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Melissa Collora recounts how her former babysitter, now a police offer, kept arresting her to get her to change her ways.
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msnbc.com
updated 12/8/2003 12:01:59 PM ET 2003-12-08T17:01:59

Sgt. Tim Montanari is the head of the St. Petersburg Vice Squad, a 15 year veteran on the force, an officer who plays by the rules. But just a few months ago, in a Florida courtroom, Sgt. Montanari made a move that surprised everyone — putting his reputation on the line for a drug-addicted prostitute.

Montanari is a 15-year officer. Most officers after that time frame tend to be a little more jaundiced. So, when he spoke on behalf of a prostitute and talked about her opportunity to change, it was an unusual circumstance.

The woman Montanari risked his reputation for is 23-year-old Melissa Collora, a woman Sgt. Montanari had spent the last five years arresting.

17 ARRESTS

Why would the sergeant go out on a limb for this woman?

Her story was startling: She was arrested 17 times over five years, earning her the title of second most arrested prostitute in St. Petersburg.

When Collora started walking the streets, she says she was just in it for the fast money. But soon enough she had an expensive drug addiction to support, and nowhere to go. She became a familiar face in St. Petersburg, even marking her territory by writing her name in the sidewalk.

“I’d probably do about ten tricks a day, and I’d make anywhere from like $350 to $500, depending on what type of day,” says Collora. “Sometimes I’d make like a $1000, $2000 in a day, you know…I smoked it all up on crack.”

“That’s the cycle I saw,” says Montanari. “So every time we arrested her, I would talk to her. She was very bitter and very angry at me. One time she accused me of not helping her.”

“I thought they were just trying to make their quota and I was an easy mark,” says Collora.

And so she was in and out of jail, then straight back to the streets, where Sergeant Montanari was always waiting. But after that seventeenth arrest this July, Melissa found herself in front of a no-nonsense judge, facing 10 years in jail.

Also in the courtroom was Montanari, carrying with him a vivid memory of the first time he’d arrested her — and the detail that drove him.

“We’re out on a prostitution call and one of the officers come to me and says, ‘This girl knows you and her name’s Melissa,’” he says. “But I look at her and I just don’t recognize her. She has a very skeletal look and her eyes just aren’t focused. He hands me her driver’s license and it says Melissa Collora.”

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR

“Melissa” was, quite literally, the girl next door — a girl Montanari grew up with 20 years ago. But this Melissa was nothing like the girl he once knew.

“I remember when I was babysitting her,” recalls Montanari. “She was always kind of in the background. Melissa was a quiet girl. She would cling to her mom a lot.”

It was a childhood Melissa remembers fondly, but that all changed when her father died of a drug overdose. Her mother remarried a man who Melissa says sexually abused her. And when it seemed as if things couldn’t get any worse, her mother took her own life. Melissa was 13.

“It just felt like my whole world ended,” says Collora. “It just felt like nobody would ever love me like she [my mother] loved me, her unconditional love was just so great . I felt like I was lost.”

And so, without her mother to cling to, Collora tried to find her way, moving around from her aunt’s home to a girl’s home, but eventually making her way back to her hometown, where she found a new life.

And in that courtroom five years later, it was a friend who saved her — the one who kept arresting her, the one who wouldn’t give up on her, standing up for her when it mattered most.

“She never wanted help before and she wanted help now. To me that makes all the difference,” says Montanari.

SECOND CHANCE

Thanks to the sergeant and women from a local church, Melissa Collara now lives in a New York suburb, enrolled in a rehab program run by and for reforming prostitutes.

Just before she left, the officer wrote her a letter expressing how proud he was of her. And when she settled into her new home, she made him a tape thanking him for the opportunity he’d given her.

The young woman who lost her way finds a second chance — thanks to the one person who never gave up on the girl next door.



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