ST. PETERSBURG — Yalanda Speights followed her family through aisles of clothing, pointing out the pieces they picked off the racks.
That’s a dress, she would say, or that’s a shirt.
Yalanda usually sat to the side during shopping trips until it was time to check out and go eat. But this last Saturday in November, she was chatty.
A 46-year-old with a developmental disability, Yalanda spoke softly, if at all, expressing herself instead through art. She had a style her teacher called “intuitive,” painting rows of colorful circles on rectangular canvasses. The teacher said Yalanda once sold a painting to the Postcard Inn for $500.
Her mother, Mae Speights, took care of her, helping Yalanda with a disability for which they never found a name, exactly.
Mae, 67, was driving home after shopping with her daughter, shortly before 3 p.m. She waited for traffic to pass at 18th Avenue S and 25th Street, then turned, just blocks from their house.
Mae didn’t see the speeding car. Police later said it was stolen, with four young men inside.
“The car just came out of nowhere,” Mae said.
The stolen Hyundai Sonata smashed into the front passenger side of her PT Cruiser, near where Yalanda was sitting.
Mae doesn’t remember the impact but recalls paramedics, on both sides of the vehicle, saying something about her daughter, who wasn’t moving or talking.
She died a week later.
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Something went wrong when Yalanda was born and she wasn't breathing, her mother said.
A couple of years later, her family recalls, she fell from a second-story window.
Ever since she was little, the Speightses said, Yalanda faced challenges.
She loved to have her makeup done, said her brother, Marcus Speights, 48, and enjoyed going to church. Yalanda could remember anyone’s birthday — as long as she wanted to.
“She was like a database,” Marcus said. “You tell her, that’s it.”
Marcus remembers Yalanda would get loud whenever she had her hair done. One time, at church, she walked in shouting everyone’s names and birthdays.
“She knew she looked cute,” he said. “She just wanted to talk.”
Leonard Speights, 49, said his sister played basketball and participated in the Special Olympics. She had taken to puzzles more recently, her family said, especially those with big pieces she could put together easily. Last month, they left a completed puzzle on the table — featuring colorful Disney characters Yalanda loved.
Older brother Andre Smith, 51, remembers when he was maybe 6 years old, he read to his sister. She did not speak then, but he coaxed her to repeat what he said.
“She started saying words after me,” he said. “We read a whole book. I’d say the word, and she’d say the word.”
Their father had never heard Yalanda talk. Andre called him in.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry,” Andre said. “It was that big brother moment.”
He hopes something good will emerge from her death. The Speights family donated Yalanda's organs, according to her brothers and mother.
“I believe she’s going to live on,” Andre said. “There has to be a purpose behind the way she suffered her whole life.
“There was a purpose behind her being.”
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Every morning, Monday to Friday, Yalanda woke up and drank orange juice, saving some for the van she rode in to Creative Clay, for a St. Petersburg community art program serving adults with disabilities.
She began attending the class in 2002, said the chief executive officer, Kim Dohrman.
“From the time she walked in in the morning, she would make art and she would make art all day long,” Dohrman said. “She didn’t speak a lot, but what she expressed in her artwork is just beautiful.”
The artists in the program can sell their work, earning half the proceeds while the other half goes to support Creative Clay. Dohrman said she believed Yalanda was the second-highest seller; some buyers collected her work.
“Yalanda I think made art because she intrinsically had to make art,” Dohrman said. “She’s a real artist.”
Creative Clay has an event planned for Saturday, at 5 p.m., which will feature a special exhibit for Yalanda.
Her mother has some of her paintings at home, including one in an ornate golden frame, a pale canvas marked by red circles and arches.
Those, Mae said, were Yalanda’s version of hearts.
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Yalanda is at least the 12th person to die in little more than three years connected to Pinellas’ pervasive teen auto theft problem. She is the first in that period who was not a teenager.
The young men in the car that hit her were once boys who, police records show, were suspected of stealing cars. Carl McKinley, 20; Lazarius Faulk, 19; Clifford Washington, 19; and Jaquez Rouse, 18, face charges of grand theft auto in the latest crash.
McKinley was seen in the driver’s seat, according to an arrest report. A police spokeswoman said more charges are possible after Yalanda's death. Officers said the men saw a police cruiser and sped off, through a red light, according to a crash report provided by Mae. There was no chase, authorities said, but the driver sometimes veered into the wrong lane as he drove west on 18th Avenue S.
The Tampa Bay Times examined the car theft epidemic in a series last year called “Hot Wheels,” which drew on thousands of pages of crash and arrest reports, as well as interviews with police, judges, parents and young auto thieves, to show that kids stole cars because they were bored, not intimidated by the justice system and wanted to impress friends. They sped regularly, blew stop signs and red lights, and drove the wrong way — crashing once every four days while hurting themselves and others.
Eleven teens had died before Yalanda — including two, 18-year-old Damari Milton and 16-year-old Dequante Lightsey, in a fiery crash days before she was hit.
The Speights family, longtime St. Petersburg residents, were touched by the problem even before last week. Mae said her sister’s grandson, 16-year-old Dejarae Thomas, was one of three boys who died in August 2017 in a stolen SUV that crashed and burst into flames in Palm Harbor.
“They seem to not want to listen to anybody,” she said of the young people who steal cars. “When you get (behind) the wheel of a vehicle, you’re holding other people’s lives in your hands.”
The Speightses said they do not have anger for the men involved in the crash that killed Yalanda but would like to see the justice system hold them accountable.
“There’s no reversal for what happened in our case,” Mae said. “I’m thankful I’m still alive, but my daughter’s gone. ... Nothing they could ever do to the boys could bring her back.”
Mae suffered bruises in the crash and fractured ribs. She was sore Tuesday morning but beginning to mend.
"I can laugh now," she said, "without hurting."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.
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IF YOU GO
Creative Clay will hold an ArtWalk on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 1846 First Ave. S in St. Petersburg. CEO Kim Dohrman said the program will feature an exhibit for Yalanda Speights. The ArtWalk will run from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.creativeclay.org.
The funeral for Yalanda Sepights will be held Dec. 15, 11 a.m., at All Nations Church of God by Faith EPC in St. Petersburg.