Attorney for dad of missing Hallandale Beach baby says evidence was damaged

The tiny bones recovered from a backyard grave have a story to tell: Are these the remains of Dontrell Melvin, a baby whose family didn’t report him missing for 18 months? And how was the baby killed?

According to notes in the Hallandale Beach police lead investigator’s file, there was blunt force trauma to the child’s cranium after his death, likely caused during the search and recovery of the skeleton.

And that, says attorney Ed Hoeg, who is representing the baby’s father, could have an impact on the case against his client.

“If evidence is compromised, it could change how the case goes,” Hoeg said. “You would hope the evidence would be in pristine condition.”

Meanwhile, the missing child’s parents remain in Broward County jails. Brittney Sierra, 21, faces two counts of felony child neglect; Calvin Melvin, 27, was charged with three felony counts of providing false information to police.

But those charges could be increased if a Texas lab confirms that DNA from a tiny skeleton unearthed in January behind the couple’s former Hallandale Beach rental home matches that of their baby, Dontrell Melvin.

Dontrell, who would have turned 2 last month, had not been seen for nearly 18 months before police learned of his disappearance on Jan 9.

At first, Melvin told Hallandale Beach police that the child was with his family in Pompano Beach. But when police went there, they were told by the grandparents that they didn’t have the child and hadn’t seen him.

During questioning by police, Melvin changed his story several times, investigators said.

At one point, he told them he’d taken the baby to a fire station under Florida’s Safe Haven Law.

But police didn’t believe him and began questioning Sierra, as well. The couple, who have another child together, pointed fingers at one another, police said.

Their answers led police to the backyard of their former rental home at 106 NW First Ave.

It was there that tiny bones were found.

Nearly 90 percent of the baby’s remains were recovered and reconstructed. An initial review of the bones did not reveal any trauma to the bones, said Hallandale Beach Police Chief Dwayne Flournoy.

However, on Jan. 25, forensic anthropologist Heather Walsh-Haney briefed investigators, including Flournoy, Maj. Thomas Honan and Capt. P. Abut, on the case. In his notes, a Hallandale Beach investigator, who was not identified, wrote: “Dr. Walsh-Haney stated that there were no signs of perimortem blunt trauma. However, there was evidence of a postmortem blunt trauma to the cranium. She stated that said postmortem trauma had probably occurred during the search and recovery of the skeleton.”

The notes were provided to The Miami Herald by Hoeg.

The damage to the cranium, Hoeg said, could prove problematic for the case against his client.

“If there is only trauma afterward, did the damage destroy evidence?” he said.

But on Friday, Police Chief Flournoy insisted there was not any damage caused post-mortem to the skeleton. “The bones were not compromised in any way,” said Flournoy.

Regardless, the Texas lab working to identify the baby’s remains has enough evidence to work with.

All a scientist needs is a small bone fragment to create a DNA profile, said John Fudenberg, the president-elect for International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.

“Unless there is significant trauma noted, it’s very difficult for a medical examiner to determine the cause of death,” Fudenberg added.

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Justin Bieber Tweets Worst Birthday

It's Justin Bieber's party and he'll cry if he wants to! The newly 19-year-old heartthrob took to Twitter Friday night to express his disappointment after his birthday plans were reportedly shut down.

Earlier in the night, the excited Girlfriend singer tweeted "big night ahead" and "gonna be a fun night," but mere hours later he was singing a different tune, writing: "Worst birthday." The tweet has been shared 132,565, and has led to #BeliebersHatePaparazzi to start trending. But the photographers may not be to blame this time.

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A source for E! says that Bieber's circus-themed bash at London's Cirque du Soir was cut short after the pop singer's entourage got into an altercation with the club's security.

Bieber reportedly headed straight back to his hotel after the alleged confrontation.

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Sinkhole that swallowed Tampa man in bedroom grows deeper


Jeff Bush's family and friends hug outside of the house where a sinkhole swallowed Bush in his bedroom.

