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In fatal hit-and-run in Tampa, lives in opposite directions intersect

Jordan Valdez, left, Melissa Sjostrom.

Jordan Valdez, left, Melissa Sjostrom.

TAMPA — They had few opportunities to meet, the homeless woman and the cheerleader. But they were not far from each other's path.

Most days, they took the same road home, Hyde Park Avenue. One crossed the bridge to Davis Islands, to sleep in a six-bedroom home. The other slept behind a billboard, on the steps of a church.

On Sunday, Feb. 8, at 8:27 p.m., there was a crash on that avenue, just steps from that church and within sight of that bridge.

Melissa Sjostrom, 33, was hit by a vehicle as she crossed the street. As she lay dying, a driver kept going.

Hours later, police impounded a 2007 Nissan Murano outside that Davis Islands home. They learned that it was usually driven by 16-year-old Jordan Valdez.

A life of promise apparently had collided with a life in ruins.

• • •

Melissa Marie Sjostrom was 3 when she landed in the California foster care system. There had been allegations of abuse, says her aunt, Lisa Mott. Finally, at age 7, a family adopted her.

Relatives remember her in glimpses. A little girl enrolled in Baptist school who sometimes wore a soccer uniform. One who left high school early. A runaway. The 19-year-old mother of a baby boy, Dylan. The adult woman who chose to sleep on the streets of Florida despite offers of beds in the homes of relatives, who kept up with her growing son by phone.

Missy, as she was known, had red hair and freckles. She talked a lot, liked '80s rock and smoked Camels, said her homeless friend Leonard "Ozzy" Kurtz, 43.

The two were inseparable when not in jail. They spent hours at downtown parks, or in the public library, watching music videos on YouTube. She hoped at Christmas for an iPod that never came, Kurtz said.

They ate eggs, sausage and grits together at Hyde Park United Methodist, where churchgoers tried to help the homeless.

"She was a regular," said Vicki Walker, administer of outreach. "She considered this her church."

Sjostrom had health issues, mental and physical, relatives said. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, fibro­myalgia, AIDS and a form of multiple sclerosis, they said.

But friends blamed her homelessness on crack cocaine. Tampa police once jailed her after finding a glass pipe in her pocket. She pleaded guilty, records show.

Otherwise, her brushes with the law were minor. In January, a security guard accused her of stealing $190 worth of soap and beauty products from a Sweet Bay Supermarket on West Hills­borough Avenue.

"I believe God overlooked that," Kurtz said of her arrests.

If she stole, she also gave, sharing her $637 Social Security disability checks with other homeless people. She had always been like that, taking care of others even when it meant she couldn't take care of herself. When the money was gone, she would hold up a sign that said "Homeless. Please Help. God Bless."

The night she died, she was walking toward Davis Islands, to care for a man with steel rods in his legs. That morning, she had gone to church.

• • •

Four generations of Valdezes gathered in costume at a Tampa Convention Center ballroom in January 2003. Robert Valdez Sr., Jordan's grandfather, made a grand entrance.

His family didn't know he was about to be crowned king of the Krewe of Venus. "We thought he was going to be a duke," Jordan's father, Robert Valdez Jr., told a reporter that night.

Robert Jr. became the duke.

And Jordan, age 10? Princess.

The eldest of four siblings, she grew up with deep Tampa roots and an impressive pedigree. Her parents, in a statement released to the Times, tell of earning their lifestyle through years of work.

Jordan's mother, Kim, grew up in public housing, they say. Robert's first home was a trailer south of Gandy Boulevard.

The two met when Robert was 19 and Kim 20. Kim gave birth to Jordan, and the parents took turns getting an education while the other worked. Kim learned ultrasound technology.

Robert took over the family business, Manhattan Hairstyling Academy, which had roots dating back to 1928 when Jordan's great-grandfather, Evelio Valdez, charged a dime to cut workers' hair at Tampa boat docks.

By 2003, the academy's revenue topped $2.6 million, the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported.

The family's two-story Davis Islands home, which Robert says he designed, was assessed at more than $1.3 million.

Jordan's tuition at the Academy of the Holy Names, where she is a junior, is $14,270.

Her parents call her quiet and studious, an A student.

As a freshman, she joined one club called Hands Across Campus, committed to combatting bigotry and injustice, and another that made monthly visits to the Faith Children's Home.

Parents say she volunteers at her Sunday school and works part time at a local restaurant.

But her most consuming activity is cheerleading. She began with pee-wee football leagues at age 8, after four years of gymnastics. At 10, she entered competitive cheerleading.

Last season, she trained with a broken ankle to compete in the national championships with the Brandon All Stars. She practices three times a week.

Her coach, Peter Lezin, says the young ones look up to her.

• • •

Three months passed before a Times reporter learned about the crash from Sjostrom's homeless friends. By then, the case had been declared inactive.

Jordan's family had hired lawyers who said not to talk to detectives. Police had matched a paint chip from the scene to Jordan's car, and her SunPass placed her vehicle close to the scene. But no one saw her driving.

Police say she told her mother she was in an accident. And that she admitted driving, in a statutorily protected statement they can't use to bring criminal charges. Her attorney is adamant that she admitted to nothing.

• • •

After the crash — but before most people in the bay area had heard the names Jordan Valdez and Melissa Sjostrom — two things happened.

Jordan traveled to Orlando with her team to compete in the World Cheerleading Championships. She twirled high in the air. They won.

And an arrest warrant was issued for Sjostrom, who did not appear at a March 17 hearing to defend herself against the shoplifting charge.

No one had noticed that she had died.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Richard Danielson and Amy Scherzer contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

In fatal hit-and-run in Tampa, lives in opposite directions intersect 05/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 7:55am]
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