ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Kenneth Irby spotted Damari Milton in May among the crowd at Bayside High School's graduation, 17 years old, tattooed, with shiny grills in his teeth.
Milton was not part of the ceremony. He was supporting friends, some of whom Irby knew. They had met about seven years earlier in the Write Field mentorship program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Irby was a mentor, Milton a bright middle school student in the inaugural class.
The reverend pulled Milton aside, as he had four or five other times since the boy had slid into crime. When are you going to graduate, Irby asked.
The teen assured him he was working on it.
Irby asked if he could help or maybe give Milton a spot in another youth program. Milton followed with the same line he had given every time his old mentor found him riding bicycles through Childs Park.
"Rev, I appreciate the offer, and I'm coming back," Irby recalled the boy saying. "He would always say that. But he never acted."
Milton, 18, died Monday morning when he lost control of a stolen car, slamming it into a tree. A 16-year-old, Dequante Lightsey, died beside him. Fire engulfed the bent metal, burning the boys' bodies so completely that police initially struggled to identify them.
READ 'HOT WHEELS,' The complete Times special report on juvenile auto theft in Pinellas County
Investigators say Milton was speeding in the 2016 Mazda Miata, westbound on 38th Avenue N at 49th Street, though it remains unclear how fast. A full police report was not available Tuesday. Officers say the vehicle was stolen only hours before the crash, and police were not in pursuit when Milton struck the tree. Authorities received a call about the collision at 3:23 a.m.
The Miata veered off the road, gouging the grass outside a small office building for doctors and lawyers. It hit a water line and burst into flames.
Lightsey left home Sunday night, telling his mother he was going to visit a friend. Latasha Teaheartt, 38, told her son not to be back too late. But it was Thanksgiving break, no classes Monday, so she knew he might stay out longer.
"He was going to school, and he was a football player," she said. "He was a good child. He's not what they say he is."
Before dawn, Teaheartt said, Lightsey's girlfriend called one of his brothers. She told him that Lightsey had been in a car wreck, and the car was on fire. Teaheartt said she made it to the scene about 4 a.m., and the police had already blocked off the wreckage.
"I was just hoping it wasn't him, but they couldn't identify the body," she said. Lightsey had one tattoo, his mother's name in big letters on the inside of his forearm.
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Friends gathered at his house later, telling Teaheartt how excited her son had been for Thanksgiving, keen to load up on ham and macaroni and cheese.
A Pinellas County school district spokeswoman said he attended Disston Academy, described as a school that helps students get "back on track" for graduation.
Both Lightsey and Milton had faced charges before, including grand theft auto, burglary and violating probation, according to state criminal records. But Teaheartt thought her son had moved past joyriding after an arrest this summer.
"He told me he wouldn't do it again," she said. "I thought he had learned his lesson from the first time."
Car theft is an epidemic in Pinellas County, involving a wide circle of teens who take vehicles — typically unlocked with the keys inside — and speed recklessly across cities. The Tampa Bay Times chronicled the crisis in a series last year called "Hot Wheels," explaining how a flawed juvenile justice system combined with social pressures, boredom and opportunity to fuel the crime wave. Kids crashed stolen cars, on average, once every four days.
The wreck Monday brought the death toll connected to auto theft to 11 teens in roughly three years.
Lightsey's mother said he fell under the corrosive influence of bad friends. "They would call him and he would go with them," she said.
Irby, the reverend who works for the police department as a community liaison, said Milton succumbed to similar negative forces.
"The reality is that when these teenagers make these choices ... there's no restart," Irby said.
The memory he's left with is of Milton's broad smile, which he said reflected a childhood eagerness to succeed.
"Over the years I watched that desire seem to dissipate," Irby said. "And he began to get involved with the wrong crowd."
In August, Milton earned a certificate of completion from the alternative MYcroSchool Charter High School in St. Petersburg. Such certificates, according to the Florida Department of Education, are typically given to students who finish their credits but have not passed a state-approved test for graduation.
Irby found a picture Monday of most of the boys in the first Write Field class, posing with the Tampa Bay Rays mascot, Raymond. He said he will never forget the way Milton lit up when Raymond's fuzzy nose touched his head.
The reverend could look at the picture and recall each boy by name, ticking off where they are now and how they graduated from high school. The only one whose status he had been unsure of, he said, was Milton.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.