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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.
Jessica Sierra, who was raised by her grandparents and father, was a bubbly live-in nanny shortly before she was chosen as a finalist in the reality TV singing competition.
Sierra was jailed Saturday after a drunken confrontation, authorities said. Sierra was charged with disorderly intoxication, resisting arrest and violating conditions of her probation.
TAMPA -- Two years ago, American Idol plucked Jessica Sierra from her hard-luck life. A stylist chose her clothes, millions of fans heard her husky croon and thousands more grabbed tickets for the national tour.
Even after the 19-year-old Tampa native got booted from the reality TV singing competition in March 2005, she said she saw herself becoming "huge."
But when national and local media outlets jammed the phone line to Sierra's attorney Monday, they only wanted details about her latest run-in with the law.
According to Tampa police, Sierra, now 22, spewed racial epithets and offered to perform a sex act on a police officer, attempting to avoid arrest early Saturday on misdemeanor charges of disorderly intoxication and obstructing an officer without violence.
That image - and the sullen, washed-out young woman in her jail booking photo - is tough to believe for the people who remember Sierra as a bubbly live-in nanny whose first public performance was Mary Had a Little Lamb at age 3.
They knew her upbringing was far from perfect but never suspected she would fall prey to the same demons that took her mother the very week Sierra auditioned for Idol.
"It's just not her," said Cynthia Gries, who trained Sierra for five years as part of a local song and dance troupe.
On American Idol, Sierra was portrayed as the rocker chick foil to Carrie Underwood's apple pie sweetness. But she sobbed when her best friend Mikalah Gordon got voted off the show.
In Sierra's exit video after her own dismissal, she alluded to childhood troubles. Raised by her grandparents and father, she said she didn't meet her mother until she was 13.
They didn't know each other long. In 2004, Christine Laura Sierra died of an accidental drug overdose at age 37. An autopsy blamed oxycodone. The medical examiner noted a history of drug abuse and prostitution.
Gries said Sierra often spoke of her mother's absence.
Still, she persevered. She won a round of Star Search. She tried out for Idol in 2003 but didn't make the cut. She tried again for Season 4 and made the top 10.
The success brought celebrity status back home. Target shoppers shouted her name. McDonald's patrons asked her to sign T-shirts over breakfast. Gries' daughter brought Sierra to school for show-and-tell.
"She was a very good role model for the younger kids, very loving, the nicest girl you could imagine," Gries said.
Sierra went to Nashville to record some songs, but wound up back in Tampa, working as a Hooters waitress.
Music managers she thought she could trust took advantage of her Idol earnings, Gries said. A rental car company accused Sierra of not paying a bill. A 59-year-old California man got arrested for stalking her.
In a November interview with Fox 13's Charley Belcher, she listed a litany of troubles, including what she called "a rape issue" and a pregnancy. She did not elaborate.
Melissa McGhee, another Tampa native and Idol finalist, said life after the show can be a struggle. The perks fades, but the public scrutiny doesn't as singers try to pay the bills.
"People look down at you a little bit and pretty much look at you as a failure," she said. "You're used to this lifestyle, and it turns your life completely around. (After the show) it's kind of just taken away from you again."
In April, Sierra threw a glass at a Hyde Park Cafe patron's head. She went to jail, where deputies found drugs in her purse.
It was her first arrest.
A few months later, she figured she had hit rock bottom, she told Fox's Belcher. She was broke, lived in a hotel and hadn't slept or eaten in days. Her family couldn't stand being around her.
Her relatives could not be reached for comment Monday.
She decided to go into rehab for cocaine and alcohol addiction, agreeing to participate in VH1's Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. The series, set to premiere Jan. 10, chronicles the detoxification and treatment of patients including Brigitte Nielsen, Chyna and Daniel Baldwin.
Producers are discussing whether Sierra's latest arrest will affect the show.
"Maintaining sobriety is a day-to-day struggle as with most addicts and rehabilitation is an ongoing process," spokeswoman Lori Bogin said in a prepared statement. "VH1 continues to support Jessica in her recovery and wishes her the best during this difficult time."
Sierra's attorney touted the treatment in a Tampa courtroom on Nov. 19, when Sierra pleaded no contest to charges of battery and cocaine possession and drew a year's probation.
Twelve days later, she was back behind bars.
According to a Tampa police report released Monday, Sierra was kicked out of the Full Moon Saloon on Seventh Avenue after the manager saw her daring security staff to fight.
As Officer John Angelakopoulos escorted her off the property, Sierra hit him and refused to calm down, police said.
One of Sierra's friends tried to help, but the pair ended up on the ground. Sierra headed back toward the club, cussing and screaming as she shoved people off the sidewalk, police said.
Sierra yelled out that her aunt was the mayor of the city. Mayor Pam Iorio's husband's niece was once married to Sierra's father but is no longer.
Sierra followed up with lewd comments, then vomited in the back of the patrol car.
She told paramedics that she drank four or five vodka shots on an empty stomach.
On the way to jail, she offered to perform a sex act on the officer in exchange for freedom, the officer reported. When the officer, who is white, continued driving, she yelled the n-word.
During Sierra's first court appearance Sunday, County Judge Margaret Courtney warned her that she could face up to 11 years in prison.
"Obviously, the bar scene isn't working out so well for you," Courtney said.
Attorney John Fitzgibbons said his client's latest problems show "the wretched curse of drug and alcohol addiction."
"There are no easy solutions to addiction," he said, "and the prognosis is often poor for someone in Jessica's position, but we will continue to do our best to get her additional help."