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A mom's fight for justice

By The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

This article was published January 23, 2007 at 6:08 p.m.

Second of two parts. Juanacha Lawrence couldn't afford a monument for her daughter's grave.

So she bought a chunk of concrete, glued on a small stone angel and handpainted an epitaph for Emily: "Never alone."

She visited often, making the same promise each time at the foot of that homemade marker. "I won't let them get away with it."

On rainy days, Juanacha didn't visit. She couldn't stand to watch water seep into the ground where 18-year-old Emily lay.

Especially on days like that, she imagined the street race, the smell of tires burning against the pavement justbefore two cars rocketed down Rebsamen Park Road. She imagined the outof-control black Mustang pinging off one tree, then skidding rear-end first toward a giant oak.

She could see Emily's body snap forward, could feel her daughter's fear and pain, even though the doctors had told her Emily was likely brain-dead from the moment of impact. Still, Juanacha wondered - in those last few seconds of consciousness, did Emily want her mother?

The question tormented her, as did many others.

No one, it seemed, could provide the answers that might yield some comfort. Out of the hundreds who had been at Murray Park that night, only one per-son had cooperated with police. No one else was talking. No one wanted to risk trouble. No one wanted to snitch.

No one, Juanacha felt, seemed to care at all about her daughter.

Three months after the wreck, on June 22, a Thursday, Juanacha (pronounced WAN-uh-ka) left for Mississippi to stand in for Emily at the wedding of Emily's cousin.

Emily was supposed to have been maid of honor for 21-yearold Summer Lawrence. Now, however, Juanacha would don a pink chiffon dress, which she had purchased at Emily's favorite clothing store.

On Friday night, June 23, Juanacha attended Summer's rehearsal dinner, grieving for what should have been as she mingled with the rest of the wedding party.

Back in Little Rock, on the same evening, the street racers were gathering, just as they always did - just as they did the night of Emily's crash - first at Luby's and then at the Otter Creek industrial area.

It was just another night at the races.

Shortly after they started running cars at Otter Creek, however, police showed up, spurring a frantic mass exodus.

As they fled, the racers called one another and made plans to meet near Fourche Dam Pike.

Out there, on two-lane Sloane Drive, motorcycle racers sat astride their sleek machines, slapping at mosquitos, waiting for the cars and all the accompanying spectators to arrive.

Waiting for the party to start.

The motorcyclists usually skip the gathering at Luby's, bypass the Otter Creek races and head directly to Sloane Drive. Much easier than running all over town from cops. Besides, the cars always end up on Sloane - also known as "the bottoms" - by the night's end.

Sloane Drive is an ideal makeshift track. Street racers need a quarter-mile to run and another quarter-mile to stop. They need to be able to see for long distances. Most important, they need a place that allows for a quick getaway.

Yeah, street racing's illegal. Still, the motorcyclists said, they can't ignore their cravings for speed.

"It's the adrenaline rush," one explained. "That feeling that no one can touch you."

"Out here, it's safe. There's no traffic," another added. "We can see all the way down the road."

They swapped stories of close calls, laughing, radiating a confidence that amplified to arrogance.

"Yeah, we're dangerous."

"But we know when to be dangerous."

A cell phone rang. "The cars are on the way," a motorcycle racer said.

Moments later, a low rumble announced their arrival.

They pulled in, one after another - Hondas, Mazdas, Toyotas, Mustangs - the growling of engines a low and constant roar.

Dozens and dozens of cars soon were parked along Sloane Drive. The spectators numbered around 200 - typical for the Friday races.

Quickly, efficiently, the cars paired up, waiting in line, vibrating, purring.

The starter's arms dropped, and the first two cars shot forward.

Larry West's wreck was a freak accident, said some in the Fridaynight crowd who admitted to a Democrat-Gazette reporter that they had been in Murray Park that night in March.

It wasn't the racers' fault, they said.

"The cops ran us out of the other places. We didn't have anywhere else to go."

"They should give us a f***ing racetrack."

"That girl, she should have worn a seat belt."

"We're really like a big family," a pregnant woman chimed in. "We take care of each other."

She added: "There's no drinking. No drugs."

As she spoke, however, two men standing just a few feet away passed a vodka bottle down the line. Another nearby group pulled beers from the case at their feet.

