said. "I want to go to college."
FROM THE STORY: In the front row, the church ladies clap. Montanari gets up, grinning. "I'm so excited for you," he says, hugging her. "I've been praying for this."
THE REST OF THE STORY: The cop got Melissa a scholarship to attend any school. The former prostitute got a job at Publix a few blocks from where she used to do business. She hoped her ex-customers wouldn't recognize her behind the deli counter.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: For almost two years, Melissa kept clean. But last September, while Montanari was busting a drug house on Fourth Street, he found her - eyes rolling, high on crack. "Are you mad at me?" Melissa asked the cop who had tried to help her. "No," the cop told her. "You don't owe me anything. But I'm worried about you. You're going to either end up dead or in jail." Melissa was arrested again in December and March. In May, she was convicted of prostitution and possession of cocaine and sentenced to serve time in Gadsden Correctional Facility, a women's prison in Quincy. She's scheduled to be released in April. That month, she'll turn 28. "I don't regret trying to help her. You can't go through life looking back, being bitter," Montanari said. "In a way, I was relieved to find out she's in prison. At least she's not dead."