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Judge gives Bollea 8-month sentence

CLEARWATER — Friday was a somber day for the Hulk Hogan family.

A circuit judge in Pinellas County closed the criminal case against 17-year-old Nick Bollea with an eight-month jail sentence.

But no one left the courtroom satisfied.

Not Bollea, who will wake up today by himself in a 7- by 9-foot jail cell. Not the family of John Graziano, Bollea's passenger on Aug. 26, who was critically injured when Bollea lost control of his Toyota Supra on a Clearwater street and smashed into a palm tree.

And not the family of famous wrestler Hulk Hogan, also known as Terry Bollea, who will lose their youngest member for months and still face a lawsuit that, in the words of one lawyer, is seeking more money from the Bolleas than they are worth.

At the center of a media maelstrom Friday, buffered by attorneys, two families suffered through another painful moment in the fallout from last summer's crash. And the one who suffered most, John Graziano, 23, was stuck in James A. Haley VA Medical Center in a semiconscious state, a baseball-size portion of his skull removed because of the brain injury.

Bollea was charged with reckless driving with serious bodily injury, a third-degree felony. He faced up to five years in prison. His attorneys began the hearing by announcing that their client would plead no contest to the charge if the judge would agree to cap his sentence at one year.

Prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser did not object.

It took 2 1/2 hours of proceedings before Circuit Judge Philip Federico pronounced Bollea's punishment: eight months in the county jail with adjudication withheld, a legal classification that means Bollea won't have a record as a convicted felon.

He also received five years of probation and 500 hours of community service and won't be allowed to drive for three years.

The decision crashed down on a numb, drained courtroom. Bollea's face was impassive. His father sat with his head propped up by his hands. His mother, Linda, cried softly.

As Bollea was led through a side door, he waved goodbye to his parents.

Neither side was completely happy with the outcome.

The Bolleas wanted no jail time and adjudication withheld. The Grazianos wanted 6 to 12 months in jail and an adjudication of guilty.

Federico came down in the middle. He said his sentence was intended to both punish Bollea and give him a chance to redeem himself.

In an interview after the hearing, father Ed Graziano told the St. Petersburg Times that he didn't think Bollea received special treatment but that he wasn't satisfied the boy was truly repentant.

"I felt like the statements he made were a bunch of bulls--- and that's what saved his a-- because the judge had regrets for what he does and that's a total lie," he said.

Graziano told the court that Bollea displayed "senseless, reckless" behavior when he visited John at Bayfront Medical Center in the days after the accident, skateboarding down the halls and shooting a dart gun during visiting hours.

Bollea's attorneys, J. Kevin Hayslett and Morris "Sandy" Weinberg, painted a different picture of Bollea. They called him a contrite young man who has dedicated himself to community service. They said he had no previous criminal record and didn't deserve jail time.

Both families laid claim to John Graziano. His family spoke of the hole in their lives and the bleak future for the former Marine and Dunedin High School graduate. The Bollea family called him a son in all but blood.

They vacationed together, Hulk Hogan said. John spent time at their house, and the two frequently worked out together, he said, adding that Graziano adopted them when he was having trouble at home.

"My son has been unfairly attacked by the media simply because of his on-air personality," Hogan said. "Nick is not the person that he has been asked to portray on TV. … What people need to realize is that Nick is still a 17-year-old child."

Bollea's sister, Brooke, said it was terrible to see how this tragedy had divided two families.

"True love has turned into a personal war because of superficial influence and people who are here today for John were not always as faithful to him," she said. "This is why I hate being a celebrity, and this is why I think they say money is the root of all evil."

In a dramatic moment, Nick Bollea turned from addressing the judge to speak directly to the Grazianos.

"No matter what has been said, every day I think about John," Bollea said. "There will never be a day I forget about this."

"I will never ever be able to tell John sorry enough times to repay what has happened on Aug. 26," Bollea said. "I do genuinely mean that. I'm terribly sorry."

The most heart wrenching testimony came from the Grazianos.

Sister Christin Carson said it would have been one thing if her brother had died, then they could have grieved. But for him to hang on in such a devastated condition is like watching an "open casket funeral replayed over and over again like a nightmare."

She still picks up the phone to call her brother before remembering his condition.

"To see a Marine reduced to a state in which his mother has to bathe him is almost too much to bear," said Carson, choking back tears.

His mother, Debbie Graziano, said she jumps with excitement when John's eyes move or he squeezes her hand.

"I pray for a miracle, but the doctors tell me he'll never be John again," she said.

"I don't know how I'm going to live through this, missing my son," Debbie Graziano added. "It's excruciating."

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said Bollea will be kept in the jail's new medical facility. The cell, which includes a fixed metal bunk with a mattress, a toilet and a stainless steel sink, does not have a TV.

Bollea will get 20 minutes of exercise each day and 20 minutes to take a shower.

Once he turns 18, Bollea can work as a trusty, helping out with laundry and kitchen work. There are 150 trusties.

Their sentences are reduced by five days for each month they work.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com (727) 445-4157.

Judge gives Bollea 8-month sentence 05/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2008 1:52pm]
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