Subscribe Register Login
Saturday, December 16, 2017, 11:01 a.m.

ADVERTISEMENT

Top Picks - Arkansas Daily Deal

Taken by the streets

Part one of two

By Cathy Frye

This article was published January 23, 2007 at 5:50 p.m.

They gather to socialize, to strut, to roar across empty streets in powerful cars. But when something goes wrong, the party quickly ends, spectators flee, and the victims of street racing, like Emily Lawrence, are left dying.

The April phone call, punctuated by sobs, lasted from midnight until 4 a.m.

On one end - Juanacha Lawrence, 38, sat doubled-over, taking long drags from a cigarette, crying, waiting in vain for the sleeping pill to kick in, asking, "Why? Why my daughter?"

On the other, down in Mississippi - Annie Moak, a sweetly southern-twanged grandmother, huddled in a closet so she wouldn't wake her husband and promised to pray until someone paid for what had happened to 18-year-old Emily.

Annie didn't realize how long or how hard she would have to pray.

Most nights, Juanacha (pronounced WAN-uh-ka) sat up alone, downing Diet Cokes and scouring the Internet for victims like her daughter. She researched dozens of Web sites belonging to the people she considered responsible for these tragedies.

Friends told her to stop, but Juanacha couldn't.

"I'm looking for remorse," she told them. "I'm looking for the guilt they must feel when things like this happen. But I can't find it." MARCH 12: THE WRECK

Nikki Jones jumped when she heardthe crash.

Turning, she saw that a black Mustang had slammed backward into a huge oak.

Nikki, 17, had been to lots of street races. But this - she had never seen anything like this. Always, the drivers sped back to the starting line and emerged from their cars laughing, victorious, or maybe chagrined at a loss.

But not this time. Nikki recognized the car. This time, her friend Larry West, 23, had lost control.

A smoky metallic stench filled the air as Nikki sprinted toward the crumpled Mustang. Her Birkenstocks stuck in the soggy ground. She tripped, almost fell, ran some more, struggling against a frantic crowd of people running the other way.

Cars streamed down Rebsamen Park Road and exited Murray Park. Nobody wanted to be there when the cops showed up.

Again, Nikki's feet mired in the mud. She paused, freed them, kept running. An awful realization had just penetrated:

Only a minute earlier - at 1:32 a.m. - Nikki's best friend, Emily Lawrence, had sent her a text message from her cell phone:

"Im ridin w Larry in a race! *XoXo*"

Emily was in that car too.

In the hours before the wreck, police had run off hundreds of street racers and spectators from all their usual "tracks" - including the deserted roads near the Otter Creek and Fourche Dam Pike industrial areas.

Not unusual and not a problem. The racers would find another track.

They called each other as they fled, discussing a third location.

At 12:51 a.m., Emily texted Nikki on her cell phone: "Were goin 2 murry park *xoxo*"

Murray Park, on the south bank of the Arkansas River, closes at 10 p.m. The racers knew police would have made a final sweep, shooing along any stragglers, and patrol infrequently afterward.

So while Rebsamen Park Road - with its bumps and slight twist toward the end - wasn't ideal, the racers figured they could make several runs before the cops came through again.

Earlier that night, Nikki had overheard Larry and his best friend, David Mason, 23, planning to race - Larry in the Mustang and David in a yellow Mazda.

When Nikki pulled into Murray Park, the races were under way. As she stood in the crowd of spectators, chatting with friends, her cell phone beeped.

It was that message from Emily. She was going to ride with Larry, something she had never done. Nikki tucked the phone into her pocket without replying. She would ask Emily about the race later.

Nearby, Daniel Hooper, 23, was talking to a couple of buddies when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a car that was speeding down Rebsamen swerve, then fishtail. The driver overcorrected, and Daniel heard a bang as the car hit and uprooted a tree. The impact sent the car spinning into a second oak.

Daniel recognized the black car smashed against that tree - 1998 Mustang. Larry West's.

Daniel dashed over. David and Nikki arrived seconds later.

"Dude?" David asked, hunching over the driver's side window. "Dude, are you OK?"

"Yeah," Larry said, his voice thick and sluggish. "Yeah."

David peered into the car. The force of the crash had pushed the front seats forward, almost all the way to the dashboard. Larry's chest was inches from the steering wheel. Blood dripped from his face onto his shirt.

And Emily - pretty, blonde, tiny Emily. Only 18. Due to graduate from Central High School in May.

Larry's girlfriend of five months.

