They were mother and daughter, both trying to get ahead. To be happy. Both worked hard and found love. But Monday night, their dreams for a better life were cut short in a U-turn on U.S. 19.
Maureen and Mary Cullen moved to Port Richey from Fall River, Mass., a few years ago. They stayed in a rented room in a small house at the end of Vermont Avenue. Sandy Thompson, who lives across the street, said they became close friends of hers.
She remembers Mary, 18, the polite, soft-spoken girl with almond-shaped eyes and dark, shoulder-length hair. Last year, Mary finished her online courses to graduate from high school, and she was rarely seen without her boyfriend, Kyle Ogden. "A good kid," Thompson said.
And Maureen, 46, the hard-working single mother who often gave more than she got and wanted the best for her and her daughter.
They moved out of the house a year ago but kept in touch, Thompson said. Mary went to live with her boyfriend and his family. Maureen found work as a live-in caretaker for the elderly.
Between jobs, Maureen stayed at Thompson's house, where she was more of a help than a guest. Thompson often came home to find Maureen mowing the lawn, cleaning out the refrigerator or helping Thompson's 93-year-old aunt take a shower.
"I had a stroke," said Dorothy Mitchell, Thompson's 83-year-old mother, "and she waited on me hand and foot."
"She just wanted to be loved," Thompson said. "She wanted a house or apartment — some place her and Mary could be together."
With Facebook and her phone, she kept a running dialogue with family members and friends. Mandy Puckett, Maureen's niece who lives in Rhode Island, got a call from her aunt every evening. They talked about work, life, anything. In a Facebook conversation from Feb. 21, they exchanged four I-love-yous.
"We were just a close-knit family," she said. "Even though we didn't see each other all the time."
Maureen often texted Mary. She called her "baby girl." She would do anything for her daughter, Thompson said.
One of Maureen's clients refused to let her go to Mary's graduation. She quit. That night, without a paycheck, she took her daughter to Outback Steak House.
After high school, Mary got a job at Charley's Grilled Subs in Port Richey and moved to an apartment with boyfriend Kyle Ogden, Thompson said.
They smile out of Facebook photos, cheeks pressed together. Ogden holds the camera faced toward them in his outstretched arm.
Eventually, Maureen found her own love, too. His name was Jose. Friends and other family didn't know his last name. He helped her buy a car. After seven months together, she wrote on Facebook that he was going to be her husband.
When she visited Thompson last month, it was all she could talk about: Her car and her boyfriend. Mary talked about Charley's and handed out coupons. That was the last time Thompson saw them.
On Monday, around 7 p.m., Mary was driving a 2001 Chevrolet Blazer with her mother in the passenger seat. She pulled into a median turn lane to make a U-turn into the northbound lane of U.S. 19., just north of Holiday Hills Boulevard.
As they turned, a 2002 GMC Sierra pickup, driven by Michael Andrew Marlin, 51, of Hudson, plowed into the right side of the SUV, troopers said. The Blazer rolled onto its roof. Everyone involved was wearing a seat belt. Mary and Maureen died at the scene.
Tears glinted from the corners of Mitchell's eyes Tuesday when she heard the news. She buried her face in a wrinkled palm and muttered, "I can't believe it."
That afternoon, a post appeared on Ogden's Facebook:
"I just...baby, you're my world...You ...are everything to me. I really wish you could just...tell me what to do babe...I'm at such a loss and all I want is to be with you."
Alex Orlando can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)869-6247.