LARGO — Rachel Wade stood before a crowded courtroom Friday afternoon biting her lip, blinking through tears, waiting to see if she would spend the rest of her life in prison.
In July, a jury convicted the 20-year-old Pinellas Park waitress of second-degree murder for stabbing her rival in a teenage love triangle.
Sarah Ludemann, 18, bled to death in the street on April 15, 2009, just two weeks before her senior prom.
At the sentencing hearing Friday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone could have considered Wade a youthful offender who had served her time — and let her go.
Instead, he gave her 27 years.
By the time she gets out, she will have been behind bars longer than she has been alive.
"The actions of Rachel Wade have caused a lot of pain," the judge said. "I hope, now, healing can occur."
Wade hung her head. In the 18 months she has been in jail, her blond highlights have grown out. Dark roots framed her pale face.
As bailiffs led her away, she didn't turn to see her parents and grandparents, all her Applebee's friends who had come to speak on her behalf.
She just slumped and shuffled her jail-issued flip-flops. The door banged shut behind her.
• • •
The girls grew up a few blocks apart, in a middle-class neighborhood in Pinellas Park. Both were pretty and blond, loved dogs, wanted to be vets. Both had two parents who adored them.
Wade, a flirty firecracker, starting dating in middle school. She was always breaking curfew, running away. At 18, she moved into her own apartment.
That same year, she reconnected with Josh Camacho, who had gone to elementary school with her. Camacho had dark eyes and curly black hair. He was 19, had worked at Chick-fil-A. Mostly, he was unemployed. For a few months, he moved in with Wade.
Ludemann was a good student and daddy's girl. She swam and did gymnastics, joined the Girl Scouts and a Catholic youth group, rode around in her dad's cab. She was in a veterinary magnet program at Tarpon Springs High when she met Camacho at the Chick-fil-A.
He winked at her, made her feel pretty. He told her he had a baby with another girl. She said she didn't care. He didn't tell her about Wade until later. By then, it was too late. Ludemann was in love.
"Josh was her first boyfriend, her first everything. Sarah loved him completely, even until the end," her best friend, Danielle Eyermann, told the judge. "He became her world. He broke her heart."
For months, Wade and Ludemann exchanged threats: in texts, on MySpace, long, hateful rants on voice mail. Why would he want you, Wade asked Ludemann, when he could have me?
Ludemann and her friends went to Applebee's, to taunt Wade while she was working. Wade left nasty messages promising, "I'm going to f------ murder you."
On a warm school night in April 2009, Wade drove to a friend's house near where she knew Camacho was hanging out with Ludemann. Then Ludemann found out where Wade was, and sped there in her mom's minivan.
Just after midnight, Ludemann got out of the van, fists balled, arms flailing. Wade walked toward her and jabbed a kitchen knife into her left shoulder. Then pulled it out and thrust it into her heart.
"This murder was no accident," said the judge. "It took a lot of force to plunge that knife through skin, through fat and bone, through someone's heart."
• • •
Both girls' parents wore black to the sentencing. They sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. Even when they addressed each other from the podium, said how sorry they were for each other's suffering, they wouldn't look at each other.
Maybe they couldn't.
Barry and Janet Wade huddled against each other near the back, his arm draped across her shaking shoulders. "Two beautiful young girls both made the same decision to get involved with someone who not only didn't love them, but used and demeaned them," he told the judge.
"These girls were so much alike," he said, sniffling. "Now they have both lost their dreams and their futures."
Charlie and Gay Ludemann sat in the front row. Ludemann's dad, a big, bearded taxi driver, kept rubbing tissues across his eyes. Her mom, a surgical nurse, barely blinked. "I'll never get to hold my daughter again, never get to see her get married, never hear her laugh at my dumb jokes," the dad told the judge. "The only way I can hear her voice is when I call her cell and she says, 'Hey, this is Sarah, leave me a message and I'll call you back.' "
Gay Ludemann propped two framed portraits on the podium and turned them to face the judge. "Remember, this is my daughter," she said, her voice quivering. "She lives in a cemetery. I go visit her."
Wade's friends told the judge how caring she is, how she loved to get her nails done and drive around with the windows open, how badly she feels for what happened.
Ludemann's friends talked about how loud and funny she was. How she stood up for them, how much they missed her.
With her eyes glued to a statement she had written, Wade took the stand and told Ludemann's parents. "I'm so sorry to be the one who caused you this great pain. … Some days I feel like it should have been me."
The judge didn't sentence her to life, he said, because she is so young and had no previous record. He gave her 27 years, he said, because she brought the knife that night, "almost hoping" Ludemann would show up. He didn't believe Wade was sorry.
• • •
At the end of the two-hour hearing, Wade's attorney said she hadn't decided whether to appeal.
Her dad helped her mom from the courtroom. They said they had nothing to say.
Ludemann's parents waited until most of the news crews had packed their cameras. "I'm not happy," her dad said, shaking his head. "But what can you do?"
Slowly, they filed out of the courthouse. But they weren't going home.
They had to drive by the cemetery to tell their daughter the news.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.