She was slumped next to Larry, feet perched on the dash, almost like she'd been taking a casual summertime windowsdown drive. Her head lolled toward Larry. One arm rested on her midriff.

Nikki leaned in. "Em? Can you hear me?"

"Emily?" David repeated.

But Emily didn't answer.

LOVE AND FAST CARS

Larry had been Emily's first love.

His name appeared seven times in Emily's 2006 Central High School Senior Book, a scrapbook filled with scrawling memories:

I would like to go out with ... Larry West

Best date ever ... Larry West.

I fell hard for ... Larry West- but you know how that goes.

For Larry, Emily learned how to cook spaghetti. For Larry, she started cleaning her room, just in case he dropped by. For Larry, she started going to the races.

They run the races Friday and Saturday nights, hundreds of speed enthusiasts caravaning from one deserted area of the city to the next, where they line up quickly and efficiently.

Then from spray-painted starting lines, the cars roar off two by two into the darkness.

The night usually begins around 9:30 p.m. or 10, in the Luby's parking lot in west Little Rock, at Chenal Parkway and Markham Street. Until police order the racers to leave, they'll hang out, showing off flashy imports, placing bets and arranging to meet later in one of two industrial parts of town, where long stretches of smooth empty roadway beckon.

Juanacha knew Larry loved cars and that Emily had watched him race.

What Juanacha didn't know is that Hollywood's glamorized image of street racing - intensified in recent years by the immensely popular The Fast and the Furious movies - has turned what once was an underground subculture into a mainstream social event.

In Little Rock, a large roving crowd of spectators accompanies the racers - including the teenage girls who cheer on boyfriends or wander the fringes ofthese adrenaline-fueled parties, flirting with the men who strut from their winning cars.

What Juanacha didn't know is that after dozens of wrecks across the nation, even fatal ones, hundreds of racers and spectators have fled en masse, fearing capture more than conscience.

Or that on March 12, her daughter - her beautiful, golden, full-of-promise daughter - would be one of those victims, and that only a handful of reluctant witnesses would try to help the comatose girl trapped inside the crushed, accordionpleated car.

Or that in the months after the wreck, only one person - someone who didn't even know Emily - would be willing to talk to police.

MARCH 12: THE WRECK

At 1:38 a.m., an unidentified caller described to a 911 dispatcher a one-car wreck on Rebsamen Park Road.

While they waited for police, Nikki, David, Daniel, and four or five others gathered around the Mustang, debating whether Nikki should call Emily's mom. Don't call her until the ambulance leaves, several people said.

Nikki wavered. Maybe they were right. Then she imaginedherself in Emily's place. She would want her mom.

Ignoring the protests, Nikki punched in the number.

The night began at the nowdefunct Bubba & Garcia's restaurant, where Emily worked part time as a hostess. Her paycheck went toward clothes and, soon, she hoped, a used Honda that Nikki's mother wanted to sell.

Juanacha thought the car was a good deal and had promised to buy it.

In the middle of Emily's shift that night, Nikki arrived with a friend for dinner. During a lull, Emily sat with the girls, folding silverware into napkins as the trio gossiped.

Even though they had met just that school year, Nikki and Emily considered themselves best friends. The girls shared two classes, geometry and JAG (Jobs for Arkansas' Graduates), a school-to-work program.

If not for Emily, Nikki never would have made it through geometry.

Emily earned good grades in most subjects. She also nurtured an artistic bent and hoped for a college degree in fashion design or merchandising. Dozens of sketchbooks littered her room; Juanacha often thumbed through them, amazed by her kid's ability.

People often confused Juanacha and Emily, they looked somuch alike. While the mix-ups flattered Juanacha, she prayed her daughter's life would be easier than hers.

Juanacha was 19 and unmarried when Laura Emily Lawrence was born. She often joked that she and Emily had grown up together.

As a single mother, Juanacha worked as a hairdresser, waitress and bartender, at times barely eking by. She married, had a son, Chandler, divorced. Through all the hardships, Emily remained Juanacha's one constant.

Small and trim, with thick, shoulder-length hair, Emily dressed with flair. On her, the color pink, a staple of her wardrobe, looked sophisticated, not little-girllike.

She dressed carefully for each occasion, which meant she would switch outfits for the races once her shift ended that night. Nikki, too, wanted to change clothes. She told Emily to call when she was ready.

Meanwhile, at the Faded Rose restaurant next door to Bubba & Garcia's, Juanacha was pulling a double at the bar. The extra money would go toward the Honda. The previous month, a string of doubles had covered Emily's prom dress - pink, of course.

