ST. PETERSBURG — The lawyer strode into the school chapel Thursday and set a flip chart by the baptismal font. Then he turned and faced the pews filled with middle school students.
"Good morning!" he bellowed, in the voice he uses for juries.
He told them his name is Jay Hebert. His daughter is a sixth-grader here at Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School. There she is, in the second row.
He didn't say so, but she's why he wanted to talk to them.
"Today I'm going to share a story. You might have heard it. It's been all over the news, on 20/20 and Court TV," he said. "It's about two beautiful girls and the boy who wanted them to fight for him. They all went to middle school together, just like you."
"The girls didn't really know each other," Hebert said. "But their social networking escalated and a bad thing happened — the worst thing that could happen."
One girl stabbed the other in the heart.
"Sarah died that night," said Hebert. "And Rachel is spending 27 years in prison."
The students gasped.
"I'm here because you need to know how to be careful," he said.
"Because if those girls' parents had known what they were posting online, what they were texting, this never would have happened."
• • •
In the 19 years Hebert has been a criminal defense attorney, he has taken more than 200 cases to trial. Few have affected him as much as the State of Florida vs. Rachel Wade.
"I just kept thinking, 'This could happen to my kids or any of their friends,' " he said.
Sarah Ludemann, 18, was a senior at Pinellas Park High. Rachel Wade, 19, was a waitress at Applebee's. For months, they had been dating the same unemployed boy, fighting on MySpace, sending threatening texts and voice mails.
On the night of April 15, 2009, Sarah went to confront Rachel. As she stepped out of her mom's minivan, Rachel plunged a steak knife through her heart. Sarah bled to death in the street.
Hebert, Rachel's lawyer, argued self-defense, but a jury convicted her of second-degree murder. After that, he started warning other parents: Know what your kids are posting. To protect them, you have to probe.
Thursday was the first time he spoke directly to students.
• • •
"I'm going to start out asking you all a few questions," he said, pacing in front of the pews. "How many of you all have Facebook accounts?" Few fifth-graders raised their hands. But most of the eighth-graders did.
"How many have cell phones?" Almost every kid's hand shot up.
"They used to tell parents to put computers in a common space, to keep an eye on what their kids are doing," Hebert said. "But for you all, the computer is dead, isn't it? Your computers are your phones.
"I'm going to tell all your parents that they need to keep your phones in their rooms at night. So they can make sure you're not using them when you're supposed to be sleeping. So they can check your messages."
A girl groaned. A boy hung his head.
Hebert went on. Don't text things you wouldn't say to someone in person, he warned. "And be careful who you friend on Facebook. Some people might not be who you think they are."
He said he went to visit Rachel on Monday. "She wanted me to tell you some things."
He listed them:
1. No boy is worth fighting for. (The guy she killed Sarah over has never even visited her in prison.)
2. Don't answer angry texts. (If she hadn't responded to Sarah's taunts, Sarah wouldn't have come after her.)
3. Talk to your parents. (If her parents had seen her phone messages, Sarah would be alive.)
• • •
Time for the kids' questions.
What happened to that boy who told the girls to fight for him? Nothing. He didn't do anything illegal.
If you post something on the Internet, then delete it, is it really gone? Absolutely not. Whatever you put out there, it stays somewhere out there. Forever.
When he was done, he turned to pack up his flip chart. But in the second row, a girl with a brown ponytail raised her hand.
Hebert's daughter. Later, he asked that her name not be in the paper. He's careful that way.
"So, Daddy," she said. "Why can't I have a cell phone?"
He laughed. "Because I love you."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.