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Death of a salesman 

Dental floss, Ted Turner and a month in the federal pen

In another life, Sean Dix was a dreamer, a New York entrepreneur, an innovator who held U.S. Patent 5,435,330. These days, he is known as the man who threatened to kill Ted Turner over a CNN segment that mocked his invention.

On April 17, Dix was in U.S. District Court to accept his punishment. It had been almost a year since he was first arrested -- a year filled with clanging cell doors, lousy jail food, and the time to pore through philosophy books, biographies, novels.

Usually, there's a predictable rhythm to sentencings -- the prosecution arguing for more time, the defense arguing for less and the defendant sitting at the trial table chastened, asking for mercy and seeking redemption.

But in the year he's waited for this day, Sean Dix, inventor of floss rings, has come to no such revelation. He remains convinced he is the victim of a media conspiracy, one that has been engineered with brutal and merciless efficiency.

In fact, while the judge and the attorneys argued over his punishment, Dix appeared to be back at trial, part of a play he'd been rehearsing in his cell, still trying to prove his innocence, still struggling to tell the world how good his product is and how much damage CNN did in so carelessly dismissing it.

The wound inflicted by CNN might be nearly five years old, but it's clear Dix feels it like this morning. And while his body may be weakened by 20 pounds lost in jail, his resolve is as strong as ever. He'll be back. He made that clear in court.

"I willed this to happen," Dix told U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper in a rambling, sometimes incoherent 20-minute screed read before the judge sentenced him. "I will not rest ... until CNN has made me whole."

What that will take only Dix knows. What isn't in question is when this all began -- June 12, 1996, the day Dix eagerly anticipated a story about his invention, a pair of plastic rings "designed to civilize the way we floss," according to the instructions. Floss rings are intended for those with eczema (like Dix), arthritis or any condition that makes gripping dental floss difficult. By snapping floss onto the rings and slipping them onto your index fingers, you'd have a pain-free flossing session.

Selling for two bucks a pop, the rings gained good reviews from the New York Times, Forbes FYI and Bloomberg. But after the CNN segment aired, Dix's $9,000 contract with CVS pharmacies dried up and potential investors disappeared. Dix demanded satisfaction. He got a letter from CNN reporter Jeanne Moos saying she was sorry his business was tanking. Not enough. When his phone calls went unreturned, he started faxing -- 6,000 in one four-day span in the summer of 1998. Still nothing, but Dix wouldn't let up.

Dix upped the stakes on April 18, 2000, faxing a message that finally got the attention he'd been demanding. "It is with full knowledge of the law that I'm telling you that if you do not make restitution I will attempt to kill Ted Turner, and if he is unreachable in his ivory tower then I only need to kill one CNN employee and it will be on your hands."

Which brings us to last Tuesday. Dressed in a roomy navy blue sport coat, Dix stood before Judge Cooper having already served 12 months. Prosecutors hoped to bump up the time Dix could serve, increase it beyond the sentencing guidelines. After all, Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Alley argued, Dix had continued to send letters to CNN while he was in jail -- a clear violation of a court order.

Dix said those letters were meant to press his case, despite the fact he was convicted last December. He wanted the prosecution to bring up the letters in court, because, in his mind, it showed that people are on his side and that he was victimized by a flawed justice system.

And judging by last week's proceedings, people are on his side -- if he would only shut his mouth long enough for them to help him.

A case in point: Stephanie Ramage, the former CL staffer who chronicled Dix's story. Subpoenaed because Dix called her one recent night and allegedly said: "Stephanie, I never forget people who screw me over. I become very focused on them," Ramage pleaded with Cooper to order counseling for Dix.

And even Cooper himself seemed to have sympathy for the inventor. He denied the government's request that Dix be sentenced to extra time.

Still, Dix, caught in a play rehearsed behind bars, never showed any signs that he might rethink his quixotic quest.

He told Ramage he would "make people take responsibility" for what has happened to him, she testified.

Compared to what CNN did to him, he said, his actions were justified. "I do not apologize for the tactics," he continued, urging Cooper to release him and "initiate an investigation into CNN."

Before sentencing Dix to 15 months -- a punishment that will have him out of prison in a month, after time served -- Cooper had some fatherly advice for the 33-year-old.

"I hate to see you spend the prime of your youth in jail," Cooper said to Dix. "You need to know when to let things go and move on with your life." As part of Dix's sentence, Cooper warned him that if he contacted CNN or Ramage, his probation would be revoked and he'd get three years in prison.

Instead of listening, Dix argued with Cooper that his accusers perjured themselves at his trial. The words, as a testy exchange with Alley earlier in the hearing suggested, never touched him.

"If it was a true threat, I would express remorse," Dix said.

"You refuse to accept the verdict?"

"Yes."

"It's not over for you?" Alley asked.

"Yes. That's true," Dix replied.

In court, Dix made it clear that his saga has reached only a mid-point in its arc.

Truth passes through three stages, he said, quoting the 19th Century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. First it is ignored. Then it is vigorously opposed -- the current stage of his battle against CNN -- and finally people decide it is self-evident. "I believe I will get to the final stage," Dix said.

Had he read further, he would have also seen Schopenhauer's Theory of Pessimism: that the will creates reality, and even if Dix meets its demands, his quest, as everything else, will end in disappointment.

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