Michelle Carreras sums up her life with this phrase:
"One mother's choice, another mother's tears."
Her tears have flowed freely for nearly two years — ever since her daughter Raquel, a popular and outgoing cheerleader at Northeast High School, died in a car crash.
She still talks to Raquel every day, telling her "good morning" and "I miss you 'Quel." She looks for signs that somehow her daughter is listening.
But Carreras blames the death on a choice made by another mother. She blames Lesa Ledesma, who gave car keys to her son, a 15-year-old who shouldn't have been behind the wheel that night.
Now Ledesma and her son Shawn face prison for the accident that killed Raquel. Ledesma is scheduled to go on trial this summer for manslaughter — a highly unusual, if not unprecedented, charge for a parent who allowed a child to drive. Shawn recently pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and has a court date right after his mother's trial.
Carreras plans to be in court. The two mothers spoke briefly at an earlier hearing, and Carreras says it went this way:
Ledesma: Oh, you're Michelle, Raquel's mom, nice meeting you.
Carreras: Excuse me, you're the reason my daughter is dead.
Carreras would like to extend the conversation with one more question:
• • •
Every parent of every teenager fears becoming Michelle Carreras or Lesa Ledesma.
The mom who would eventually be charged with manslaughter began training her son like many other parents, carefully taking her son to parking lots where he could practice driving. Only after two solid weeks in the parking lots did she let him start driving her and her daughter on city streets, her attorney says.
On the night of the accident, Ledesma, then 42, a single mother, was at home in her north St. Petersburg apartment. So was Shawn, with some of his classmates from Northeast. And so was her 12-year-old daughter, with some of her friends.
The boys traded phone calls and texts with some cheerleaders from Northeast who wanted to come hang out. But the girls had no ride.
So Shawn asked his mother: Can I have the car keys?
This was Lesa Ledesma's choice, one that has haunted two families.
Shawn had gotten his learner's permit 43 days earlier. Under the law, he was not allowed to drive without an adult or at night.
His mom thought it over but didn't answer. If she drove the boys herself, it would mean leaving the girls alone.
Shawn asked a second time, maybe a third, according to court records. Eventually, she let him take the keys to her 2006 Saturn Ion off the dresser.
And she told him: Go straight there and come right back.
• • •
Shawn, a football player and a good student, let his two friends climb into the Ion, then he drove 3.8 miles to McDonald's on 34th Street. A friend named Aaron Elliott drove separately in his truck.
Shawn drove on the trip back with one boy in the front passenger seat and three girls and one boy in back, one girl sitting in another's lap. Nobody wore seat belts.
Shawn and Aaron turned east on 62nd Avenue N, with Aaron's truck getting ahead of Shawn's Saturn.
So Shawn drove faster, "racing up on me," Aaron later said in a deposition. He said Shawn was keeping one hand on the wheel, smiling, and kind of "dancing around" in his car. "I glimpsed up over at him and I looked back at the road, and then he hit me."
One girl yelled "Stop!" and closed her eyes.
Shawn's Saturn bumped the truck at a point where the road curves slightly. The truck veered left and stopped in the turn lane.
Shawn veered right — over the curb, through a fence and into an oak tree on the grounds of Suncoast Cathedral. He was 2.3 miles from home.
Raquel flew through the Saturn's sunroof. Another girl hit her head and blacked out. Shawn wandered over to Aaron's truck.
According to court records, Shawn said to Aaron: "I'm f-----."
And: "Go get my mom."
• • •
Michelle Carreras was taking the opportunity that night to scrub her house clean, staying up late because both her girls planned to spend the night with friends.
But at 2 a.m., her doorbell rang, and a grandmother of one of the other kids said Raquel was in an accident. Right then, she knew her daughter was dead.
Hundreds came to her funeral at Suncoast Cathedral, the church whose grounds include the oak where Raquel died. Her friends wore T-shirts that said "R.I.P. Raquel."
Raquel's sister Ruth, then 13, said at the funeral that the two had recently stopped fighting because "God wanted us to get to know each other before she died."
Friends kept coming by to comfort Michelle Carreras and Ruth. It didn't seem real to her at first. It doesn't seem real to her now.
"One time I just pretended Raquel was on vacation. 'Cause I had to stop thinking so much. I had to just pretend today that everything's all right."
Other times, she says, "I still get mad at her. … Why? She knew better" than to get in the car.
Carreras especially treasured some text messages Raquel had sent her the day before she died that said I love you Mommy. But somehow, they got deleted.
"I would give trillions and millions of dollars just for that," she said.
• • •
After the crash, the passengers of the two cars went back to Northeast High. Other than Raquel, none was seriously hurt.
Shawn also went back to the school, where everyone knew about the crash. He was quiet, withdrawn and obviously affected, said Nate Travis, offensive line coach for the football team and a teacher who has had Shawn in a Holocaust studies class.
Shawn made "a huge mistake," Travis said. But he's impressed that Shawn gets straight A's, never misses practice or weight room sessions, and "speaks to a counselor almost on a daily basis. He's shown complete remorse for it."
Also, Travis said, "he's there for his mom every step of the way. When she goes on her court dates, he's there in the courtroom."
He will be the Vikings starting center this fall — unless he goes to prison.
• • •
Shawn recently pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, and there was no plea bargain. The judge could sentence him up to the maximum: 15 years in adult prison.
Shawn declined through his attorney to comment about his case. Lesa Ledesma told a reporter she did not wish to say anything. Her trial is set for Sept. 1.
Michelle Carreras has not decided what punishment she wants for Shawn. She is most angry at his mother but can't decide what punishment she wants for her either.
She does want this: an apology.
She understands attorneys tell their clients not to speak when they're facing criminal charges.
Still she said, "There's ways as human beings that you say you're sorry."
Times researchers Will Gorham and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.