It is the hair that haunts her.
More than a week after the accident, after seeing the tiny girl plummet from the highway overpass, after feeling the girl land on the roof of her car with a sickening thud and a shattering of glass, Chelci Frutos still cannot forget the girl’s hair.
“I saw a long black ponytail as she was falling,” Frutos told The Washington Post. “Afterwards, I kept picturing her falling over and over and over again in my mind.”
Frutos is far from the only person who will have trouble forgetting Izabel Laxamana’s hair. Her beautiful dark locks are at the center of Laxamana’s strange, sad and controversial story.
Laxamana died on May 30, roughly 24 hours after throwing herself off an interstate overpass in Tacoma, Wash., and onto Frutos’s passing car.
As tragic as the 13-year-old’s death is, it’s what happened shortly before the suicide that is causing outrage.
Days before the teen’s death, Laxamana’s father cut off her hair on camera in an apparent attempt to shame his daughter for “getting messed up.”
Suicides, especially teen suicides, are a complex matter. Experts always caution that it’s usually too simple to blame a single event and that the majority of young people who take their own lives have a mental disorder, often “undiagnosed, untreated or both.”
A message Laxamana posted online last August hinted at deeper troubles. “I feel hated most of the time im in school i feel looked down on and i get judged alot” [sic] she wrote. “In a school with so many people its weird to say ‘i feel alone’ but the truth is that you really do feel alone.”
Still, a local blog directly blamed the shaming video for Laxamana’s suicide. And on a Facebook page called “Justice for Izabel,” commenters called for the father to be prosecuted or publicly shamed himself.
The video is just the latest in a growing trend of “shaming” videos, in which angry parents around the country seek to discipline disobedient children by filming their humiliation. The videos are then uploaded to Web sites like YouTube or Facebook where the child’s friends can watch.
Laxamana’s original “shaming” video has been removed from the Internet, but a bootleg recording of the video appears to show Laxamana in her family’s garage. Sporting a fresh, jagged haircut, she stares at the camera as a man, reportedly her father, Jeff, films her.
“The consequences of getting messed up, man, you lost all that beautiful hair,” he says. The camera then pans down to a tangle of black hair on the ground. “Was it worth it?” the man says.
“No,” Laxamana replies faintly.
“How many times did I warn you?” he asks.
“A lot,” she says in a near whisper.
It’s unclear when, exactly, the video was made, who uploaded it to the Internet, or what role it played in Laxamana’s suicide. Tacoma police could not be reached for comment on Sunday night but told the New York Daily News that the father was not the one who posted the video online.
“She was a 13-year-old that made some poor choices, meaning that she didn’t have to kill herself,” Tacoma police public information officer Loretta Cool told the Daily News, adding that someone else leaked the video online in a tragically misguided attempt to help correct the teen’s behavior.
“It was, ‘I’m going to record this, it’s yours, that way you’ll think twice before you do this again,’” Cool said of the father’s reason for making the shame video. “It was part of the discipline process,” she said. “So she would remember and not do it again.”
On May 29, a few days after the video was made, Laxamana was reportedly riding in a car on South 48th Street in Tacoma when it passed over Interstate 5. She jumped out of the car and hurled herself over the edge of the bridge.
Frutos, a married mother of two young children, was on her way to work as a waitress.
“It was exactly at 3 p.m.,” she remembered. “I left home to go to work early that day because I have a problem with being late. So I was going to make sure that I was on time and it just so happened that I left a half an hour early.”
Frutos was driving north along I-5 when she saw a small shape drop from the bridge.
“I saw a person falling out of the sky,” she told The Washington Post. “I was back far enough to where I saw the whole entire fall. I didn’t actually see her jump, I just saw a person fling over the overpass.
“Excuse my language, but I was like, ‘Is there a f—— person falling out of the sky?'” she said. “That’s exactly what I thought in my head.”
“Once I saw her falling I completely froze,” Frutos said. “I was in shock. I didn’t think it was a real person. I mean, I knew it was. I think I did let off the gas but I didn’t brake. I just held onto the steering wheel and was in shock and watched this girl fall.”
