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Sean Dix's American Dream goes south

An inventor goes after Ted Turner and CNN

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Something had to be done.

They weren't taking his phone calls. They weren't responding to his faxes. Not to the polite ones, not even to the obscene ones, vile diatribes against their boss, the ones that even today -- eight months later, in the cold light of the Atlanta city lock-up, his jail-issued slippers two sizes too big -- make the 33-year-old cringe in embarrassment.

Still, they had ruined him, hadn't they? Ridiculed him. Taken his invention and mocked it. His investors had fled. Yes, attention must be paid. Even if he was a thousand miles away, a feather pressing against a great implacable wall. Even if he was just one man.

So Sean Dix made a decision. He started writing. He revved up his fax machine one more time.

They'd pay attention now.

First, a story: Years ago, in a Queens, N.Y., middle school, a science teacher named Mr. Horan owned a pair of glasses like Flash Gordon's. One day, they went missing.

"There was this kid ... who went and told the teachers and the vice principal that he eye-witnessed me take the glasses," Sean Dix says from jail. "Ms. Danza calls me out of class and tells me to fork over the glasses. I couldn't believe it. No one wanted anything to do with me after that. Who wants to hang around with the kid who stole the teacher's glasses? After that, I wanted to be anywhere that I could start with a fresh slate."

But the incident followed him. "Someone from my other school told people at the high school about it."

It wasn't the only loss of faith. Soon, his body betrayed him. Biology may or may not be destiny, but in Sean's case, biology has at least been an unflagging tormentor. Since infancy, Sean has suffered from eczema. Depending on his stress level, his skin erupts in painful patches. Sweating or friction cracks his skin open.

In high school, Sean's feet crumbled beneath him. They itched like crazy. They flaked. They burned. After a little exercise, they bled. He brought a doctor's note to get excused from gym class, but Sean's gym teacher tore up the doctor's note and ordered him to do jumping jacks. He said no. He was suspended. A battle ensued between Sean's schoolteacher mother and the faculty of Aviation High School. Sean won.

"They put me back in school, but I had a lot to make up," he says. "I had extra homework and that had its own effect. It caused me more pain. And I was no longer interested in any kind of authority, you know, authority figures or what they had to say."

Graduation beckoned like a promise of sanctuary. Another clean slate.

His friend had a brother who worked for a jeweler on 47th Street in Manhattan. The jeweler needed an apprentice. Dix thought learning a trade was a better option than college.

"I didn't want to be around this whole atmosphere of academia. I just wanted to find a cubbyhole for myself, some place where I could take care of myself."

Two months after he started work, the vice principal from his high school came in and spoke with his boss. After that conversation, Sean says his boss told him, "I don't know if you're going to rob me, but if you do, I'll be ready for you."

Sean dismisses the possibility that the vice-principal was just dropping by to say hello to a former student or to shop for jewelry.

"No," says Dix. "That would be very unlikely."

And Dix's mother, Carmela Silvestri, agrees.

"That would be extremely unlikely," she says. "The high school is in Queens, and [the jeweler's] shop was on 47th. Think about it. That would be extremely unlikely."

Silvestri, who's pledged to keep her son's business afloat until he's free, says, "I'm very serious. Maybe Sean gets that from me."

Meanwhile, Sean's apprenticeship was paying off. In 1989, he went to work for Andin International as a diamond-setter. After several years with the company, he was doing well, engrossed in the craft, accruing seniority and getting raises. If he had any complaints, it was that the gold he worked with irritated his skin.

The eczema made it especially difficult to floss his teeth; the string cut into his skin. During one of these flare-ups, he contrived a set of rings that would fit over the index finger of each hand. The rings were designed to hold dental floss that had been knotted at either end. Tying knots in the floss was a bit awkward, but he would correct that later by manufacturing floss segments that simply snapped into place. It was so obvious; why hadn't anyone thought of it?

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