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Coming Down, July 2011

A bright orange thumbnail appears over Zephyrhills, sailing toward earth, until it takes the shape of a parachute.

From the sky, Randy Swallows sees the world as small and distant. He doesn’t think about Iraq, or the friends he lost, or how it felt to kill. He feels released from the anxieties that bombard his dreams and scatter his thoughts.

The air is fresh and cool, and he breathes it deep, because his life depends on his ability to focus and relax. He could take a bad turn and crash. But he is a pilot, he tells himself, and his body is the control surface, and his mind is on a clear and predetermined path.

He jumps 40 times a month, paying for it with checks from the military, which considers him completely disabled. Only some of his injuries are physical; the rest are invisible.

For every 10 troops who go to Iraq or Afghanistan, one or two return with post-traumatic stress disorder, as Swallows did six years ago.

Over and over, he jumps out of planes, in search of firm ground.

He has come to believe that his feet will find the grass, and that his canopy will collapse behind him, and that he will be okay

Long Way Home, May 2011

You’re a kid. You want to sleep at a friend’s house, but first his parents have to get checked out by the state. You play football at the YMCA, and they want to take a picture of the group, but not of you, because you’re in foster care. In fights, you feel powerful. That’s the only time. By your 15th birthday, you’ve packed up so many times, it’s hard to keep track of the number. You think maybe it’s 20.

Jounelle Joseph — call him J.J. — has a word for the way his old life made him feel:

“Suckish.”

But today, he has a reason to celebrate. It’s Mother’s Day.

This spring, he got adopted.

This spring, he won a most-improved-student award.

The grownups in his life don’t think the timing’s a coincidence.

At Coleman Middle School in South Tampa, he’s one of the few black kids in the eighth grade, one of the oldest, one of the biggest. He’s got round cheeks and chin hairs and wears a T-shirt that saysOne Man Wolfpack.

Two months ago, he wouldn’t have told this story. But now it feels okay to talk.

“I was brushing my teeth.

“These men came in and took us. I cried for my mom.

“I was 3…”

The New Audrey, April 2011

TAMPA — Alone, she stood in a hospital bathroom, peering into a small mirror at a woman she had never seen — herself, the new Audrey Mabrey.

She’d been beaten, doused with gasoline and set afire. She had awakened from a coma to excruciating skin-stretching therapy. She had mustered the strength to get out of bed

But she hadn’t yet looked.

Now here she stood, one-on-one with the burn scars that covered 80 percent of her body. Her eyes fell on her deformed mouth.

The bathroom light was dim. That was the only mercy. She would avoid the next mirror she saw, and the one after that.

But she wouldn’t hide forever.

Not the new Audrey…

3 months. 4 bullets. 5 lives., August 2010

(collaboration with Lane DeGregory)

When their shift ended on Easter morning, the day was still dark.

After a couple of years working overnights, after catching countless druggies and drunks, Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab were used to their days ending when everyone else’s were about to begin.

Their work that night had been routine. Curtis had driven prisoners to jail. Kocab had pulled people over for traffic violations.

At 6:30 a.m., after turning in their reports, they turned onto the highway. Each had a long drive home.

Curtis, 31, steered north, heading an hour to his house in Webster. He loved living up there, surrounded by acres of land where his four boys could zipline from trees.

Kocab, also 31, always drove into the dawn, more than an hour east, past old orange groves and shiny strip malls. Awaiting him at their Kissimmee home was his wife Sara, whose belly was just beginning to swell. By summer, they expected their first child.

That same morning, back in Tampa, two other young men were making plans for the day.

Derek Anderson, almost 21, was walking to his girlfriend’s house to make her breakfast and see his infant son. As always, he had a burgundy backpack slung over his shoulder.

And nearby, Harold Wright was planning to take time away from his busy job dealing drugs to have Easter dinner with his mother.

He had 64 days left to live.

The young dad with the burgundy backpack had 44.

And the cops had 86.

The only significant thing they had in common was the fifth man, the one they never saw coming

V is for Voracious: Vampire Culture Unveiled, August 2009.

THE VAMPIRES wait outside the back door of the Ybor City nightclub. Newcomers stand on the fringes, alone. The regulars talk about school, about work, about the weather.

But not about blood-drinking. Not out here.

Up walks a man in a cashmere trench coat. Evan Christopher, 39, is the group’s founder. They gravitate toward him.

“It’s a great night to be Victorian,” he says, revealing fangs. His eyes, shielded in ice blue contact lenses, are two black dots.

After dispensing hugs and kisses, he stands at the entrance and scans the group. He spots two women in jeans and leans to his right.

“They’re not with us,” Evan tells a stocky, serious vampire who serves as one of the group’s “gargoyles.”

Anyone who wants to get into a Vampire Gathering needs to see the gargoyles first. They’re the protectors, the first line of defense against heckling street preachers and tourists.

The women move along, but I remain, the first reporter ever allowed past the gargoyles, the first permitted to give you — my fellow “mundanes” — a glimpse into their vampire world

Growing together, April 2007

TAMPA — Susan has loved Jace Badia since first grade, long before she got pregnant with their daughter and married him, before an 8-year-old boy in Iraq detonated a bomb.

Now, Susan is 21. Jace is 22. He uses a wheelchair, his left leg gone above the knee and his right leg shattered and heavy.

Until March, the only home they knew as husband and wife was Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where Jace had been since November.

Jace didn’t realize Susan had such a short temper. Susan never knew Jace could get jealous of his own baby.

March changed everything

Tracking a Ghost, June 2006

(collaboration with Ben Montgomery)

Michael Nicholaou slipped into the West Tampa home on New Year’s Eve. It was daylight. He wore a black suit and tie and carried a guitar case full of guns.

He found his estranged wife at the dining room table.

“You didn’t think you were ever going to see me again,” he said.

When it was over that day on Walnut Street, blood stained a floral bedspread and a beige and pink dresser. Nicholaou, 56, killed his wife and fatally wounded his stepdaughter before shooting himself in the mouth.

The new year would ring. The crime scene tape would come down.

But the name Michael Nicholaou would find its way north into a mystery two decades old, a string of unsolved murders that gripped Vermont and New Hampshire.

A St. Petersburg private investigator, a retired Vermont criminal profiler and a New Hampshire cold case detective would piece together a killer’s past.

They would learn Nicholaou was a war-scarred veteran with a missing girlfriend and a dead wife; a former porn shop owner who both charmed and terrified women; a man who lit fires in anger and was always on the run.

Was he also a serial killer?

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