ST. PETERSBURG — As feel-good stories go, Rick Kelly's life story reached the stratosphere. The Hollywood plot line reads as follows:
Part one: Abused boy finds benevolent foster parents, who legally adopt him and watch him turn from angry teenager to self-directed adult. Teen goes into the Marines, becomes a police officer and the owner of a security company.
Part two: Man returns to visit his adoptive parents, who are still taking in foster children. While there, he encounters another abused boy, whose name is Christian. The boy takes to him immediately. Boy wraps his arms around man's legs, foreshadowing the happy outcome.
Part three: A false start — another couple adopts Christian, only to return him a few months later like a piece of defective merchandise. Man realizes that he should adopt the boy, and does. Man gets married in January. The happy couple takes on an additional child, a male toddler for whom they become legal guardians.
It is a story that sells magazines, including the August 2010 issue of Reader's Digest, in which a smiling Rick Kelly and two boys stand in baseball gear, a cloudless blue sky behind them.
Part four: Mr. Kelly is laid off from his job at a transport company. Six months after their marriage, his wife, Norma, is diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and also loses her job. On Oct. 2, she finds Mr. Kelly dead on the kitchen floor. He was 49. He died of natural causes, the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office has said.
The subject of a St. Petersburg Times profile in 2009, Mr. Kelly seemed to prove that everyone deserves a second chance. He grew up quickly, a target for physical abuse by his mother and a string of boyfriends. When young Rick was 7 and living in Orlando, his mother loaded him onto a bus bound for St. Petersburg, telling him to deliver a note, which promised suicide.
When Rick was 14, his grandparents passed him off to Jon and Candy White. The couple have fostered hundreds of children, but especially bonded with Rick.
Parenting him was not easy. He had a temper and a problem with alcohol, which his mother had given him from a young age.
Gradually, however, he learned to channel his aggressive impulses. He played football, baseball and track at Boca Ciega High School. He served in the Marines for four years and was stationed in Okinawa. The Marines promoted him to sergeant.
Later, Mr. Kelly joined the Los Angeles police force, where he served for 10 years. He formed a security company on the side, recruiting off-duty police officers from his gym. He guarded fancy malls and extravagant parties. He resigned from the police force after taking two bullets in the chest, the result of trying to stop a carjacking while off-duty, but continued with his business.
He met his natural mother once as an adult but did not keep in touch with her. His biological father died a few days before they were to meet.
Mr. Kelly married three times, but none of the marriages lasted. By 2005, he had moved back to Florida. While visiting the Whites he met Christian, who bore the marks of abuse in broken baby teeth.
"The boy's a fighter," Mr. Kelly said of Christian in 2009. After another couple took Christian into their home — only to give him back — Mr. Kelly legally adopted him.
On New Year's Day, 2010, Mr. Kelly married Norma Pitzer, whom he had met on a dating website. A 2-year-old boy had been with the family since October, with Rick and Norma as his legal guardians.
Mr. Kelly stayed up later than his wife on Oct. 2, saying he was not sleepy. She found him the next morning on the kitchen floor. His family said Mr. Kelly had suffered two heart attacks within the last 10 years.
Doctors have recently told Norma Kelly, 46, that cancer has spread to her spine. For now, a daughter of the Whites is caring for Christian, 8. Adding to the strain: Both of Norma's parents died this year.
"Everybody keeps telling me God has a plan," said Norma Kelly. "I say, 'Really? I don't like it so far.' "
The story may yet have a happy final chapter. Christian has turned out to be a gifted athlete and student at Bear Creek Elementary School. A state program already has ensured that his college expenses will be met.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.