Noticing them, the pregnant woman amended her assertions. The serious drivers, she said, don't drink. They need finely tuned faculties to win.

But many people in the crowd weren't there to race. They emptied their bottles, turned their backs on the line of waiting cars and bickered - over speeds reached, broken love affairs and where to go next if the cops showed up.

Drag racing in Arkansas 2006 isn't the drag racing of years past.

Imports - combined with new engine-boosting technology - make fast cars readily available to young, unseasoned drivers.

Teenagers use their earnings from part-time jobs to beef up their cars. They can buy a little Honda Civic and spend at least $5,000 to enhance performance and appearance, said Steve Haynes, the owner of Steve's Speed Shop.

"These days," he said, "kids have more money than they do experience."

Most of the racers, however, are young 20-somethings, who still cling to a teenage belief in their invincibility.

Factor in the spectators - the girls and the wannabes - and street racing becomes a mobile party, criss-crossing Little Rock in search of makeshift tracks.

People living near Fourche Dam Pike know when the races are about to start. They hear the engines and burnouts, the shouts and music.

"We get calls on them all the time," said Lt. Casey Clark of the Little Rock Police Department."We've always had this problem, but it's really gotten bigger in the last few years."

Police have increased patrols in areas known to attract racers, but even when they catch drivers in the act, officers must make split-second decisions - give chase and possibly endanger other innocent motorists or let the offenders flee?

Given the confusion and speed of a mass departure, it's a tough call. Sometimes, thanks to the racers' strategically placed lookouts and cell phones, the crowds evaporate before lawmen arrive.

The same is true for sheriffs' deputies in nearby Jefferson County.

"We get there, and they're gone," Sheriff Boe Fontaine said. "It's kind of embarrassing."

Once Fontaine arranged for the Arkansas State Police to take up a helicopter for a Sunday sting. The racers didn't show, leading him to wonder about leaks in his own department.

"Somebody," he mused, "knows who [the racers] are. But people are afraid to complain. They tell me, 'I live out here, and if I rat on them, they might do something.'"

In some states, infuriated state legislators and city councils have toughened their laws.

Several cities in Washington have implemented a law that imposes stiff fines - up to $5,000 - for racers and spectators caught in the city's "no-racing" zones.

In California, some city councils have banned nighttime traffic on streets known to attract racers. Only drivers with permits are allowed through. Violators are fined $500.

And in Arizona, anyone caught racing twice within 24 months can be convicted of a felony instead of a misdemeanor. The state also revokes a secondtime violator's driver's license for a year.

In Arkansas, racing on a highway is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum oneyear county jail sentence and $1,000 fine.

There's no penalty for spectators.

Arkansas lawmakers last addressed the issue in 2005, when they banned the use of nitrous oxide on public roads. Violators can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

Injected with an adapter on the engine, nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas, adds more oxygen to the combustion process, giving the engine an immediate, powerful kick.

Dubbed Eric's Law, the legislation was prompted by a fatal street-racing crash in September 2004 on Highway 88, just south of Altheimer. In that accident, Eric Turner died on his way back to the starting line when his motorcycle collided with two racing cars.

Juanacha lay sleepless in the hours before her niece's wedding. She prayed she wouldn't cry. She didn't want to ruin Summer's ceremony.

It was about 1 a.m., and in Little Rock, the races were well under way.

Out by Fourche Dam Pike, engines revved and spectators partied. Several watched closely for cops. They'd been racing for nearly an hour.

More spectators arrived, blocking the road as they parked.

"Get your car out of the way!" the starter yelled. "Dang, I'm trying to get a race going on."

But he was forced to wait again while a couple of people crossed the street.

"Get out of the road !"

The crowd grew frustrated. "Go! Let those cars go!"

And then: "Who wants to fight me?" a burly man with a shaved head hollered as his friends tried, unsuccessfully, to hold him back from another angry spectator. Already, two girls had tussled before their friends pulled them apart.

Minutes later, another fight broke out, this time because someone sprayed a racer's car with gravel.

Suddenly those watching the third fight ran, ducking behind the parked cars.

"Get back!" someone yelled. "That guy has a gun! I'm not kidding, man!"

In the street, a young man paced. He appeared to be holding something and each time he veered toward a car, the people hiding behind it ran.