SEFFNER, Fla. — Engineers worked gingerly Saturday morning to find out more about a slowly growing sinkhole that swallowed a Florida man in his bedroom, believing the entire house could eventually succumb to the unstable ground.

Jeff Bush, 37, was in his bedroom Thursday night when the earth opened and took him and everything else in his room. Five other people were in the house but managed to escape unharmed. Bush's brother jumped into the hole to try to help, but he had to be rescued himself by a sheriff's deputy.


Jeff Bush

Engineers began doing more tests at 7 a.m. Saturday. Crews with equipment were at the home next door, one of two that has been evacuated. By 10 a.m., officials moved media crews farther away from the Bush house so experts could perform tests on the home across the street. It's unclear how large the sinkhole is, or whether it leads to other caverns and chasms throughout the neighborhood. Experts say the underground of West Central Florida looks similar to Swiss cheese, with the geography lending itself to sinkholes.


Experts spent the previous day on the property, taking soil samples and running various tests — while acknowledging that the entire lot where Bush lay entombed was dangerous. No one was allowed in the home.

"I cannot tell you why it has not collapsed yet," Bill Bracken, the owner of an engineering company called to assess the sinkhole, said of the home. He described the earth below as a "very large, very fluid mass."

"This is not your typical sinkhole," said Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill. "This is a chasm. For that reason, we're being very deliberate."

Officials delicately addressed another sad reality: Bush was likely dead and the family wanted his body. Merrill, though, said they didn't want to jeopardize any more lives.

"They would like us to go in quickly and locate Mr. Bush," Merrill said. Officials added Saturday morning that a fund had been set up to help the families affected by the sinkhole.

On Saturday, Jeremy Bush — who tried to rescue his brother when the earth opened — lay flowers and a stuffed lamb near the house and wept.

Hillsborough County Fire Chief Ron Roger called the situation "very complex."

"It's continuing to evolve, and the ground is continuing to collapse," he said.

Sinkholes are so common in Florida that state law requires home insurers to provide coverage against the danger. While some cars, homes and other buildings have been devoured, it's extremely rare for them to swallow a person.

Florida is highly prone to sinkholes because there are caverns below ground of limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water.

"You can almost envision a piece of Swiss cheese," Taylor Yarkosky, a sinkhole expert from Brooksville, Fla., said while gesturing to the ground and the sky blue home where the earth opened in Seffner. "Any house in Florida could be in that same situation."

A sinkhole near Orlando grew to 400 feet across in 1981 and devoured five sports cars, most of two businesses, a three-bedroom house and the deep end of an Olympic-size swimming pool.

More than 500 sinkholes have been reported in Hillsborough County alone since the government started keeping track in 1954, according to the state's environmental agency.

The sinkhole, estimated at 20 feet across and 20 feet deep, caused the home's concrete floor to cave in around 11 p.m. Thursday as everyone in the Tampa-area house was turning in for the night. It gave way with a loud crash that sounded like a car hitting the house and brought Bush's brother running.

Jeremy Bush said he jumped into the hole but couldn't see his brother and had to be rescued himself by a sheriff's deputy who reached out and pulled him to safety as the ground crumbled around him.

"The floor was still giving in and the dirt was still going down, but I didn't care. I wanted to save my brother," Jeremy Bush said through tears Friday in a neighbor's yard. "But I just couldn't do nothing."

He added: "I could swear I heard him hollering my name to help him."

A dresser and the TV set had vanished down the hole, along with most of Bush's bed.

A sheriff's deputy who was the first to respond to a frantic 911 call said when he arrived, he saw Jeremy Bush.

Deputy Douglas Duvall said he reached down as if he was "sticking his hand into the floor" to help Jeremy Bush. Duvall said he didn't see anyone else in the hole.

As he pulled Bush out, "everything was sinking," Duvall said.

