Sarah Ludemann couldn't stop crying.
All through lunch that Tuesday, while the other seniors at Pinellas Park High chattered in the cafeteria, Sarah slumped over a corner table, sobbing.
He did it again, Sarah told her best friend.
Her boyfriend, Josh, kept saying she was the only one. He'd been telling her that the whole time they'd been together. More than a year.
But that day she found out he had been hanging out with his ex — this girl named Rachel.
All morning, while she suffered through school, Rachel was texting Sarah, boasting that Josh was with her. Again.
I'm so over it, Sarah said.
Amber Malinchock didn't know what to say. For months, Sarah's friends had been telling her to forget about Josh. She deserved better.
But when you're 18 and in love for the first time, you don't listen. Your love becomes your whole life.
Amber tried to get her friend's mind off her problems. She asked Sarah to go to the mall after school, maybe the movies.
No thanks, Sarah said.
She was hoping to see Josh.
• • •
About the time Sarah was talking to her best friend, Rachel Wade was at home, talking to hers.
Rachel had the day off from her job at Applebee's. Her friend had come by her apartment to hang out.
He did it again, Rachel said.
Her boyfriend, Josh, had slept over the night before, then bolted. He swore he cared about her, but it didn't feel that way.
Worst of all, she kept finding evidence that he was still seeing his ex — this girl named Sarah.
Sarah posted MySpace photos of herself with Josh at the beach. She bragged that she had been with him in New York over spring break.
I can't trust him, Rachel said.
Egle Nakaite didn't know what to say. For months, Rachel's friends had been telling her to forget about Josh. She could have any guy she wanted.
But when you're 19, independent and headstrong, you don't listen. You want to be the one he wants most.
"We didn't know what it was about Josh," Egle would say later. "He just had some kind of hold on her."
That afternoon — April 14, 2009 — Egle asked Rachel if she wanted to get together later, maybe hit Starbucks.
Rachel said no.
She was supposed to hang out with Josh.
• • •
Rachel and Sarah hated each other, saw each other as competition. But they were more alike than either would have liked to admit.
They were raised in the same modest neighborhood in Pinellas Park. They grew up with both parents, hard-working people who cared about their kids. They went to the same school, walked the same halls. Both girls loved the beach and movies and dogs.
Both were blond, outgoing, with wide eyes and loud laughs. Both had MySpace pages.
Sarah Ludemann was tall and big-boned, a good student who seldom broke her 11 p.m. curfew. A tomboy. A daddy's girl.
Rachel Wade was petite and flirty, the kind of girl boys noticed. Never much of a student, she dropped out of school in 10th grade, got her GED and worked as a waiter, earning enough to rent her own apartment. On her MySpace page, she called herself "Independent Chic."
But the main thing Rachel and Sarah shared was Josh Camacho.
He was "My boo."
Two girls' one and only.
Josh had curly hair, the color of coal, spilling across sculpted shoulders. Black eyes, a long nose, wide lips curled into a sneer. His dark jeans hung low on his slim hips. He stood about 5 feet 5, but walked with the swagger of a bigger man.
Josh loved posing for cell phone portraits: flexing his biceps, waving a gun, showing off the tattoo that arcs across his back in inch-high Gothic letters: CAMACHO.
While seeing both Sarah and Rachel, Josh kept up a relationship with a third teenager, a girl he called "my baby mama." They'd had a son together. He spent time with the baby but didn't pay child support.
For a while, in high school, Josh cooked at Chick-fil-A and Pollo Tropical. But after graduation, he didn't go to college, didn't have a steady job or a car.
At 19, he stayed with family. Except when he persuaded some girl to let him spend the night.
"A player," police called him.
"A user," girls said.
The battle over this boy started with Silly String, escalated to profane tirades and ended in tragedy. The story is documented in text and voice mail messages, in cell phone pictures, in Web postings, in reams of documents filed in the inevitable criminal case. The sad, sordid details can be filled in by talking to the girls' friends and devastated parents.