At 9 p.m. Emily walked into the Faded Rose, angry with Juanacha's live-in boyfriend, Brian Lloyd. "B" - Emily's nickname for Brian - wouldn't let Larry go to the house to pick up a change of clothes for Emily. B didn't want Larry in the house when no one else was home.

Brian didn't approve of the relationship. Neither did Juanacha. For one thing, Larry and Emily had waited until Emily's 18th birthday to admit that Larry was 23, not 20, as they had claimed.

Juanacha wanted to forbid Emily from seeing him but feared doing so would heighten the attraction.

So she listened that night to Emily's vent, resisting the temptation to criticize Larry.

"Don't sweat the small stuff," she said, brushing Emily's hair out of her eyes. "Do you have a ride home? I still have an hour until I get off."

"Larry's coming to get me," Emily said.

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going over to Larry's to hang out."

"Be careful," Juanacha said. She always said that.

It was 11:15 p.m., about two hours before the wreck.

Emily called Juanacha, who had just arrived home. The tips that night had been good.

"I'm gonna get you that car," she declared. "You'll get it by Friday."

Emily shrieked with delight, and Juanacha flashed back to memories of a tow-headed toddler nicknamed Emmy-Poo.

"I love you!" Emmy screamed into the phone.

"You love me because I'm buying you a car," her mom retorted, laughing.

And then Juanacha cut the conversation short. After pulling a double shift, she wanted to relax.

Why, Juanacha would wonder later, hadn't she said "I love you" back?

At 1:40 a.m., Juanacha, who'd been sitting on the back porch with Brian at their rented home in the Kingwood area, went inside and checked her cell phone.

Nikki had called.

She dialed Nikki's number. "Hey, Nikki, what's up?"

"Emily's been in an accident, and it's really bad!"

In the background, Juanacha heard people talking. And a siren? Juanacha dropped to her knees.

"What? What?"

"You've gotta come on! They don't know if she's going to make it!"

Juanacha bolted to the bathroom and threw up. She ran back through the house, to the porch.

"Emmy's been in a wreck!

She's hurt bad, I can tell!"

"You don't know," Brian told Juanacha, over and over, as they headed to Murray Park.

"I know. I'm her mother. I know."

When they arrived at Murray Park, Juanacha leaped out even before the car had stopped. She ran toward the wreckage, dodging cars, gawkers, the hands that grabbed at her.

"Oh, s***," said one boy.

"That's the mom."

"Emily! Emily!"

One pair of hands caught and clung; others snatched at air.

"Let go!" Juanacha screamed, pushing them away. "Where's my baby? Where's my baby?"

She kept running.

"Emily! Emily !"As Juanacha neared the ambulance, she could see Emily lying on the stretcher, one of her pale, slender arms dangling from the gurney's edge. Strands of Emily's honey-blond hair - the same hair that Juanacha had tenderly swept out of her daughter's eyes just hours earlier - had been pushed back from her forehead by the paramedics' hurried fingers.

"Please," Juanacha begged the emergency crew. "Please, that's my daughter."

Firm hands held her back.

"I want her to know I'm here," she sobbed. "She needs to know I'm here."

No, they said, you can't go over there. And no, you can't ride in the ambulance.

Juanacha ran to her car. "Follow them!" she yelled at Brian.

On the race to the hospital, she could see into the back of the ambulance. Under bright lights, the paramedics stooped over Emily, pulling, pushing, working to salvage what was left of her daughter.

Shortly before 2 a.m., the phone's piercing ring jarred Annie Moak from sleep.

Her husband, Al, answered it - and then his face twisted.

Annie could hear Juanacha screaming.

"Emily's been in a wreck," Al said to Annie. "They're on the way to the hospital. They think she's got a broken leg."

Annie imagined her petite granddaughter on crutches, hobbling up the aisle to receive her diploma on graduation day.

The couple packed, just in case. The trip from their home, just outside of Jackson, Miss., to Little Rock would take five hours. Then they waited, fretting, for an update.

A few hours later, the phone rang again. It was Juanacha.

The brain scans, she said, hadn't shown any activity.

"Annie." Juanacha's voice broke. "Annie, you'd better come on."

At the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences hospital,Emily's friends had gathered in small nervous clusters throughout the ER's waiting area.

"What happened?" Juanacha demanded of each group. "What the hell happened?"

They were street racing, the teenagers told her. Larry and another guy. Emily was in the car, too.