"Watch out!"

And then, a few minutes later: "Cops! Cops!"

Cars honked. Doors slammed. Tires squealed.

And then a lone police officer stepped out of his car, carrying a shotgun.

Almost leisurely, the motorcycle racers mounted their bikes and followed the fleeing racers. The road, teeming with cars and people just minutes earlier, fell suddenly quiet.

Party over.

A MOTHER'S QUEST

In Mississippi the next day, Juanacha stood in for Emily at Summer's wedding. She posed for pictures, wearing the pink dress and a forced smile. In nearly every photo, her eyes glistened with tears.

She returned to her life and resumed her nights at the computer, looking for street-racing sites, watching amateur videos and reading the racers' message boards.

She wanted to know what kind of people these were, whether any of them felt bad about the accidents and deaths they caused. What she saw disturbed her. So much bragging, so little guilt.

She argued with the friends and co-workers who told her to let it go, that Emily's death was God's will.

"God doesn't kill people," Juanacha said. "He gave us brainsand discernment. This was just pure stupidity."

She waited, impatiently, angrily, for Emily's boyfriend, Larry West - the 23-year-old driver of the wrecked Mustang - to talk to police about his accident.

But Larry refused.

So did the man Larry was racing.

So did Emily's best friend, 17-year-old Nikki Jones.

Out of all the people who were at Murray Park that night, only one had come forward, a college student named Daniel Hooper. But his brief statement - a description of the wreck - wasn't enough to prosecute Larry.

So on July 4, Juanacha called Larry. "Emily deserved better than this," she told him.

Juanacha reminded Larry that Emily had sent a text message to Nikki right before the wreck: "Im ridin w Larry in a race! *XoXo*"

That was proof Larry had been racing when he crashed, Juanacha warned him, evidence that remained stored on Emily's cell phone. He might as well talk.

At 10 p.m. the next day, July 5 - four months after the wreck - Larry went in to give his statement.

For several minutes, he evaded officers' questions about how the wreck happened. Finally, Larry admitted he was racing against a yellow car driven by a guy named David. A red vehicle had turned onto Rebsamen in front of him, Larry said, and he lost control trying to dodge it.

That's all he recalled, Larry said.

According to hospital records, Larry suffered no injuries that would have impaired his memory. He told the medical staff he had never lost consciousness.

Doctors sutured a gash on his chin. Then they prescribed pain medication for three cracked vertabrae and discharged him even as Emily lay dying across town.

In a memo to prosecutors, police questioned the existence of the red vehicle on which Larry blamed the wreck. There's no road or driveway that would have allowed someone to pull out in front of Larry, investigators noted. It looked to them like he drove too fast and lost control.

Juanacha wanted police to question the driver of the yellow car. She felt he, too, should have to admit to racing. The driver, people had said, was Larry's best friend, David.

Investigators told her they had a cell phone number for David, but no last name. The young man wouldn't answer their calls or return messages. These racers, police said, were a tight-lipped group. Even the girls and other spectators refused to talk.

On Sept. 29, the court issued an arrest warrant, charging Larry with negligent homicide, a Class A misdemeanor.

Still, prosecutors wanted more. They needed to corroborate Larry's statement. They needed another witness who saw the wreck.

A witness who wouldn't be afraid to testify.

At first, Juanacha was excited about the arrest warrant. But then she thought - a misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor negligent homicide conviction carries a possible one-year jail sentence and a maximum fine of $1,000.

"That's it?" Juanacha asked.

In order to pursue a felonycase against Larry, prosecutors explained, the state would have to prove he was either drunk or stoned at the time of the wreck. His tests had come back clean.

Dumbfounded, Juanacha wrote letters to state lawmakers:

"Doesn't that make it worse?" she asked. "He was sober and knew what he was doing and still did it! The laws on this underground epidemic need to be changed, don't you think? Getting behind the wheel of car is a privilege."

On a sunny October afternoon, just days after the warrant was issued, a shiny, bright-yellow Mazda Protege - decorated with racing decals - sat in front of a downtown-area paint store.

Inside, a young, lanky man named David Mason waited at the counter.

Yeah, he was there that night, he admitted to a reporter who tracked him down. It was awful.