Engineers said they may have to demolish the small house, even though from the outside there appeared to be nothing wrong with the four-bedroom, concrete-wall structure, built in 1974.

Jeremy Bush said someone came out to the home a couple of months ago to check for sinkholes and other things, apparently for insurance purposes.

"He said there was nothing wrong with the house. Nothing. And a couple of months later, my brother dies. In a sinkhole," Bush said.


Engineers talk in front of Jeff Bush's home, where a sinkhole opened up underneath his bedroom and swallowed him Thursday night.

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Tom Hudson: China’s new leaders plan quiet transition

If everything goes smoothly, you won’t hear much out of China in the new week. And that’s the way its new leaders want it. Even though the world’s second largest economy officially seats a new president and premier, the beginning of China’s parliamentary session on Tuesday comes without the usual pomp and circumstance. Instead, China’s new leaders hope to show their own version of austerity. For instance, there will be no booze at official meals.

The party leaders want a sober beginning to their terms as the hope for a more sober Chinese economy. They want to avoid any significant pronouncements that could threat China’s gentle economic recovery. The country’s biggest trading partner, Europe, continues to struggle, tensions with Japan have been rising and Chinese workers have been demanding (and in some cases getting) pay raises. Chinese home prices have heated up again as the Beijing government moved late last year to stimulate its economy.

It came after China’s economy grew at its slowest pace in 13 years. The new government knows that its political stability depends upon a steady economy. With choking air pollution, a horrendous record on food safety and sanctioned corruption, the new slate of leaders taking their seats this week would like to reduce China’s reliance on exports to fuel its economic expansion, reassure its trading partners it wants to play fair and stoke a steady and sustainable rise of living standards.

Since early December as the stimulus efforts began, the Shanghai Stock Exchange index has shot up 21 percent. Electricity production is rising and manufacturing has rebounded too. But the political volume has been muted.

Tom Hudson is a financial journalist based in Miami. He is the former co-anchor and managing editor of Nightly Business Report on public television.

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South Florida farmers cash in on farm-to-table movement

A growing number of farmers making a living in South Florida are capitalizing on the farm-to-table trend. Some are taking their fruits and veggies to markets, others are opening the doors of their fields for people to pick their own.

Jerry Sanchez grew up planting seeds and harvesting vegetables in the farms of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

On his way to the farms in Florida, he passed in front of the schools in Leisure City and watched the children carrying their books and bags.

“I would think all these kids were lucky, so I would say, ‘One day, when I grow up, I am going to get my kids to school,’ ” said Sanchez, 42, who didn’t have a chance to finish high school. “And I did.”

He now owns a farm in South Miami-Dade and runs Jerry’s Here, which sells the farm’s fresh vegetables and fruits to an expanding list of farmers’ markets throughout South Florida.

On weekends, Sanchez, his wife Natalia and their three children — along with nieces, nephews and cousins — fan out to farmers markets, selling their tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, corn and onions from their Krome Avenue farm. On Saturday, they’re at the Coral Gables and Delray Beach markets, on Sunday, the Pinecrest Gardens market. On Monday and Thursdays, they’re at the market at Ocean Reef. On Tuesday, they’re at Palmetto Elementary and Miami Children’s Hospital on Wednesday.

The Sanchezes are one of a growing number of farmers making a living in South Florida, capitalizing on the farm-to-table trend. While the Sanchezes take their fruits and veggies to markets, others open the doors of their strawberry fields or vegetable gardens for people to pick their own.

As children, Kathy Magee and Charles Burr Jr. helped their father, Charles Burr, grow his strawberries, even if that meant waking up at 2 a.m. to irrigate the fruits to save them from freezing.

Magee, 61, and Burr Jr., 69, started helping their mother, Mary, 90, at Burr’s Berry Farm in Goulds after their father died in 2001. Last year, they adopted the hydroponic system, growing the strawberries in vertical structures, and they opened the farm for u-pick.