Experts say teenage girls crave approval, that they want to be special, that their feelings are often too intense for them to handle. They don't feel in control of anything, and they yearn for power over their lives.
"So," said Dr. Mitch Spero, a Plantation psychologist who specializes in teens, "when they finally feel like they belong to someone, or that someone belongs to them, it comes down to ownership."
A love triangle can turn into a property dispute.
Experts also know this about girls: They almost never kill each other. Girl-on-girl assault has risen, but homicide among females remains the rarest of crimes. According to the Justice Department, there were 6,940 homicides in the United States in 2008. Only 200 involved women killing women.
Boys tend to kill while committing other crimes, like robbing a store or selling drugs.
For girls, murder is personal.
"Girls are much more likely to kill over relationships: their parents, siblings, boyfriends," said University of South Florida criminology professor Kathleen Heide.
"When a teenage girl feels another girl is intruding on her territory, when she feels someone is disrespecting her, those are the things that upset them most."
Josh Camacho may have understood this. Though he later denied saying it, his girlfriends remember him declaring, "If you love me, you'll fight for me."
On April 14, 2009, Sarah wanted to be with Josh. And Rachel wanted to be with Josh.
By the end of that warm spring night, one of the girls was in jail, facing life in prison.
And the other had bled to death in the street, only a few blocks from home.
Sarah Ludemann lived in the same house her whole life, a single-story lime stucco with a wide porch fringed with wind chimes. Her parents had moved from New York to Florida to live somewhere warm and safe.
They waited 16 years to have their only child.
Sarah's mom, Gay, is a surgical nurse. Her dad, Charlie, drives a taxi.
Sarah was her dad's sidekick. He took her to karate classes, Lightning games, Keith Urban concerts. She rode beside him in his cab, blaring the radio, singing country songs.
"Sarah loved to sing and dance," said Danielle Eyermann, her friend since preschool. "She was always making up these crazy moves, pretending she was Britney Spears."
By eighth grade at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, many of Sarah's friends already had boyfriends. Sarah had crushes on musicians and Rays players, but that was it.
Her friend Amber said, "Sarah never needed a guy to make her happy."
Rachel Wade's mom is an assistant teacher at an elementary school. Her dad drives trucks for a food distributor. Rachel grew up with an older brother in a new brown house with a pool. Her home was a bike ride away from Sarah's, though they didn't know each other as kids.
Rachel was a happy child, her parents said. She loved reading, playing princess and sketching Disney characters.
"She was always making friends and commanding attention," said her mom, Janet. "All the girls wanted to be like her. All the boys liked her."
Rachel's best friend, Egle, described her as fun, girly. "People sometimes thought she was prissy," Egle said. "But she wasn't, once you got to know her."
Rachel was in elementary school when a new boy joined her class. His family had just moved to Florida. His dad was from New York, mom from the Dominican Republic. He had six brothers and a sister.
And dark curly hair.
Sarah started high school at Tarpon Springs to attend its program in veterinary medicine.
She had to get up in the dark and ride a bus more than an hour to get there. At the end of the day, other girls had guys to walk with them. But at 16, Sarah still didn't have a boyfriend. Her dad was always waiting at the bus stop.
The summer after 10th grade, Sarah and Amber spent a lot of time going to the movies and eating at Chick-fil-A. One afternoon, a boy who cooked chicken came out of the back on his break. He smelled like french fries. He waved to Sarah, Amber said. Then he winked.
"She just fell in love with him, right then," Amber said.
He said his name was Josh. Soon, he would be a senior at Pinellas Park High.
Two months later, Sarah told her parents she wasn't sure she still wanted to be a veterinarian.
She didn't know what she wanted to do, really. Except transfer to Pinellas Park.
While Sarah was dancing with her friends and riding in her dad's cab, Rachel was busy with boys. By high school, her parents said, social life had trumped school. She started challenging them, insisting she didn't need their rules.
When Rachel was 15, police came to her house because she and her dad were fighting. "She had a 10 p.m. curfew, but she wanted to stay out all night," said her dad, Barry. "I kept telling her nothing good ever happens after midnight."
