Ashley Thompson would now be enjoying the summer before her senior year at Lake Braddock Secondary School. She would be checking out colleges, perhaps working a summer job and practicing gymnastics every day.
But a little more than a year ago, Ashley, 16, crashed a friend's Jeep Grand Cherokee into a tree near her Burke home and was killed instantly. Her mother, Robin Thompson, visits her daughter's grave at Fairfax Memorial Park regularly, as well as the spot on Lee Chapel Road where the crash happened. She said she cannot accept the county police conclusion that no other cars or passengers were involved, that an inexperienced teenage driver panicked in an unfamiliar vehicle and lost control, or that Ashley wasn't wearing a seat belt.
"No one will ever convince me that she did all that by herself," Thompson said. "There are too many unanswered questions. I am not out for revenge, just answers, and to clear Ashley's name. She deserves nothing less."
While Thompson carries on a crusade to find those answers, she also is working to prevent other students and their families from suffering a similar fate. Nationwide, more than 8,500 drivers and passengers were killed last year in crashes involving drivers 16 to 20 years old, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Near the anniversary of Ashley's death last month, Thompson, who also has a 22-year-old son, spoke to five driver education classes at Lake Braddock about her daughter, how to drive safely and about the breathless fears of parents handing their car keys to their children. No one goofed off in class that day. Some students wept. Many walked up to Thompson afterward and hugged and thanked her.
Thompson has established an annual $1,000 scholarship for a Lake Braddock student's college expenses in Ashley's memory. The first award was given last month to graduating senior Stephanie Cooper, who Thompson said shared her daughter's qualities of humility and commitment to hard work.
"It was very important for me to do something positive, to honor Ashley like that," Thompson said of the scholarship and her talks to driver ed students, which she said she would make an annual event.
Capt. Jesse F. Bowman, head of the Fairfax County police traffic division, was driving down Lee Chapel Road recently in an unmarked car when a teenage driver sped past him, driving 65 mph in a 40 mph zone. Bowman stopped the driver, who was a Lake Braddock student aware of Ashley's death. Bowman pointed out the spot where she died. The student said he was late for class.
"I have been searching and searching for a really effective way to get through to people," Bowman said. "I haven't found it. I've found good ways, but not the magic way."
He shows young drivers gory photos, tells them stories like Ashley's, leads them down the row of brutally smashed cars stored behind a police building in Annandale. Someone died in nearly every vehicle. The students lean in, see the blood and view the impossibly tight space where someone once sat.
"I think it's a collection of everything" that winds up making an impact on some, Bowman said. "And we have to be relentless."
Driving a Borrowed Jeep
Ashley had had her license a few months before the afternoon of June 10, 2003, when her friend Sarah Berenson loaned her the family's Jeep Grand Cherokee so Ashley could leave school for lunch.
Berenson's stepfather, Emilio Tavernise, said he spotted the Jeep speeding down Lee Chapel Road about 12:30 p.m. Tavernise said he wondered why Berenson was out of school until he saw Ashley behind the wheel with passengers. He told himself to discuss with his daughter the propriety of loaning the Jeep.
Ashley drove back to Lake Braddock, where by all accounts, she was a diligent, responsible student and fun-loving teenager.
She took fourth-year Latin and advanced placement classes as a sophomore and also spent dozens of hours every week practicing gymnastics. In the Patriot District gymnastics meet last year, she finished sixth in the individual all-around and second on her team, with scores of 8.8 or higher out of a possible 10 points on the balance beam, vault and uneven bars.
"She always made us laugh," said Regina Renzi, a gymnastics teammate and longtime friend. "She was so much fun to be around."
Sarah, a friend since eighth grade, said, "When you were around her, there was no drama. She had so many jokes. She was funny."
On this afternoon, Ashley took Sarah's Jeep out again. Ted Owens, the letter carrier in Sarah's neighborhood, said he was on Goldfield Lane about 1:45 p.m. when he saw the red Jeep coming. He knew the Berensons, so he waved to the driver, expecting to see Sarah. Instead, he said he saw Ashley driving the car with three passengers -- another girl and two boys.
About 1:55 p.m., Linda McMillan of Fairfax Station pulled onto Lee Chapel Road from the Fairfax County Parkway. She said she was driving a friend's small truck, with very little power under the hood. As she was slowly chugging north on Lee Chapel Road, McMillan said she moved into the left lane.
Suddenly, McMillan noticed an SUV charging up on her right side.
"She wasn't speeding like 80 miles an hour," McMillan said, "but she was going fast. I kind of slowed up because I was annoyed." McMillan, a former driver ed teacher, said passing on the right is "a pet peeve."
"I saw her," McMillan continued, "and then she kind of reached down like she was reaching for a radio. I remember thinking, 'She looks like a little kid driving that truck.' "
There were no passengers in the Jeep, McMillan said. It zoomed past, over a rise, and out of sight.
As McMillan reached the rise, she saw a metal street signpost flipping through the air, sunlight gleaming off of it in the clear blue June sky. The sign from the pole also was flying through the air, she said, and she saw dust kicking up as if from a gravel road. She realized she also heard the sound of a car engine racing.
McMillan thought someone had cut across Lee Chapel Road and hit a street sign. She looked to the left at Claychin Court, the only nearby cross street, and then straight ahead, seeing no cars. She turned to the right, where an eight-foot-high privacy fence parallels the street.
The Grand Cherokee had jumped the curb, slammed into a tree and bounced off. The horn was blaring.
