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The Sadness Lingers : Crash: Tragedy in which three died also left teen-ager so badly injured she requires full-time care.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By some miracle, Barbara Du Bois, 14, survived the tragic traffic accident in which her sister, another teen-ager and a toddler died, but her grandmother said the cheerful girl she once knew no longer exists.

Before the June 1 accident, the Canyon Country teen-ager had typical adolescent ambitions of being a model or a movie star, said Mary McWilliams, her grandmother and guardian.

Instead, Barbara will require full-time care for the rest of her life because her physical injuries were so severe, doctors predict.

The brain damage she suffered will remain with her for life. Doctors say she will never be able to function above the level of a 10- to 12-year-old.

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“She doesn’t comprehend any part of that,” McWilliams said. “She doesn’t even know about the accident yet.”

The tragic accident consumes the lives of the four families whose young girls were in the car that night. In some cases, there are hard feelings on the part of family members who believe the accident could have been avoided. In other cases, relationships have been formed or strengthened. The sadness lingers everywhere.

The five girls in the car that night were returning from a youth group meeting at their Saugus church when the car collided head-on with two vehicles on Seco Canyon Road. The driver, Barbara’s 15-year-old sister, JoKema, reportedly was weaving her grandmother’s car back and forth to amuse Jesika Noell, 3, and it drifted across the road’s center line.

McWilliams said JoKema, who was not licensed to drive, took the car keys without her knowledge. Family members of some of the girls who were in the car privately dispute that claim, but stop short of condemning McWilliams because there is little substance on which to base their opinions.

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Killed with JoKema and Jesika was Gena Watkinson, 15. Alicia Acevedo, 14, and Barbara were hospitalized in critical condition. Alicia’s condition improved relatively quickly and she was released from the hospital about a month ago.

Barbara was given only a 10% chance to live. But she has defied the odds.

McWilliams said she watches her granddaughter go through hours of therapy daily at Northridge Hospital Medical Center to help her eat, write, stand, speak and use her severely injured left hand. She hopes doctors’ predictions will once again be wrong.

“They don’t ever expect her to recover fully,” she said. “My own personal gut feeling is she will recover enough to be able to live a fairly normal life. By that I mean she’ll get into her 20s and just be slow.”

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In a tragic turn of events, McWilliams’ ex-husband, Malcom, who was reportedly despondent over what happened to his granddaughters, fired a warning shot earlier this month at two 14-year-old boys who reportedly were trying to steal his car, killing a third 14-year-old youth he did not see.

Although they arrested the wheelchair-bound Malcom McWilliams, authorities said the man’s intent was to warn the youths about the dangers of joyriding. They later announced they will not file charges against McWilliams.

Meanwhile, hospital officials expect Barbara to remain at the hospital until the beginning of December. But she won’t be going home then. Her grandmother was evicted from her Canyon Country house after failing to make the mortgage payments.

McWilliams, now living alone in a relative’s motor home in an Elks Lodge campground, said financial troubles before the accident led to the eviction and that her granddaughters were aware of her plans to move to Arizona or Colorado. Now, she said, she is unsure of what she will do, since she has to work and won’t be able to provide the constant care Barbara will require.

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“It’s not like I’m 35 now, so I know I’m not going to be able to do that alone,” she said.

Alicia, a close friend of Barbara’s, also is receiving physical therapy at the Northridge hospital for a broken leg. Her therapy is expected to last several more months, said her 16-year-old brother, Angel. She usually stays at the hospital after her own therapy sessions to be with Barbara during hers, her brother said.

Angel said the family talks about the accident and that his sister is sometimes depressed about it. But she has been able to resume a normal life, he said. “We tell her to try not to think about it.”

Life will never return to normal for Jesika’s mother, Jamie Noell, who has a congenital spinal disease and is confined to a wheelchair. She rented a room at McWilliams’ house for more than a year until the accident. After that, she moved in with relatives in Studio City.

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“I needed family with me and I was very, very distraught,” Noell said. “I just could not go back into that house because I cared very deeply about Jesika, obviously, but also about (McWilliams’) two girls. There would just be too many memories in that house.”

She is divorced from Jesika’s father, Stephen, who lives in Las Vegas.

Noell said she used to spend her days caring for her daughter and her evenings painting ceramics she hoped to sell. Now, she spends most of her time thinking about Jesika and what to do with the future.

The little girl’s memory remains at Bethlehem Lutheran Preschool, where her classmates play in a sandbox built by Jesika’s uncle, Lonnie Bernal. The box is filled with sand provided by a local gravel company. Her mother said the family came up with the idea because of Jesika’s comments the first day she attended the preschool.

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“She said she had fun, but she had one complaint . . . they don’t have a sandbox,” her mother said. “I said, ‘They have sand there,’ and she said, ‘They have sand there, but it’s on the ground. I want a sandbox.’ ”

A similar gesture for Gena Watkinson was made by the High Desert Horseman’s Assn., to which she belonged. The organization will present an annual award in Gena’s name to its “most tenacious rider.”

Her grandmother and legal guardian, Sandra Watkinson, said the award’s designation is for a remembrance of Gena. “She didn’t always win, but she was always trying,” she said.

The memory of Gena’s death brings tears to her grandmother’s eyes. Watkinson said that part of the pain is because “the whole situation was so needless.”

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“I go up to the cemetery at least a couple of times a week and it still hurts,” she said. “I think the thing that hurts the most is that we never know what she could have been. She’ll be forever 15.”


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