“We want to encourage our people to know where our food comes from because it’s coming from farther and farther away, from out of the country, and there are very few local farms left,” said Magee, who lives in Orlando with her husband, David, and drives the farm every strawberry season from December to May.

For Miguel Brito, 21, a visual designer who recently went u-picking for the first time with his father and sister, the best part was finding a perfect strawberry.

“I found this one,” said Brito, proudly holding up a round and red strawberry. “I found it from a distance and it was just dangling. I checked both sides and then snip, in my basket. I’m going take it home, wash it, eat it fresh and save it for a shake or a smoothie.”

The Burrs also have u-pick for carrots, onions, beats and turnips. They also grow mangoes, lychee, tomatoes, peppers, avocados, cucumbers and sunflowers.

Burr Jr. grows the strawberries with farmer Antonio Diaz, while Magee works in the stand, making milkshakes and canning the homemade jams, jellies and salsa.

Mary also helps the customers and makes most of the business decisions.

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Tori Spelling Slams Divorce Report

Tori Spelling "isn't gonna take" false reports about her marriage sitting down. The reality star/mother-of-four took to her blog on Thursday to slam a report that she and husband Dean McDermott are on the outs.

magazine's recent cover featured a headline that claimed the Beverly Hills, 90210 star and her spouse, 46, were on the brink of a divorce, a claim Spelling, 39, says is completely false. "This time I had to comment because this time I'm answering not as a celebrity but as a mom," Spelling wrote, adding that her five-year-old son Liam's "proudest achievement" so far in life was learning to read, but that "pride turned to sorrow thanks to Star magazine."

"I've built up a pretty thick skin to the lies and trash talking at this point, but my children are another story. Keep them out of it!" Spelling continues, explaining how her kids discovered the magazine in the supermarket. "[Liam] first spotted me on the cover, then dad, and then a picture of himself and his three younger siblings. He was able to read two things out loud, the word DIVORCE (which he proudly sounded out) and the caption above his picture which read 'Who will get the kids?' He became terrified."

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I had to hurry him and his confused 4-year-old sister Stella out of the grocery store and into our car. By the time he was fastening himself into his car seat he was asking, 'Why is someone getting us? Where are you and Dad going?' He was anxiously biting his lower lip and his big blue eyes were filled with tears. My heart sank. How would I explain to my children that what these three writers who have never even met us but who claim to know the ins and outs of our relationship and have proudly put their names on this article are flat out writing lies?"

Spelling said she continually had to reassure her children, saying, "'That magazine doesn't know us. Daddy and I are very happy and in love. There will be no divorce and all of us will remain together as a family.' I'm lucky my two oldest are only five and four and couldn't read the fine details of the article where horrific claims were made against my husband, their dad."

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The actress concluded her post by gushing over her husband, saying, "He has stood by me during the good times and held my hand through the darkest moments of my life. I'm so blessed to have him as my partner in life and love and he is the best father to our four children."

In addition to Stella and Liam, the couple are also parents to Hattie, 16 months, and son Finn, 7 months.

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Odds against him, Obama still betting on big deal

AFP/Getty Images

The US Capitol in Washington, DC on Thursday night.

WASHINGTON — President Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House Friday, hours before a series of mandatory budget cuts start to kick in, for intense talks where Democrats and Republicans were most likely to stake out fiscal positions with the threat of a government shutdown looming.

With no expectations of a breakthrough, Obama was to once again argue for a big fiscal deal that would raise taxes and trim billions from expensive and ever-growing entitlement programs. But with automatic federal spending cuts ready to start taking their toll, the path toward that grand bargain Obama campaigned on last year has significantly narrowed.

Arriving separately in their black SUVs, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi entered the West Wing shortly after 10 a.m. EST. The White House said the meeting was underway by 10:18.

"I'm happy to discuss other ideas to keep our commitment to reducing Washington spending at today's meeting," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement ahead of the session. "But there will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes."

