Community's gift helps Pasco girl injured in crash smile again

Marissa Manuli, 9, testifies during the trial of the driver who hit her and killed a playmate.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Marissa Manuli, 9, testifies during the trial of the driver who hit her and killed a playmate.

It sounded like a lightning strike.

Maria Manuli had been outside, watching her daughter playing tag with the triplets across the road about 8 p.m. that Saturday in November 2010. She had just come in the kitchen to grab a drink when she heard the crash.

She flung open the front door and ran outside. The first thing she says she saw was Betty-Jo Tagerson, lying on her back in the driveway. Across the street she saw two of the triplets crumpled in little balls on the lawn. Manuli's 9-year-old daughter, Marissa, appeared next to her in tears, complaining about her mouth.

Authorities said Tagerson, in a huff after an argument with her boyfriend, got in her Jeep and punched the gas. The Jeep careened down Kings Manor Avenue out of control. It crushed a mailbox and smacked into a parked truck. The Jeep swerved and ran down the little girls playing in the front yard. Tagerson fell out of the bungee-cord-fastened drivers side door into the Manuli driveway. Then the Jeep rolled back and hit a van parked at the triplets' parents' house.

Delaney Rossman, one of the 5-year-old triplets, was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa 40 minutes later. Emergency vehicles flooded the tiny street in Country Club estates. Her sister, Gabrielle, was put into a medically induced coma with several broken bones, internal bleeding and a collapsed lung. Tagerson was also taken to the hospital. Marissa was taken to the emergency room.

Manuli thinks during the crash, the Jeep's front bumper smashed her daughter's teeth. Judging from the black scuff mark on Marissa's leg after the crash, her mother says, she fell under the Jeep, between the tires.

"She is so lucky," Maria says. "Just another inch or two, and she wouldn't have made it probably."

Marissa remembers hearing a "squeaking sound. Then everyone was crying."

News coverage of the crash focused mainly on the triplets, but Marissa also paid a heavy price for Tagerson's recklessness.

The crash knocked all of her teeth loose. It twisted the front ones and bent them up into her gums. One permanent tooth was knocked out.

After Marissa returned to school, her mother said, she didn't talk much. No one made fun of her, but she kept her mouth closed. Because of the pain, she was put on a liquid diet.

Her mother, a single parent, had no dental insurance for her girls, Marissa, Sabrina, 10 at the time, and Mercedes, 12 at the time. Medicaid wrote off dental work as "cosmetic" and refused to cover it.

The next week, Michael O'Carroll, executive director of SmileFaith, a New Port Richey charity foundation for dental reconstruction, got a deluge of emails, some from friends of the Manulis, others from people who had heard the news.

"I cannot imagine what effects this can have on a little girl," one sender wrote.

"She no longer smiles!" wrote another. "Help her smile again!"

Manuli said she hadn't put any thought yet as to what she'd do for Marissa. One dentist had agreed to wire in Marissa's teeth for free so the rest wouldn't fall out. Manuli thought that was as far as her luck would go. The answer from Medicaid was clear. Then the call from O'Carroll caught her off guard.

He said they'd be able to help. Less than a month later, Marissa was in a chair at Impeccable Smiles dentistry. Dentists found some of her teeth were up to 70 percent missing. They rebuilt her broken teeth with composite veneers and filled in others pro-bono.

SmileFaith sent her to Cobbe Dental and Orthodontics for a free set of braces.

Together the dental work and braces would have been about $5,000, O'Carroll said.

At that price, "there's just no way it would've gotten done," her mother said. "I don't know if it's bigger for me or Marissa."

She poked a little fun at her daughter when all the procedures were done. That Christmas, she got her two front teeth.

Vivian Deluca, head dentist at Impeccable Smiles, said she can sympathize with the Manulis.

"You just want the evidence of the damage gone, so people stop asking what happened," she said.

Now, no one does. They see a little girl wearing braces with rubber bands. Blue, her favorite color.

She's been hyperproductive in her fifth-grade classes where she made straight A's last semester. She was also elected as student council president. Her most recent presidential act was taste-testing food in the school cafeteria.

She never talked about the crash until about a week before Tagerson's trial last month. At trial preparation, Marissa was questioned about the crash. She was made to look at graphic pictures of her injuries that her mother took in the emergency room. Then came the nightmares.

She wouldn't tell her mother what happened in them, just that she didn't want to sleep alone.

The day of the trial was the first time she had seen her playmates since the crash.

In the witness room, they played war, 21 and Uno with a deck of cards. She told them she missed them.

Since the trial, which ended with Tagerson being convicted of vehicular homicide, culpable negligence manslaughter and two counts of reckless driving with serious injury, Marissa has been her same old self. She wears a pink streak in her hair across her bangs.

Her three curly-haired dogs, Gizmo, Fluffy and Gracie, make the same fashion statement. With little pink tufts on their foreheads, they look like parakeets running away when she tries to pick them up and hug them.

She's scheduled to have her braces off by the end of the year. That means a return of two of her favorite foods: chips and popcorn.

When asked on a recent weekday afternoon after school what she would have done without her rebuilt teeth, she paused then struck a finger in the air and declared: "I would refuse to take yearbook pictures!"

She fell back on the living room couch, giggling.

Alex Orlando can be reached at aorlando@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Community's gift helps Pasco girl injured in crash smile again 02/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 25, 2012 11:19am]

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