At first, he said, he thought both Larry and Emily were dead. And yeah, David confirmed, he and Larry have been best friends for several years.

David would neither confirm nor deny that he was racing with Larry when the Mustang crashed.

"It was an unfortunate situation," is all he would say.

Did he race Larry that night?

"No comment."

Was Larry racing when he crashed?

"He was driving fast."

Should Larry be charged in connection with his girlfriend's death?

"No. Because she did mean something to him. I think he's suffered enough."

Toward the end of the interview, however, David declared: "I think people need to know the severity of their actions. That was a young girl's life."

Racers, David said, should never allow passengers in the car.

"If you want to risk your own life and your car ... fine, but that's somebody's life."

THE RELUCTANT WITNESS

In late October, while Juanacha raged, an 18-year-old girl named Amanda Smith woke up in her home near Tulsa, strangely happy after dreaming about her friend Emily.

For so long, Amanda's dreams of Emily had been awful - Emily screaming, her arms outstretched. At one point, Amanda took sleeping pills, hoping to fall into a sleep so deep that Emily couldn't find her.

But this dream had been different. Emily had come back from the dead - laughing and joking. Amanda kept hugging her, kept asking, "Are you really here?"

Amanda had met Emily in late 2005 through a mutual friend.

Emily was the only 18-yearold girl Amanda knew who didn't have her own car and wasn't upset over it. Emily's mom drove her to school. No big deal.

Though Amanda went to high school in Morrilton, she and Emily talked often on the phone.

The day of the accident, she had called Emily to see if her friend could think of a good reason for missing work, and Emily had laughingly suggested a stomach virus.

At 1:31 a.m. Sunday, a beep from Amanda's cell phone woke her up. The message was from Emily: "racing cars w larry now *xoxo*"

The day after the dream, Amanda called Juanacha. She hadn't talked to her since she moved away.

Juanacha cried. No one, she told Amanda, would come forward.

Amanda couldn't believe it. Emily had always helped her friends, and now no one would stand up for her?

"I know someone who saw it," she told Juanacha. "Let me call him."

Amanda hung up, made a few calls and found a number for Dustin McManis.

She begged him, pleaded with him, tried to guilt him into making a statement.

He refused.

Weeping, she called Juanacha back.

"Give me his number," Juanacha said. "I'll call him."

She dialed and a young man answered. "I'm Emily's mother," she said, "and I understand you were down there."

"Yes m'am." he replied.

"You know, I need you to help me because my daughter doesn't have a voice," Juanacha said. By now, she was crying again.

"No one will speak up for her. I realize you didn't know her that well, but I'm just asking you to do the right thing and help me."

Finally, Dustin consented.

Juanacha called prosecutors to tell them she had found their witness and she would bring him in herself.

A few days later, Juanacha met Dustin in a downtown public parking lot and took him to the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office.

Juanacha called Amanda. He did it, she told her. He came through.

That dream, Amanda thought. Emily had come to her for a reason, to prompt Amanda to make that phone call, setting into motion a chain of events that produced the missing piece in the prosecution's case - a witness to speak for Emily.

THE GUILTY PLEA

Three weeks later, on Nov. 27, Larry pleaded guilty to negligent homicide.

And then Juanacha wavered. Did she want to see Larry go to jail?

At one point, she told prosecutors Larry should be forced to speak in schools around the state, telling his story and warning teenagers about the dangers of street racing.

Then she learned from a lawenforcement officer that Larry was driving a new black Mustang. A few weeks before Christmas, she saw him at a mall. He looked happy, carefree.

"He doesn't feel any guilt at all," she fumed a week before his scheduled sentencing. "He should have to do time. Clearly he hasn't learned anything."

On Dec. 19, a rainy Tuesday morning, Larry, now 24, walked into the Little Rock District Court with his attorney and parents.

Juanacha arrived with her son, Chandler, longtime boyfriend Brian Lloyd and several family members, including Summer's mother.

Summer, about to have a baby, couldn't attend. But Amanda drove from Oklahoma.

Juanacha wore pink, Emily's favorite color, along with three of her daughter's rings and a tiny heart-shaped locket that holds Emily's picture.

At 11:10 a.m., clutching a 13-page handwritten statement in trembling hands, Juanacha took the witness stand to tell District Judge Lee Munson about Emily's death.

