TAMPA — A 12-year-old girl riding a bicycle died Friday night after she was struck by a van that dragged her more than a block and then drove away, police said.
Natalia Leonard was hit just before 10 p.m. near N 15th Street and E Osborne Avenue, a largely residential and small business area east of Interstate 275 and south of Hillsborough Avenue. As Natalia rode onto N 15th Street, the driver, Geraldo Rivera, 48, turned right onto E Osborne Avenue. Natalia was pinned underneath Rivera's 1999 white Ford Van and dragged about 200 feet, police say.
According to a Tampa police spokeswoman, Rivera likely was aware of the crash because Natalia was dragged from one intersection to the next.
After the crash, Rivera returned to his house at 909 E 26th Ave., where officers found him. He was charged with leaving the scene of an accident with death.
Natalia was taken with severe injuries to Tampa General Hospital, where she later died.
No one answered the door Saturday afternoon at the apartment on N Boulevard where Natalia lived. But neighbor Stacie Kersey, 28, said her young son often played outside with Natalia and other neighborhood children. They rode their bikes together, she said.
"She was very sweet, very respectful," Kersey said.
Kersey said Natalia's mother was strict, and always kept a close eye on the children, she said.
By Saturday afternoon, a small memorial for Natalia had begun to form at the intersection where she was hit, right outside the fence surrounding Light of the World Deliverance Church on N 15th Street. People had left a cross, stuffed animals, balloons and a photo of her nestled in pink, purple and blue flowers.
Michelle Morales was Natalia's fifth-grade teacher at Foster Elementary School two years ago. She learned what happened Saturday afternoon and created a page on GoFundMe.com to help Natalia's family with funeral costs.
A relative told her Natalia's twin brother saw her get hit, she said.
At Foster, Natalia was part of the school patrol, and often cared for the class guinea pig on weekends and over holiday breaks.
"She was such an amazing student. I have pictures from when the Bucs came to the school, she had a smile," Morales said. "She came to Saturday Academy, she still had a smile on her face. That amazing smile, you can't get it out of your mind."