Rachel ran away all the time, sometimes sneaking out her bedroom window. She slept in strangers' cars, in lounge chairs at apartment pools. She was only 15 when police caught her in a car, in the school parking lot, with a 19-year-old. They charged him with a felony sex offense.
One night, Rachel and her mom were fighting about her boyfriend, according to a police report. Rachel opened a kitchen drawer and pulled out a Pampered Chef knife.
"She didn't point it at me," her mom said later. "She took it with her and ran into the bathroom."
In her sophomore year, Rachel ran away 14 times and dropped out of school. Her parents took her to counseling, drove her to work at a doggie day care.
At a party, she ran into Josh. It had been years since she'd seen him. He looked good. Not the schoolboy she remembered.
She stopped in to see him at Chick-fil-A.
Josh and Sarah flirted through the summer. But that fall at Pinellas Park High, he would hardly acknowledge her. He would just cut his eyes at her, Amber said, tip his chin.
In November, they finally got together. But even then, "he would never hold her hand or walk with her, claim her in front of other people," Amber said. "When they were alone, he was all over her."
Everyone said Josh was Sarah's first kiss, her first boyfriend, her first everything. He made her feel beautiful, like she mattered.
But her friends were worried. The first sign was when Sarah started wearing pants. Sarah always wore shorts. Even in winter.
"Josh didn't want other guys to see her legs," Amber said. "He started telling her who she could hang out with, who she could talk to."
Sarah started spending all her time with Josh. She was so scared of losing him that she was losing herself.
"She knew he was owning her, but she never thought to leave him," Amber said. If she'd had other boyfriends, she would have known how it feels to break up and get over it.
"But when your first love is at 18," Amber said, "things get epic."
Josh saw himself as tough and streetwise. Sarah pretended she was too. On her cell phone, she stored photos of Josh apparently smoking pot, Josh waving a gun. She downloaded hip-hop songs like Stop Callin' Me and Chopped N Skrewed.
She begged her dad for a pit bull. "You gotta be joking!" he remembers saying. He referred to Josh as "the rat." He kept telling her, "That boy is no good."
"But she was in love," Charlie Ludemann said. "You can't do nothing about a teenage girl in love."
He couldn't keep Sarah away from Josh, so he invited Josh over for dinner, took him to ball games. To keep an eye on him.
"Don't let nothing happen to her," he said.
Sarah had never been in any kind of trouble, but now that started to change.
In the first six months she was with Josh, police interviewed her six times, all over public confrontations. She and Josh screamed at each other at intersections. Yelled at Josh's baby mama in the parking lot of the movies. Once, Sarah said Josh had punched her in the face and he admitted it. Her parents wanted her to press charges, but Sarah wouldn't.
The next time her name was in a police report, Rachel's was in it too.
For months, Rachel and Josh were on and off. She knew he had other girls. That's why they kept breaking up.
Rachel's MySpace photo showed her sprawled on her back, her highlighted hair circling her head like a halo. She wrote: "i've heard that I come off as a bitch or intimidating, but trust me, the moment you start to get to know me, you'll realize it's a total misconception."
When she turned 18, she got a job at Applebee's and her own apartment. Josh started sleeping over. That changed things between them. He sponged off of her, Rachel's friends said. She got attached.
"She would always tell us how he kept cheating on her," said her friend Egle. "Nobody understood why she liked him."
A few months after Rachel and Josh started dating, she saw a photo on MySpace: Josh with another girl. A tall, big-boned blond beaming as if she owned him. The name tagged on the picture: Sarah Ludemann.
Rachel wrote to Josh in her MySpace blog on June 17, 2008.
"When we first met I was madly in love . . . but since then things have changed . . . You called me names, you slept around . . . I deserve so much better!"
Soon a comment appeared under Rachel's post. It suggested that Josh had "found better."
It was from Sarah.
Somehow Rachel got Sarah's phone number. She left a message on her voice mail. Sarah played it for her friends.
"You're f------ with me when you f--- with Josh," Rachel snarled. "Seriously, . . . I'm letting you know now you're either going to get f----- up or something of yours is. Stop being a bitch!"
