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Boy's essay puts Tarpon on map

Notorious thief Carmen Sandiego has escaped from prison and her gang has pilfered all the sponges from the city's Sponge Docks. Tarpon Springs' sponging industry has ground to a halt.

Okay, not really.

But that fanciful story was good enough to make Chris Zutes, an 11-year-old Tarpon Springs resident, one of 12 finalists in an international essay contest based on the PBS game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Chris competed with 6,000 other youngsters in Delta's World Adventure Challenge with Carmen Sandiego, a geography essay competition. Among his prizes are a $1,000 savings bond, three Carmen Sandiego video games and a trip to New York City next month for a winners' celebration, where a grand prize winner is to be named.

Chris' former teacher at Carrollwood Day School, Randie Specter, also will win a $1,000 savings bond for sponsoring the essay.

"It's just a neat show. I've been playing their computer games for a while," said Chris, who will be a sixth-grader at Berkeley Preparatory School in Hillsborough next year. "I thought I could win."

In the television game show, Carmen Sandiego, a villain in a trench coat and fedora, steals loot from around the world. The young contestants are given clues to track her down.

The object of the contest, sponsored by Delta Air Lines, was for fourth- through-seventh-graders to select an item from their hometown and have Sandiego and her gang transport it to another city. A panel of geography experts selected 12 finalists based on content, creativity and clarity.

Chris did his essay on computer in a newspaper format, complete with clip art depicting Carmen Sandiego and an "interview" with Tarpon Springs Mayor Anita Protos about the theft's impact on the town. The essay also gives a brief synopsis of the Sponge Docks and the Greek town of Kalimnos and describes several sponge varieties.

The essay took Chris about three days to complete.

"I worked practically around the clock," he said. "Just reminding myself what the prizes were made it more fun."

In the end, the Tarpon Springs Police Department finds Sandiego selling the stolen sponges in Kalimnos.

"Acting as tourists, the police went into the souvenir shops in the main harbor of Pothia and recognized gulf sponges," the essay reads. "When Carmen Sandiego was seen selling them, the police arrested her. The sponges were returned to their rightful owner and the Sponge Docks reopened."

For his efforts, Chris also was awarded a city of Tarpon Springs pin and cap at a recent commission meeting. And to think that he originally had planned to write an essay about Tampa.

"I thought that Tarpon Springs would be a little more exciting," Chris said. "It's just a historic town that no one's hardly ever heard of."

Chris' parents, George and Lucinda Zutes, knew their son had put a lot of work into the project. But they weren't prepared for the letter announcing that he was a finalist.

"He's real good with the computer. He worked hard on it," said Mrs. Zutes. "We were shocked. We just couldn't believe it."

His friends were more than a little skeptical when he told them he won.

"They didn't believe me at first," Chris said. "When my teacher told my class about it, they got pretty excited."