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Encounters | An occasional feature

In a day, young man goes from criminal to freshman

TAMPA — He woke on a thin mattress under a scratchy, too-small blanket. It was 6:30 and as always, he was cold. For the last time, he put on a juvenile detention uniform, walked down to the cafeteria.

French toast for breakfast, but Demetri Sampson didn't eat it. He knew it would taste like plain bread. He knew if he waited, he would get something better.

By 9, his father had arrived. A guard buzzed the door open and they walked into the sunshine.

Skip Sampson is a retired teacher who drove from North Carolina to help his 19-year-old son transform from criminal to college student. Skip and his wife, Susan, had taken in Demetri when he was just 3 months old and addicted to cocaine.

He was in gifted classes in elementary school, made mostly As and played football. Coaches thought he would go to the pros.

Instead, last week, father and son were on their way to see the probation officer. For the next 90 days, Demetri would have a 10 p.m. curfew.

"You need some kind of alarm clock, D," his father said.

They pulled into a Walmart, and Demetri traded his uniform for khaki shorts and a black T-shirt. He picked out aqua-blue sheets, a clock, a cell phone, a box of condoms, two pounds of powdered creamer and a coffeepot.

They stopped for a urinalysis.

The 1993 Corvette burbled as they passed a man holding a sign in the median. Demetri recognized him. They had shared the same pod in county jail.

It felt weird on the outside. And so hot. While locked up, Demetri went outside to take out the trash twice a week and for occasional recreation time. Inside the locked juvenile program, it was so cold he always wore a sweater.

He had lived there for seven months after leaving jail. He made friends with the staff. That morning they had stayed up late, talking college sports.

"Some day you'll go back," Skip said as they drove past the juvenile facility once more. "Show off your Super Bowl rings."

Finally they pulled up to a white house with light blue trim, across from Hillsborough Community College's Dale Mabry campus. School would start in three days and Demetri needed to add a chemistry class. Inside the air was set comfortably at 72. He put his coffee pot on a counter next to a window framed with flowered curtains. He squatted across from his new roommate, Travis Smith, and they exchanged phone numbers. If it weren't for their felony convictions, they could be living in student housing.

"I passed by the school basketball court earlier and saw the team," Demetri told Travis. "I haven't run like that in two years. There's no room to run in jail."

"I need to work out," Travis said, patting his stomach.

Before the trouble, Demetri played basketball, as well as football with the Brandon Broncos youth team where they called him "the beast."

That was when he lived with the Sampsons and his 10 brothers and sisters. When he was 16, his father said, Demetri had become disobedient and unmanageable. Skip sent Demetri to a biological uncle in Virginia.

One night, Demetri and two older boys robbed a man and two women at gunpoint. They got a six-pack of beer and maybe $15. Demetri got probation and came home to Brandon with the Sampsons.

He joined a gang. They burned the shape of an eight ball on his arm with a knife heated on a stove. They broke into a house, taking guns. He got caught. At 17, he had racked up 20 felony charges. A judge said he could do six years. He did two.

"It was stupid," he said. "I can't change it."

He got lucky with people who wanted to help him, including his juvenile case worker, Porsche Carlisle. Now, released from his sentence in time for the start of the school year, he was enrolled and set up with an apartment through a five-year grant from the Lazydays Employee Foundation awarded to Hillsborough Kids Inc. that aims to help homeless youth get an education.

Demetri plans to major in sports medicine, play on a football team, see how far he can go.

That first night, he made his queensized bed with the new aqua-blue sheets, a blue comforter and six pillows. He went out to dinner with two of his brothers, Travis and his dad. He downed a hamburger and cheesy fries, keeping an eye on the time.

At 10 p.m. he called his probation officer and left a message. One call down, 89 to go.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

In a day, young man goes from criminal to freshman 08/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 2:26am]

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