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Her closest friend dead, 9-year-old crash victim struggles

HUDSON — When the deputies came, Marissa Manuli hid her head under the covers, not wanting to speak. Tire treads had burned her legs. A tooth was missing.

Marissa, 9, and her friends from across the street — 5-year-old triplets Delaney, Isabella and Gabrielle Rossman, and their sister Victoria Morgan, 10 — had been playing in the yard Friday night when neighbor Betty-Jo Tagerson barreled down Kings Manor Avenue in her Jeep and into their yard. The Jeep struck the girls, killing Delaney and critically injuring Gabrielle.

After a helicopter took her friends away, Marissa sat outside in her yard. She didn't want to talk to anyone but her mother, Maria Manuli, and grandmother, Nancy Wyatt. The next day she sat and stared at the TV.

"The doctor said she was still in shock," Wyatt said. "She was numb to everything."

On Saturday, Marissa's great-uncle planted a cross in the yard where the girls had played. Marissa began to write letters to Delaney.

By Monday, the memorial had come into full bloom. Friends, family and passers-by left a green stuffed unicorn, a three-legged paper spider, teddy bears and flowers in a Gatorade-bottle vase. Boys from the neighborhood drew messages to Delaney on a piece of cardboard. Girls wrapped their neon Silly Bandz bracelets on the cross.

Marissa knelt at the front of the pile, organizing and reorganizing the trinkets into perfect position. She described each piece in detail.

"Someone brought a fighting monkey," she said. Marissa wore black boots, white shorts and a shirt that said, "Love Peace Cheer."

Of all the girls across the street, Delaney had been Marissa's closest friend, riding the bus with her every morning to Hudson Elementary School. Marissa, who lives with her mom, grandmother and sisters Sabrina, 10, and Mercedes, 12, played often with the girls in the yard.

Monday afternoon, she and all the neighbors waited for news. The triplets' parents, Danielle and Eric Malm, had yet to return from their vigil at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, where Gabrielle was being treated for internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, several broken ribs, two broken clavicles and breaks in her pelvis and right leg.

Marissa turned her energy to the memorial, visiting it constantly, bringing new items from inside with every trip.

"She keeps going out there and checking on it, sometimes every 15 minutes or so," Wyatt said. "Last night she went out there and sprinkled sand. Don't ask me why. She might be pretending it's fairy dust."

Marissa had dreaded going to school Monday. Her tooth was still missing, and she thought she looked funny. The dentist said she would need wires to re-root her adult teeth, and she could only eat soft foods, and she was afraid kids would make fun of her. She didn't talk much, trying to hide her teeth.

But no one made fun of her, she said. Some kids even gave her cards for the memorial. Grief counselors were on hand to talk to pupils.

Down the street from the memorial, at Tagerson's home, neighbors stopped to stare. They hadn't seen Tagerson since the crash.

"She's probably scared to come back," said Margery Duncan, a volunteer for the neighborhood's security patrol.

Duncan said she had complained to deputies for months about the way Tagerson, 39, drove through the Country Club Estates neighborhood, which connects to U.S. 19 near a new Wal-Mart. Now a little girl was dead, and she was so angry she couldn't sleep. "There's a lot of rage in this neighborhood. A lot of rage."

Meanwhile, the Florida Highway Patrol continued its investigation. Troopers are awaiting the results of toxicology tests, which could take several weeks, Sgt. Larry Kraus said.

Marissa's family said she hasn't shown much anger, though she's been very quiet. They hope to talk about it more today, during the family's regular hospice counseling session. Marissa and her sisters have visited hospice counseling since April, after Wyatt's husband, their grandfather, died of cancer.

On Monday, as her friends watched, Marissa spent a minute placing a stuffed puppy on a bouquet of fake flowers. When it fell over, she took another minute finding a new place.

Next to it was a note, "Sorry about the tragedy," signed by Tagerson and her ex-husband Jason Gordon. Marissa pulled it out. She knew who Tagerson was but wouldn't say her name. She pointed to it and said, with a pause, it was from "the person that killed . . . that lady."

She shuffled a few more animals around the pile, then stepped over the tire tracks and walked back inside.

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Her closest friend dead, 9-year-old crash victim struggles 11/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 8, 2010 11:35pm]

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