For Obama, Friday's session would be his first opportunity to spell out his 10-year, $1.5 trillion deficit reduction plan in a face-to-face meeting with congressional allies and adversaries.

His chances are squeezed by anti-tax conservatives, by liberals unwilling to cut into Medicare and Social Security, and by a Republican leadership that has dug in against any new revenue after ceding to Obama's demands two months ago for a higher tax rate for top income earners.

On Thursday, two ill-fated proposals aimed at blunting the blame over the cuts — one Democratic and the other Republican — failed to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate. Obama placed the responsibility on Republicans.

"They voted to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class," he said.

The White House is still betting that once the public begins to experience the effects of the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts the pain will be unbearable enough to force lawmakers to reconsider and negotiate. But the consequences of the cuts —the so called sequester — will likely be a slow boil. Obama this week said the effect "is not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward."

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Florida class-action case takes aim at Citizens’ reinspection program

Thousands of Florida homeowners buffeted by higher windstorm premiums have sued state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to recover potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in “back-door” rate increases driven by “arbitrary” reinspections of their residences.

The proposed class-action lawsuit, filed in Broward Circuit Wednesday, aims to halt Citizens’ reinspection program, claiming it has illegally stripped discounts from homeowners who had earned them under a 2007 inspection program approved by the Florida Legislature. Their original inspections were supposed to be valid for five years.

But in 2010, Citizens violated the due-process rights of homeowners, who had submitted official inspection forms, by arbitrarily reinspecting their properties to boost lost revenue that the agency could not generate lawfully through premium hikes, the suit said.

Lawyers who filed the suit, whose class representative is a Broward homeowner, said Citizens violated the due-process rights of its policyholders, costing each higher premiums averaging upwards of $1,000 — and possibly more — a year.

The collective cost to homeowners throughout Florida exceeds more than $100 million, said attorney Todd Stabinksi, whose Miami law firm, Stabinksi & Funt, filed the suit with Farmer, Jaffe of Fort Lauderdale and Kula & Samson of Aventura. They gathered Thursday for a press conference outside the West Broward County Courthouse in Plantation.

“Citizens got the benefit of lowering their risks, but Citizens’ policyholders did not get the benefit of lower premiums,” Stabinski said. “It should have been a mutually beneficial bargain.”

Consumer advocates have accused Citizens of using the reinspection program to impose “massive” rate hikes on homeowners. Citizens has denied the charge, saying that it is simply trying to get accurate information about the homes it insures.

“Since at least 2010, Citizens has used a wind mitigation reinspection program to systemtically deprive policy holders of legitimate wind mitigation credits,” said a nonprofit group, Florida Association for Insurance Reform, which praised the legal action.

A spokesperson for Citizens said the company has been operating under the law, and that the reinspections came after regulators changed the mitigation criteria. “Our position is Citizens’ reinspections were conducted under statutory authority afforded any insurer to verify, at the insurer’s expense, the accuracy of inspection reports submitted for a mitigation discount,” said spokesman Michael Peltier.

Discontent has been widespread among Citizens’ policyholders, who spent large sums of money on roof, window and other upgrades to earn windstorm mitigation discounts while protecting their homes against potential hurricane damage. In response, Citizens unveiled major changes to its home reinspection program last August, after consumers expressed outrage over media reports about a staggering $137 million in premium increases generated by the unpopular program.

Under its new plans, homeowners who lose insurance discounts because of a reinspection can receive a second inspection free of charge. They will have new tools to dispute the findings of the first reinspection. That decision could impact more than 200,000 property owners, who have already seen their premiums go up by an average of about $800 after the initial reinspection.

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Miami-Dade mayor says partnerships, technology will move county forward

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez will deliver his annual speech to the county Thursday, laying out his goals for revving up the local economy, promoting regional cooperation and improving a public transportation system that is, at best, inadequate.