Sarah wasn't cowed. She and her friends started eating at Applebee's, sitting in Rachel's section. They would harass her, bump into her while she was holding heavy trays.
Rachel left more phone messages for Sarah, called her fat and pathetic. Why would he want you, Rachel chided, when he could have me?
Late one night, a car pulled up next to Rachel at the Taco Bell. Three girls started shooting Silly String at her. One, Rachel told the cops, was Sarah.
Josh and Rachel kept hooking up. But now, instead of just spending the night, he moved in. And he kept seeing Sarah.
Instead of getting angry at him, the girls went after each other.
One time, according to Rachel's friend Egle, Sarah drove past Rachel's apartment and shouted, "Come fight me."
Sarah told police Rachel called her 20 times in two hours, threatening her. When the cops talked to Rachel, she said Sarah sent her nasty e-mails.
Neither girl had thrown a punch or drawn a weapon, so the cops let it go. Sarah's dad thought it would blow over. Rachel's mom told her, "Don't let it get to you."
The parents didn't know how bad things had gotten.
Voice mail from Rachel to Sarah, Aug. 26, 2008: I'm guaranteeing you I'm going to f------ murder you."
Technology made all this easy, and made things worse.
You can say anything you want in a voice mail or a text message, without having to face the person you're insulting. You can deliver your rant right away. And the recipient can replay it again and again, reopening the wound each time. Sarah did that.
When a feud plays out on the Internet, where everyone can see it, "that only fuels the feelings," said Heide, the USF professor who wrote Young Killers.
"The public challenge cannot be shrugged off," she said. "The girl feels compelled to strike back: I'm hurting, so I want her to hurt too."
April 14, 2009.
When Sarah's dad picked her up at school, her eyes were swollen again. She had been crying every day for two weeks.
He tried to hug her, but she pulled away. In the last six months she had lost 30 pounds.
As soon as she got home, Sarah logged onto MySpace and saw Rachel's last login:
Mood: Lovin my boo :)
Was that a taunt? Was he still with her? Sarah texted Josh.
1:06 p.m.: "Whatever Josh, you get so mad at me for everything but you don't give a s--- when she puts something up or says something. You always believe her."
1:08 p.m. "It's like no matter what I do she's always that much better."
1:13 p.m. "All we fight about is her or something that has to do with her, and it sucks. I hate fighting with you . . . I love you so much, but this s--- hurts."
Hours passed. Sarah tried again.
6:36 p.m. "You say you love me, but you don't even have the decency to text me back?"
Finally, at 8:02 p.m., Josh typed, "Bring the movies."
Sarah borrowed her mom's minivan to drive the two blocks to Josh's sister's house. Before she left, she updated her MySpace:
Across town, Rachel was at her place, waiting to see Josh. She didn't know about Sarah and her movies.
Just about dark, while walking her dog, she heard a car honk. Rachel later told police she saw Sarah cruising by in her mom's minivan. Sarah yelled, "Stay away from my man!"
Rachel said she was scared. She called an old boyfriend, Javier, and told him she didn't want to be alone. Could she come over?
She got her purse, slid open a kitchen drawer and pulled out a steak knife.
Talk to the girls' friends and you start to understand what was going through their minds.
Sarah didn't feel she was worthy of Josh. Without a job or a car, how could she compete? Plus, she told her friends, she still had a curfew!
Rachel is so much prettier, she thought.
But she had already given everything to this guy — her senior year, her heart, her virginity. If he didn't want her anymore, who would?
Rachel was cocky. How could Josh want anyone else? Look at her, she had her own car, her own apartment.
She was so much prettier than Sarah.
Plus, she had known Josh forever. He knew her true self, and she knew him. Of course she was better than that fat loser.
About 11 p.m., the time Sarah was supposed to be home, she and Josh were playing Wii at his sister's house when headlights pierced the windows.
Josh recognized the car: Rachel's red Saturn.
"Now I know why you're not talking to me — because you got her," Rachel texted Josh.