'A Horrible, Horrible Day'
Jessie Hooper, a 22-year-old carpenter who lives on Lee Chapel Road, was home that afternoon. "I heard a long, loud screech and then a horrible crash," he said. "And I ran out there."
He was the first to reach Ashley, who was slumped over the wheel. Hooper said he was sure she was wearing a seat belt because of how she was leaning from her seat, seemingly suspended. Cars stopped immediately, some of them driven by students.
Tavernise, in his back yard, heard the tires screech and feared it was Berenson. He jumped on a bicycle and pedaled madly up the hill. He saw Ashley, though he does not recall seeing a seat belt. He said he knew she was dead.
Owens, the letter carrier, heard the crash and drove around to the scene. When he saw the Jeep, he said he feared four people were inside, because he had seen four people just minutes earlier.
"I was trying to look inside to the floorboards or something," he said, "because I expected to see four kids in there."
But there were no other passengers at the moment of impact. Police said they have not been able to identify whom Ashley was with 10 minutes before the crash or where she had been.
That the other passengers have not come forward puzzles Ashley's family and friends. Her instant messaging and cell phone records provided no clues.
"It makes me so angry that no one has said anything," Sarah Berenson said. "I could be passing by these people in the halls. I don't know who was in my car."
Shellee Middeker, who lives on Goldfield Lane, said she was in her yard that day when she heard "a loud bomb go off. I'll never forget it." Middeker said she saw a silver Mustang GT speed by. She went inside to tell her husband, then ran to the scene.
She saw Owens and Hooper, Middeker said. She also saw a teenage boy, dressed in black, talking nervously on a cell phone. "He was saying, 'It wasn't my fault, it wasn't my fault,' 15 times. He was almost shaking, he was very upset," Middeker said.
Bowman, of the police traffic division, said authorities believe they have identified the teenager, who acknowledged talking on the phone at the scene. The teen did not recall saying anything about fault or seeing another car. Thompson questions whether police found the right teenager.
McMillan, who said she immediately realized that she would likely be a witness since she was the first at the scene, scanned the crash site carefully. There was no other car, she said.
Soon Thompson pulled up, on her way home from her job as an elementary school nurse. McMillan watched as the grieving crowd grew and thought of her own 16-year-old daughter.
"It was really a horrible, horrible day," she said.
Questions and Conclusions
Bowman assigned the case to Detective Chris G. Thomas. The police crash reconstruction unit investigates more than 60 fatal wrecks in Fairfax a year, plus many other serious crashes, with only five detectives. With the varied tasks of calculating speeds and angles from a crash scene, determining how the vehicles caused the injuries and interviewing eyewitnesses, investigations can take 90 or more days, Bowman said.
In examining the skid marks leading to the Jeep, the points of impact to the Jeep and McMillan's account, Thomas concluded that Ashley had lost control of the Jeep with no other vehicle around. The Jeep apparently drifted into the turn lane from Lee Chapel to Claychin Court, bounced into the nearby median, smashed through a street sign and went over another median as Ashley overcorrected the vehicle.
"She jerked that wheel to get back in the lane," Bowman said. "With the Jeep's short wheelbase, it shot her across the road into that tree. With the speed and trajectory she was traveling, without a seat belt on, she didn't have a chance."
Tension devices that hold seat belts firm in crashes often leave marks on the belt. "They checked and double-checked," Bowman said. "It's our conclusion that the seat belt was not in use. And the medical examiner agreed," noting that Ashley had no bruises or marks on her upper body from the belt suddenly becoming taut, as many crash victims do.
After Thompson began raising questions, Bowman assigned a second detective to review the case from scratch. Then Bowman instructed a veteran sergeant, Pat Wimberly, to review it as well. Bowman then read the file and asked questions, some raised by Ashley's mother.
"We reached the right conclusion," Bowman said in a recent interview, "as to how and why this crash occurred. The only unanswered question is what was the driver doing that caused her to drift into the median? We don't know. We only know it wasn't the result of outside forces, only something she was doing in the car that caused her attention to be misdirected."
Thompson still is not satisfied with the investigation. Through happenstance, she met Hooper, Middeker and Owens. Hooper told her Ashley was wearing a seat belt. Middeker said she saw and heard the silver Mustang speed away after the crash. Owens said he saw other passengers. The last passengers to ride with Ashley in the Jeep have not been identified.
Police countered that they believe Hooper was mistaken in the chaos of the moment and that the Mustang Middeker saw was not related to the crash. Bowman said Ashley's last passengers had no bearing on the crash since they already had been dropped off.
Thompson said her daughter, though inexperienced, was a disciplined and careful driver who knew to wear a seat belt. She obeyed rules prohibiting cell phones or CDs while driving, Thompson said. As a gymnast, she had excellent hand-eye coordination.
"We have some responsible young people out there," Thompson said, "who drive and act better than adults, and I think it's an injustice to write them off. Ashley contributed to her community, and I think she deserves better than what she's been given. I think it's extremely unfair."
Bowman said he is sympathetic but said the physical evidence supported the conclusion of a one-car crash. Had Ashley been wearing a seat belt, he said, her life probably would have been saved.
"Ashley's case, as tragic as it is," Bowman said, "is just absolutely predictable and preventable. The probable outcome of a 16-year-old girl driving a vehicle she's not familiar with, at high speed, not wearing a safety belt, is predictable. And by no means is that a slap at Ashley's mom. She's part of a huge club."
During her recent talk to Lake Braddock students, Thompson pleaded with them not to put their parents in that club.
"Everyone's life is forever changed in a matter of seconds," she told the student drivers. "Please don't put your family through what we're going through. I want you to be safe, fulfill your dreams, and have a life."