In a wide-ranging interview previewing his state-of-the-county speech, Gimenez told The Miami Herald that he is optimistic about the county’s future, citing improved economic indicators and a record year for business at Miami International Airport and PortMiami, two major economic engines.

“I think we’re a hot commodity, and people are starting to see our potential,” he said. “We just need to keep our eye on the ball.”

Unlike his first speech a year ago, the political pressure is off this time for Gimenez, who in August was elected to his first full term in office. His first year amounted to a red-shirt season, completing the term of former Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was ousted in a 2011 recall.

In Thursday’s speech, to be delivered at Liberty City’s Joseph Caleb Center, Gimenez will announce the creation of an advisory group to study rising property-insurance rates and make recommendations about how to lobby state lawmakers on the issue. The Florida Legislature regulates Citizens Property Insurance, the state’s insurer of last resort, which recently increased homeowners’ insurance rates and scaled back coverage.

“We’re going to look at why our people here are getting slammed,” Gimenez said.

A similar task force made recommendations last month to improve the county elections process. The county, however, generally has more control over elections than over property insurance.

The mayor will also promote an initiative — begun with Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and already underway — to prevent youth violence. And he will tout a new partnership announced Wednesday in which the county will take part in technology giant IBM’s Smart cities program, which lets local governments test and use software to better analyze municipal data.

Among his successes in office, Gimenez will mention streamlining permitting at some county agencies — in some cases by three months, he said — posting employee salaries online and providing internships in his office to college students.

Looking to spur entrepreneurship and create local jobs, Gimenez’s administration also has committed $1 million in funding over four years to Launch Pad, in conjunction with the University of Miami. Launch Pad is a public/private partnership that introduces young technology businesses to each other to help them grow.

In his speech, the mayor will also throw his support behind Endeavor, a global nonprofit that works to accelerate entrepreneurship in metropolitan areas. The organization plans to set up shop in Miami after receiving a $2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Taking the long view, Gimenez said he hopes to make it easier for commuters to take public transportation between Miami Beach and the mainland and from Kendall to the urban core. The mayor said he doesn’t have any specific plans yet — or money to finance them — but said that clogged streets are getting in the way of residents’ productivity.

By way of example, Gimenez said he left County Hall in downtown Miami at 5 p.m. on a recent afternoon for a 6:30 p.m. event at the Hammocks, in West Kendall.

“I didn’t make it,” he said. “I can’t imagine your having to do that every day. We’re wasting time. We’re spending money. We’re spending gas.”

For those and other big-ticket improvements, including looming, extensive water-and-sewer piping that will have to be replaced soon because it is so antiquated, Gimenez said Miami-Dade won’t be able to count on much state or federal financial aid. Instead, there will be some water-rate hikes in coming years, he said, and future transportation projects might be partnerships involving heavy private-sector investments.

“More and more, it’s likely that we’re going to have to do these things ourselves,” he said.

Better than going at it alone, Gimenez said, would be teaming up with counties with similar issues to share ideas and work together for funding and state support. To that end, Gimenez had dinner last year in St. Petersburg with the mayors of Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa. He also has hosted the mayors of Broward and Palm Beach counties to brainstorm ways to work together.

“People have been very good and very successful at dividing us, and we’ve done that to ourselves,” Gimenez said. “We should have a lot more in common than we have differences.”

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Pope Benedict XVI Sends Out Final Tweet

He was the first pope to have a Twitter account, and on Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI sent out his final tweet to his 1.5 million followers proceeding his final public address to 150,000 in St. Peter's Square in Rome, Italy. So, what were his final words under 140 characters?

The pope wrote on Thursday: "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives."

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Pope Benedict XVI announced earlier this month that he would be stepping down, making him the first living pope to resign in 598 years. Elected in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II at age 84, Benedict, 85, said from the onset of his papacy that he anticipated a short reign as the 265th leader of the Catholic Church.

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Pope Benedict addressed the crowds in the small Italian town Castel Gandolfo for the final time on Thursday, sending his blessings to all.

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