This didn't make sense. How did her daughter - steady, dependable, down-to-earth Emily - end up in a street race?

Juanacha turned to the ER nurses. "Will she live? Just tell me if she's going to live."

They were still running tests, they said. Right then, they just didn't know. No, you can't see Emily right now.

Juanacha paced and cried. Every so often, she pounded small fists against unyielding windows.

"I am her mother! I. Am. Her. Mother !"

Eventually, the nurses allowed Juanacha back.

She knew, the moment she saw Emily's eyes, that her daughter was gone.

Juanacha lay across Emily and cried, big gasping sobs that shook her body and the child born of that body.

"Please don't do this, Emily. Just please, come back. Open your eyes. Please open your eyes. ..." But the eyes - halfway open, glazed - never changed.

She noticed tears on her daughter's cheeks. Was she crying? In pain?

No, the nurses reassured her.

"I need a towel," Juanacha insisted.

As the sun rose on that Sunday morning, she sat there, waiting, praying, wiping her daughter's eyes.

A DAY OF INDECISION

Several hours later, a neurosurgeon approached Juanacha, Brian and Shane Goldsby, Emily's biological father. Silently, he led them into a private room. The doctor looked at Juanacha with such pity.

Emily, the doctor said, was brain-dead. The force of the accident had shaken and dislodged her brain, lowering it onto thestem, an unusual but devastating injury.

"But there's hope, right?" Juanacha interrupted.

The doctor looked at her steadily and repeated: "Your daughter is brain-dead."

At 1:30 p.m., Al and Annie Moak pulled into Little Rock. They went immediately to Emily's bedside.

"Well, sweet baby, you've gotten yourself into a mess here," Annie told her granddaughter. She held Emily's hand and prayed for a miracle.

All that day, family members wandered in and out.

More grandparents. Aunts. Uncles.

Chandler, Emily's 15-year-old brother, sat by the bed, crying silently.

Emily's cousin, Summer Lawrence, 21, arrived last. In June, Emily was supposed to be Summer's maid of honor.

Summer stared at her cousin and thought about how when they were little, she and Emily would awaken each other by jumping on the bed.

That's what Summer wanted to do - jump on that hospital bed.

Too soon, Juanacha thought, the nurses asked about organ donation.

Emily had made her wishes clear in tiny red letters on her driver's license: Organ donor.

Was Juanacha ready to let the doctors disconnect Emily from life support so they could save others?

No, Juanacha said the first time. No way.

Later, they asked again. Without the brain giving signals, Emily's body would soon start to deteriorate, her organs failing, the nurses said.

"I'm not giving up on my daughter," Juanacha told them.

That evening, Juanacha consulted again with the neurosurgeon. Then she and Emily's dad sat down to talk.

"She's gone," Shane said. "That's not our child in there."

Juanacha wrestled with thedecision and wept as she let go.

They brought in the paperwork, and, page by agonizing page, Juanacha dismantled her daughter.

Skin? No.

Eyes? No.

Heart? Yes.

Lungs? Yes.

Kidneys? Yes ...

Machines and drugs kept Emily alive until Monday afternoon.

Someone, somewhere, needed time to arrange for the organ recipients.

Through those long, final hours, Juanacha stayed with Emily. She begged her daughter for forgiveness. She hadn't prayed hard enough.

One by one, family members said goodbye. Juanacha cut a lock of Emily's hair. And then the nurses came to take Emily.

"It's OK to let go," Juanacha sobbed to her daughter. "You need to go be with Jesus."

Then Juanacha stumbled from the room.

THREE MONTHS LATER ...

By mid-June, the police file on the wreck remained skimpy.

Only one witness - only one, investigators stressed - out of the several hundred people in Murray Park that night - had agreed to talk.

Larry West wouldn't cooperate.

Neither would the man who had raced against Larry that night. Police had a description of a bright yellow car, an import. They had heard that the other racer was named David. They even had a phone number. But David wouldn't answer or call back.

The cops had taken Nikki's name and number that night but never called. Nikki was relieved. She didn't want to tell on anybody.

The unwillingness of witnesses stunned Juanacha.

These people, she thought, were her daughter's friends?

Juanacha vowed to make the racers talk. She wouldn't allow them to forget Emily.

She began with a phone call to the man who drove Emily to her death.

"Larry," she pleaded. "Emily deserves better than this." Tomorrow: Juanacha seeks justice as the street races continue.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

SHOPPING

loading...

ADVERTISEMENT

Top Picks - Arkansas Daily Deal
Arkansas Online