Sunday, July 23, 2000

Hill hopping

Looking for truth amid facts

        The shattered glass along the road is gone. In its place, two wooden crosses and flowers in dozens of bouquets and baskets. Snapshots. Mardi Gras beads. A hand-lettered card under a patch of purple thistles. Tangible signs of grief for Kelli Ridenour and Anna Destefano.

        More than 2,000 people came to the memorial service for the two Delhi Middle School students, killed June 9 when a 16-year-old girl lost control of the Jeep Cherokee she was driving along a narrow stretch of Hillside Avenue.

        Hill hopping, authorities say. Speeding on a bumpy road, becoming airborne.

Innocent victims
        Next week, Judge Sylvia Hendon will decide whether the driver, who is charged with aggravated vehicular homicide, should be tried as an adult. After I wrote about the tragedy, friends and family responded, sharing things they know that are not yet part of the public record, things about that day, about the accident.

        There were opinions about teen-age drivers. About responsibility. About SUVs. About punishment. About rehabilitation.

        About Kelli and Anna.

        The families — both of them — want people to know the truth amid all the information floating around. One very big truth. These girls, both just 13 years old, died through no fault of their own. None.

        “Maybe instead of everyone offering their opinions on how this should be handled through the court system, they should be saying a prayer for the families. Especially people who don't have all of the facts,” one said disgustedly.

        Looking for more facts, I learned Kelli was starting to sprout up, getting taller. Her father, Doug, says she was always on the phone. A soccer player. A cheerleader. “Everybody's friend.”

        Oh, and always smiling.

        “I am Anna Destefano's mother,” wrote Mary Pat McQuaide. “My child was a very smart and cautious young lady.”

        Anna played both basketball and soccer, was honored as an athlete by her school. “A great kid, a terrific athlete,” says a friend, who graduated from Oak Hills High School the same day Anna and Kelli died.

        “As I sat in my cap and gown and listened to my classmates speak about having our lives ahead of us, all I was thinking was that these kids were never going to get a chance to grow up.”

        Anna's grandmother says she was “the love of my life.”

        “The driver's sister was having a swim party,” wrote Kelli's grandmother. “It was hot and about a mile walk. That's why they got in the car.” The girls were looking for transportation, not thrills.

        “Kelli hated to go fast,” Doug Ridenour says.

An empty chair
        “I drove down Anderson Ferry Road and passed by the street that they should have turned on to go to the party,” wrote Kelli's aunt, Kim Stacey. “I continued on, wondering what the girls must have been thinking at that point. I wondered when it hit Kelli that they were going to do one of the things she was most adamantly opposed to — screwing around in a car.”

        Kim and Doug Swisshelm will be married this Saturday. “Kelli was going to be a bridesmaid in our wedding,” the groom wrote. “Instead, there will be an empty chair at the bridal table.”

        And in the course of conversations, I came to know more than the fact of two deaths. Kelli hanging on the phone. Anna the athlete.




        E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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