For nearly 20 minutes, Juanacha read aloud. She had waited so long to speak for Emily, to face Larry in court. Now he sat just a few feet away, expressionless, his face propped up by both hands.

"I ask myself, over and over, why did this happen to her?" Juanacha sobbed. "Emily's life was worth more than a quarter-mile run, more than a cheap wager and more than a mere misdemeanor."

She looked out into the courtroom, searching for Larry's parents.

"I told Larry I didn't want him to go to jail. Emily would not want that. I wouldn't want jail for any mother."

She turned to look at Larry.

"And I wouldn't want that for you."

Holding his gaze, Juanacha continued: "I don't hate you. I feel sorry for you because I wouldn't want this on me. And I pray for you. I pray for your family."

Still crying, Juanacha stepped down from the witness stand and patted Larry's shoulder as she walked by.

Larry wiped his eyes, saidnothing.

His attorney, Jerry Sallings, asked the judge to be lenient, to order Larry to speak at schools. "Mr. West is very sorry for what happened," Sallings said.

Judge Munson sighed and leaned back. This, he said, is the kind of case he most dislikes. After all, Mr. West isn't a criminal, as such.

"But what," the judge asked sternly, leaning forward to address Larry, "is a 24-year-old man doing running around with a bunch of high school students, drag racing in the middle of the night?"

And then, he added, there's the matter of Larry's new car.

Another black Mustang?

"Why didn't he go out and buy a Volkswagen?" Munson asked.

The judge shook his head in apparent disbelief.

"I'm giving you the maximum: One year in jail and $1,000 in fines."

Munson swept an arm toward a bailiff.

"Take him into custody."

Larry looked stunned.

So did Juanacha. The reason, she said later, wasn't only the sentence.

It was because even on the day it most mattered, Larry still wouldn't say he was sorry.

EPILOGUE

Just a few days before she drove from Oklahoma for the sentencing, Amanda, who helped Juanacha find renewed strength and the crucial witness, noticed the leaves rustling along the pavement and felt certain she had kept the pledge she penned in Emily's senior book - the day her friend was buried in a pinkcasket:

Watch over us, Amanda had written, and I'll listen in the breezes for your voice.

For Juanacha the beginning of a new year will slip by without Emily's laughter to mark it.

On bad days - as long as the rain stays away - Juanacha will rise early to visit her daughter's grave. Now, finally, a beautifully engraved granite marker stands there. She bought it with money she had saved and with donations from friends, family and area business owners.

Pink flower arrangements cover the polished bench, which Juanacha uses as an altar. When she kneels, she looks down at the small shiny cameo on the stone - her daughter's senior portrait. She reads and re-reads the carved inscription, a proverb from the Bible that she searched long and hard to find:

"Strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come. Many daughters have done well but you excel them all."

For nine months she carried this baby girl safe and snug in her womb. For nine months, she struggled to make someone accountable for her death.

Juanacha promised Emily a real monument. She also swore to make someone admit to putting her in the ground.

She kept one vow. But the other? Juanacha's not so sure. Does a guilty plea count if no one apologizes?

ABOUT THE SERIES

This series of stories is based on repeated interviews since June 6 with Emily Lawrence's family and friends and sources close to the investigation, as well as police and court documents.

Descriptions of the wreck and its aftermath were recreated using the recollections of Juanacha Lawrence, Brian Lloyd, Nikki Jones, David Mason, Daniel Hooper, Lt. Casey Clark, and police and court documents.

Descriptions of what transpired at the hospital are based on the recollections of Juanacha Lawrence, Nikki Jones, David Mason, Annie Moak, Summer Lawrence, Brian Lloyd, Shane Goldsby and hospital records provided by Emily's mother.

All direct quotes in thenarration are based on the memories of those interviewed.

Reporter Cathy Frye talked to numerous other friends and family who do not appear in the series but served as corroborative sources.

Frye also talked frequently with several sources who had access to information about the accident and insisted on anonymity because of their involvement in the investigation.

Frye and photographer Stephen Thornton went to the street race described in Part Two.

Quotes from that portion of the story were obtained directly from the racers and spectators, all of whom knew they were talking to a Democrat-Gazette reporter.

Larry West didn't respond to numerous requests for interviews.

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