In the final seconds before a knife pierced her chest and she collapsed to the pavement, Kanisha Neal gripped the nearly waist-length braids of the girl who would kill her and let loose a flurry of blows to her head, according to law enforcement officials.
They were both 15 and had been strangers until the moment a festering dispute brought two groups of girls and young women face to face in a parking lot after a Friday night football game in Montgomery County.
Bitter epithets were hurled, and then Kanisha, a stocky ninth-grader, stepped forward to punch the other girl in the face, officials said.
The melee following that blow at James Hubert Blake High School lasted less than a minute in a lot crowded with spectators leaving the game.
Quickly corralled by police and school security guards, more than a dozen witnesses, including most of the participants, provided detailed accounts of the deadly confrontation, officials said.
They portrayed Kanisha as the aggressor in the fight, contradicting earlier reports that suggested she might have been attacked or become embroiled in violence begun by others, officials said.
Tomorrow, Kanisha Neal will be buried, while the girl who police say has admitted to stabbing her sits in a youth detention center. The other girl is charged as a juvenile with second-degree murder, and her name has been withheld because of her age. Law enforcement officials said they believe she acted on impulse, stabbing Kanisha out of fear rather than with premeditated intent to kill.
In a sense, officials said, both were casualties -- two girls whose fatal collision on a warm fall evening stemmed from a petty feud with murky origins. A dispute that apparently involved neither of them at the outset turned deadly with the single, panicked jab of a knife.
Exactly how the dispute began is lost in the fog of high school gossip, but there was a skirmish at a football game two weeks before Friday night's stabbing, officials said.
That incident involved Kanisha's 21-year-old half sister, Kelly Grimes, and the girl now charged with the stabbing, according to officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the killing is still being investigated.
Grimes has a friend on the Sherwood High School football team. The girl charged in the stabbing is a Sherwood junior.
Grimes and the Sherwood student attended a Sept. 9 game at Sherwood with friends, and afterward the two groups clashed in the parking lot of the Sandy Spring school.
There were loud insults, and as Grimes and her friends were about to drive away, the girl now charged in the killing approached the vehicle and spat at Grimes, officials said.
Two weeks after that incident, Grimes planned to join a group of friends as Sherwood traveled to play at Blake High, in the Norwood area.
Although Kanisha Neal attended Rockville High and didn't usually socialize with her half sister, Grimes invited her along. The two lived in a Rockville bungalow with their ailing father and Grimes's five children. Kanisha's mother, Joyce Neal, said that although Kanisha was expelled once from middle school for fighting, she had become responsible in the aftermath.
But witnesses told police that as Friday's game neared an end, Kanisha was eager to have someone point out the girl involved in the spitting incident two weeks earlier.
The first person she asked refused, saying she did not want Kanisha to become involved in the dispute, but someone else who overheard the question pointed to the girl, officials said.
After the game, as spectators flocked up a winding driveway toward the parking lot above the field about 8:30 p.m., the group that included Grimes and Kanisha trailed behind the Sherwood girl and her friends, following closely enough for the group in front to notice, officials said.
When the Sherwood girl and her friends arrived at a green sport-utility vehicle, one of them bellowed an epithet at Kanisha, Grimes and the others, officials said.
Kanisha responded by approaching the Sherwood girl and punching her in the head, officials said.
The melee erupted. A friend of the Sherwood girl began swinging a baseball bat, striking Kanisha and others, officials said. They said the Sherwood girl tried to flee, bolting around the SUV, but her escape was cut off by someone in Kanisha's group. The girl turned back, and she rushed into the arms of Kanisha, officials said.
They said Kanisha held the other girl's hair and struck her repeatedly in the head -- until the other teenager, a much thinner girl, struck back with the knife.
None of the witnesses interviewed by police saw the blade plunge into Kanisha's chest.
The girl with the bat then retreated into the SUV. As Grimes moved toward her half sister, Kanisha let go of the Sherwood girl, who fled, officials said. Grimes asked Kanisha if she was all right, and Kanisha said yes.
The knife had entered just below her left breast, cutting so cleanly that almost no blood spilled from the small wound. The massive bleeding was mostly internal. Kanisha suddenly grew dizzy, her eyes rolled back and she collapsed.
Stephanie Richard, 17, a Blake senior, had just walked up from the field with other members of the school band when she saw Kanisha on the ground, shuddering violently. Other students were screaming at the people in the SUV. Richard looked away in horror, and later, when she turned back, several band parents had come to the girl's aid.
"They tried to keep her breathing," she said. Her 15-year-old sister, Jacquelyn Richard, also saw Kanisha on the pavement. "She looked kind of like she was shaking, and her eyes looked like they were in the back of her head," Jacquelyn said.
Police officers, paramedics, school administrators and school security personnel swarmed the parking lot. An ambulance rushed Kanisha to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. Officials said they did not know what kind of knife was used or whether homicide detectives had recovered it.
Joyce Neal said she learned of the incident when her sister Candy called Friday night. Candy Neal had been told by one of Kanisha's friends that Kanisha had been hit with a baseball bat while at the game.
When Joyce Neal got to the hospital, she said, "they told me, 'Wait a minute,' and I said, 'Wait a minute for what?' All I could do was scream."
A while later, from the hospital, she telephoned her daughter Stephanie Neal, 25.
"Kanisha's dead," she said.
"What do you mean she's dead?" Stephanie Neal replied. "She just got hit with a baseball bat."
Friends and relatives, including sister Deborah Neal, 19, gathered at Suburban. Police officers were there, too. Grimes arrived with others who had attended the game. Investigators wanted to question Grimes, but she was reluctant to leave with them, family members said.
"We didn't see her crying," Stephanie Neal said. "She's standing around and she's not crying. Cops asked her to come to the station. She said no. 'I don't do police.' Those were her exact words."
Stephanie Neal said she was irate.
"That's when I lost my temper, and we pretty much -- we charged at her," she said, referring to Grimes, who could not be located to comment on the case. They blamed Grimes for letting Kanisha get mixed up in the dispute that ended her life.
"Me and my sister, we couldn't understand, and we charged at her," Stephanie Neal said. "Police barricaded her and escorted her to their truck."
Staff writers Lori Aratani, Katherine Shaver and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.
Kanisha Neal was killed in a melee after a school football game.