The entire incident happened in the blink of an eye as Laxamana fell roughly 30 feet from the overpass and Frutos sped toward her at 65 miles per hour, unable to react.
“As I got closer I could tell that she was a young person,” Frutos said. “I saw her skin color. And I saw a ponytail.”
For days afterward, the ponytail wouldn’t just haunt Frutos; it would also confuse her. She read about Laxamana’s father cutting off all her hair and wondered if she had been seeing things.
“The story about her dad hacking off her hair I didn’t believe at first because I saw a long black pony tail as she was falling,” Frutos said. “I was literally that close. But I came to find out that it was just a piece of her hair that he left long. She did have a long piece of hair that was left and that’s what I saw.
“As I was driving I wasn’t even watching the cars in front of me. I was just holding the steering wheel as tight as I possibly could because later that day my wrists were hurting,” she said. “As I lost sight of her I knew she was going to hit my car.”
That’s exactly what happened. Laxamana’s tiny, teen body landed on top of Frutos’s 2001 Nissan Altima with so much force it shattered both the front and back windshields.
“It was extremely loud,” Frutos said. “I knew what happened but I didn’t believe what happened, I guess. I didn’t know if I was hurt. It was extremely loud. The glass just shattered all inside of the car.
“The roof caved in half an inch from my head,” she said. “I could have lost my life, too, if she had fallen onto me.”
Frutos was stunned but had the presence of mind not to swerve or slam on the brakes. “After it happened I didn’t brake because I didn’t know if she was still on my car or if she had fallen off,” she said. “I just drifted to a stop and stayed in my lane.
“I was freaking out,” she said. “I was hysterical and screaming at the top of my lungs.
“I put my car in park and just sat there and screamed like bloody murder. I didn’t open the door. I didn’t move I just screamed inside. I reached over because somehow my phone flung to other side of the car. I called my husband and when he answered the phone all he heard was my screaming. I finally got out that somebody jumped off the bridge. He said, ‘Where are you?’ I couldn’t even tell him where I was because I was so shaken up, but eventually I said, ‘I’m on the way to work. You’re not going to miss me!'”
She said an older man came up to her car and helped calm her until the police arrived. Officers helped her out of her totaled car, at which point Frutos realized that Laxamana had fallen off.
Frutos said she feels a strange connection with the girl who came tumbling down from the sky onto her car. She would like to think that her car helped absorb some of the impact, giving Laxamana time to say goodbye to her family before passing away in a hospital the following day.
Frutos even went to Laxamana’s school, Giaudrone Middle School, later that night to see the candlelight vigil.
“There was this little boy obsessively trying to keep her candles lit,” she said. “He said she was like a sister to him, and that kind of made me break down.”
But Frutos admitted she and her family also have other emotions over the incident. Laxamana nearly took Frutos with her to the grave, after all, and the accident totaled the Frutos family’s only car.
“I’m kind of angry about it,” Frutos said. “My family is, too.”
Frutos’s sister has set up a Go Fund Me account to assist the family, but the page has been attacked by people who think it’s insensitive to Laxamana’s memory. “Give me a … break,” one person wrote. “This is gross.”
Frutos said friends and doctors have warned her she could suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. And, after several days of tears, she now mostly feels numb. Normally an effusive person, she finds herself saying little, even to her closest friends. Laxamana’s tiny, tumbling body and crudely cut hair remain seared in her memory.
“The night after it happened, I had a dream that she lived and that I actually went and saw her in the hospital,” Frutos said. “And I told her suicide isn’t a way out. I had a dream that I pretty much helped her get out of that suicidal mindset. And in my dream, she listened to me because I was the person she fell on. So I felt like we did have that connection.”
But then Frutos woke up and learned that Laxamana had died. Her dream had been a cruel joke.
“I’m never going to forget about this little girl,” Frutos said. “But I need to move on with my family and not be stuck on it.”