"That's right," typed Josh. It's a wonder he had the dexterity: By then, he later admitted, he had thrown back five vodka shots and smoked seven White Owl blunts of marijuana.
"I don't like you no more. Why are you down this street? Go home."
"No. I'll wait for her to go home," Rachel texted back.
Sarah had already busted curfew. Her dad texted, "When?"
Sarah typed back, "Soon."
Sarah waited until the headlights faded. She watched Rachel drive away.
Just before midnight, Sarah told Josh goodbye. As she was leaving, Josh's sister and her friend asked for a ride to McDonald's. So Sarah loaded them into the minivan.
On the way, Sarah passed a friend at a stop sign. "Guess who I just saw?" her friend said. "Rachel."
She was at a boy named Javier's house, just a few blocks away.
Sarah sped down the two-lane street. Her cell phone rang. She recognized the number and switched to speaker phone.
"I'm going to kill you," Rachel shrieked. "You and your Mexican boyfriend."
Sarah saw Rachel outside a white house, leaning against her car, talking to two boys. She slammed to a stop. Left the keys in the ignition, the engine running. Slid out of the driver's seat in her flip-flops. Didn't even close the door. She raced toward Rachel, fists flailing.
Rachel ran into the road. Raised her right hand. With a quick thrust, she jabbed Sarah's shoulder. The next time, the steak knife punctured Sarah's heart.
Clutching her chest, Sarah staggered back to the minivan. By then, Josh's sister had climbed out. "Get back in," Sarah wailed. "We gotta go!"
She collapsed in the driver's seat. Fumbled for her cell. Her hands were sticky with her own blood. She called Josh. "It hurts," she gasped, sliding into the street.
Rachel tossed the knife onto the roof of a neighbor's house. Her phone rang.
"Where you at?" he demanded. She told him.
He ran the two blocks to Sarah's house, told her dad she had been in a fight. Together, they drove to the street where the minivan was still idling.
Sarah was sprawled by the curb, surrounded by paramedics.
Her dad rushed to her. Cops pulled him back. "I knew she was dead," Charlie Ludemann said later. "I knew there was nothing anyone could do."
He drove Josh to the hospital, but Josh refused to see Sarah. By the time her parents saw her body, Josh was gone.
Back at Javier's house, police found Rachel sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette, nursing a fat lip. Josh's sister had jumped her, she said, scratched her back and beaten her with a sandal.
Eventually she told them about the knife. Rachel said Sarah had been harassing her for months. She knew she was going to be attacked. She was trying to defend herself.
The questioning continued at the police station. Rachel had seen the ambulance whisk Sarah away. But she didn't know how badly Sarah was hurt. And she didn't seem ready for it when the detective told her.
"Sarah is dead," he said. "You killed her."
Rachel began to sob, and couldn't stop.
Sarah Ludemann's funeral was a month before the high school prom. More than a year later, her parents keep her bedroom a shrine to her. Everything is just as it was, except that her dad destroyed the pictures of Josh.
Rachel Wade has been in the Pinellas County jail for 15 months. Her trial for second-degree murder is scheduled to begin Tuesday. Rachel's lawyer says she acted in self-defense. She's facing up to life without parole.
If she ever gets out, she wrote to friends, she's going to marry Javier.
As for Josh Camacho, he wasn't allowed at Sarah's funeral. He has never visited Rachel nor written to her.
Police say his parents shipped him off to relatives in New York.
"He don't live here no more," his mom said when called at her Pinellas Park home. She wouldn't say where Josh was.
"Everyone already put his reputation down so bad, told so many lies about my boy," she said. "I don't have nothing to say."
A New York cell is listed in Josh's name. When a reporter called, a young man answered, then hung up. Three times.
In a sworn deposition, Josh said yes, he got around. Yes, he was sleeping with both girls, and with his baby mama. But they were not his girlfriends. "Just friends with benefits," he kept saying.
"Okay," the defense attorney said. "Now, you indicated that you thought that Sarah loved you. . . . Did you love her back?"
Josh hesitated, then said softly, "I think I did."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.