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Debra Graziano harbors no anger over crash, son's brain injury

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 08:36 AM
DUNEDIN -

Events beyond her control robbed Debra Graziano of her anonymity and reluctantly thrust her family into the national spotlight.

First was the incident that changed everything: a car crash involving her son, an Iraq war veteran, and his friend, the son of famed former wrestler Hulk Hogan.

Then came a bizarre twist no one expected: the revelation that her husband was plotting to kill her while their son, John Graziano, was being treated for a devastating brain injury.

The drama would play out on television, in tabloids and in court.

Four years since the crash left her son, a former Marine, in need of constant care, Debra Graziano said she harbors no anger.

"I have so many things to deal with, so many layers of issues," said Graziano, 59, at her Dunedin home. "If I allow myself to feel anger and bitterness, I would not be able to have a drop of joy in me."

What keeps her going is watching over her son, a duty she said she'll do until her last breath. After eight months of hospital treatment and two years of rehabilitation at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, John Graziano is now back at home living with his mother and siblings.

A maze of rails and pulleys has been set up in his bedroom so family members have an easier time getting him in and out of bed. He can't walk, but with effort, he can stand and sit on his own.

His mother holds out hope that John will revert to the person he was before he suffered severe brain damage, that a light will return to his eyes and he'll crack dry one-liners again.

This is what her life has become, she said.

She's accepted it but lives in denial with parts of it. She thinks her son is the same outgoing, adventurous man he was before the crash. That's what she tells her friends.

"They tease me and someone said I live on Denial Street. If that's where I live, I'm telling you, I've hung curtains and planted a garden," Graziano said. "If that's what it takes for me to keep my son moving forward, I will do it all the way to the resurrection."

She discovered that stubbornness and resolve on Aug. 26, 2007. That night, she was agitated because John was late for dinner. He was hanging out with Nick Bollea, the professional wrestler's son.

She called John and told him she was putting dinner away. Minutes later, the phone rang in the Graziano's household. John's younger brother, Michael, picked up. Then he started shouting for his mother.

Graziano recalls Michael telling her that "John and Nick were in an accident." The pair was in a car driven by Bollea, racing friends on a Clearwater street, police said.

Bollea, then 17, lost control of his Toyota Supra and slammed into a palm tree. The yellow sports car was obliterated on impact. Firefighters had to cut them out of the twisted wreck. Graziano, then 22, was taken by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

"There was John, just lying there," Debra Graziano said. "John was looking like himself. He did have a neck brace on and a square bandage on his forehead. Other than that, he looked fine."

Michael lifted the bandage. His mother looked away.

"He picked it up and I remember him backing up and going, 'Oh God, oh God, oh God,'" Debra Graziano said. "Out of nowhere, John just started bleeding from his nose, his ears, his mouth. Blood just started coming out of every opening. And I thought I was just going to watch my son bleed right in front of me."

A gaping hole was under the bandage covering John's forehead. Eventually, doctors had to remove another part of his skull to save him. The Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq had lost most of his motor skills, his speech and most likely his cognitive abilities.

Debra Graziano said the denial started the moment a doctor gave her the diagnosis.

"I said, 'No he didn't say brain damage, he said brain injury.' So in my mind this brain injury is something that can heal," she said.

In the days following the crash, Nick Bollea and his father Hulk Hogan—whose real name is Terry Bollea—showed their support for the Graziano family. They visited him frequently in the hospital and held charity events to raise money for medical costs.

"I knew that they were hurting," Debra Graziano said of the Bolleas' efforts. "So I didn't feel anger at that point."

Eventually, the relationship between the families cooled, then became strained. Nick Bollea would plead guilty to a charge of reckless driving and serve 166 days of an eight-month sentence at Pinellas County Jail.

While serving his time, recordings of jail conversations Nick Bollea had with his parents were released by the sheriff's office after news media requested them.

In one conversation, Nick Bollea called Graziano "a negative person." In another, Bollea complained to his parents that his jail cell was smaller than his bathroom in the family's Belleair mansion.

Hogan appeared on the "Larry King Show" and told the host the recordings were taken out of context. King asked Hogan whether he thought releasing the jail recording caused the Graziano family to turn on the Bolleas.

Hogan said he didn't know.

"We love John," Hogan said in the June 2008 interview. "We pray for him. In no way would we ever hurt John."

The Grazianos filed a civil lawsuit against the Bolleas, claiming they need millions of dollars for their son's medical care. The suit was settled out of court in February 2010. The terms of the settlement weren't disclosed, but attorneys for the Graziano family said the proceeds will go only to the former Marine's medical care and his pain and suffering.

Wil Florin, the attorney for the Bolleas, said at the time that his clients "were relieved the legality of this whole situation is over and hopefully this will provide an opportunity where they can re-establish a relationship with John that the court case has gotten in the way."

Debra Graziano said she has not spoken a word to the Bolleas in years.

"They've not tried to make contact at all," she said. "So I'm just leaving it alone."

She had more to deal with than just her falling out with the Bolleas. During her son's recovery, she learned that her husband, Ed Graziano, wanted her killed.

In February 2009, detectives contacted Debra Graziano. She remembers investigators telling her, "We're sorry to tell you, but we believe your husband is trying to pay someone to kill you."

Debra Graziano said detectives sat back and waited for her "to freak out or something." Her reply to the bombshell was, "Hmmm. I always thought he was going to do it himself."

The murder-for-hire plot was the culmination of a long, escalating history of domestic abuse, one that included a punch to her face and charges of stalking that sometimes forced her to stay at women's shelters, according to court records.

Earlier this year, Ed Graziano was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by 10 years probation. Prosecutors said Graziano hired a private investigator to follow his wife and told the investigator he wanted her killed.

The investigator contacted the sheriff's office and an undercover detective met Graziano, passing himself off as a go-between for Graziano and the supposed hit man. During the meetings, Graziano said he wanted to have his wife killed in an automobile accident, detectives said.

Graziano was willing to pay $2,100, court records said. He even threw in a pizza gift card worth $13.06.

Debra Graziano said she's moved on from that incident too, with her faith pulling her through.

"It was strange," she said. Her husband "didn't number my days. Only the Lord can number my days."

In the aftermath of those two events, Debra Graziano said the one thing that's left is taking care of her son. She watches every gesture, every motion, every swallow and takes that as signs his condition is improving.

"He can't speak words, but in the middle of the night he will hum," his mother said. "Not a song you know, but beautiful notes."

She never thinks of the "what ifs"—what if her son never knew Nick Bollea? What if her son made it home to dinner that night? And what if her son never speaks again?

"I can't go there," Debra Graziano said. "I can deal with my pain in this…I cannot to this day think of what my son has lost."


rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920

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