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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.
RIVERVIEW - Fresh out of prison, Robert Fellion slipped easily back into a life of crime, his sister says. He brought home guns, gold jewelry and cash, recalls Vanessa Fellion, 27.
A few months before his suicide in September, he made her a promise: If you ever need anything, look under the U.S. 301 bridge at the Alafia River. You'll be set for life.
Fellion's words twisted like a game of telephone and led a 16-year-old boy to drill into an ammonia pipeline that snakes beneath the Alafia River bridge in search of the hidden loot, said Vanessa Fellion.
The pipe puncture burned the boy and released a cloud of the dangerous chemical over a Riverview community, sending the boy to the hospital and forcing hundreds to evacuate. The boy has been released from the hospital, but he faces a long recovery, said the family's attorney, Morris "Sandy" Weinberg Jr.
Vanessa Fellion never believed her brother's story, she said. He had been in trouble all his life. Their birth mother lived in a tent behind a gas station. No one seemed to be flush with funds.
"If I thought there was a fortune under the bridge, don't you think I would have been down there?" she asked.
Still, she couldn't help but think of the fantastical tale whenever she crossed the bridge.
About a month ago, she drove over it with her son and his best friend in the car. That's when she repeated the story.
Her son's friend told his cousin and a 16-year-old boy about the money, Fellion said.
She said she heard nothing about their treasure hunt until a deputy showed up at her home the night of the leak.
"Crazy," she said. "It was totally stupid on their part. If you see a pipe that's capped, it's capped for a reason."
Her brother was only 28 when he died.
The first time Hillsborough sheriff's deputies came in contact with him was in 1989. Sheriff's records list it as an arrest. Further information was not available. He was 11.
Over the years, his name appears in Hillsborough sheriff's records 72 times.
At 15, he was swept up in the government's experiment with military-style discipline for young delinquents and went to the state's first boot camp, the Manatee County Sheriff's Juvenile Boot Camp in Bradenton.
In a 1994 Sun-Sentinel story questioning the effectiveness of the now-defunct camps, here's what young Fellion, a convicted burglar, said: "I'm looking for jobs, going to school, trying to find something positive."
Later that year, he was accused of a lewd or lascivious assault on a child under 16 and intimidating a witness, among other charges, and sentenced to prison, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. In his prison mug shot, he wears thick black glasses and a scowl.
He stayed locked up from March 1995 until October 2002, records show, then again from March 2003 to December 2006. But he didn't stay out of trouble.
Behind bars, he was accused, among other allegations, of inciting a riot and hitting another inmate with a cane, records show.
When he got out, he moved in with his sister in a rural corner of Riverview. The mobile home's door is held together with a stretchy cord. A large Confederate flag flaps on the porch.
"He didn't have money," his sister said.
He found work at a convenience store and at Taco Bell in Gibsonton, and moved to a mobile home next to the Alafia River and U.S. 301, his sister said.
He was arrested again March 29, accused of hitting a woman named Michelle Callahan. Callahan told a reporter she was Fellion's fiancee.
On April 4, he was arrested again, accused of violating an order not to contact her.
Both cases were later dismissed, court records show.
The money wasn't coming in quickly enough for him in his minimum-wage jobs, his sister said, so he started doing "jobs."
"He would get into trouble, and I wouldn't see him for a few days. He'd been like, 'Sis, I got a job, I got a job to do,' " she said. "I figured he was up to no good because he never had a 9-to-5."
He committed suicide in Orlando, his sister said. An obituary gave no specifics, only that he died Sept. 4.
After his death, Fellion thought of her brother's promise whenever she crossed the bridge. She couldn't help but wonder.
"He could have been stashing money all this time," she said. "I don't know."
News researchers Angie Drobnic Holan and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3373.