After Tragic Crash, a Bid for Healing

Times Staff Writer

His brown eyes blinking back tears, Charles Sawyers went door to door on the Compton cul-de-sac, seeking out the parents of the three youths killed during his 13-year-old daughter’s joyride last Saturday. Not every grieving mom and dad talked to him.

But as twilight fell, Sawyers, an intramural football and basketball coach, stood on the sidewalk of Paulsen Circle, facing a father just returned from delivering his 15-year-old son’s funeral suit.

“I don’t know what to say; I’ve been trying to reach you,” Sawyers told Derrell Johnson, who will bury son Derrius this morning. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through....”

An awkward silence followed, as Johnson weighed his choices. Walk away? Lash out? Ask how this man’s 13-year-old girl could get keys to her mother’s car?


“I’ve been avoiding you, because of my own pain,” Johnson told him evenly. “But I wasn’t sure I was ready. I need to forgive, but I’m not sure I can forget. But I know you’re in pain too.”

And then, Johnson reached out and the two fathers embraced.

In that moment, the men said, they took a small step toward healing the close-knit neighborhood where the accident has devastated the families of the four friends: the two boys and the girl who died and Sawyers’ daughter, who was behind the wheel and survived.

His daughter, nicknamed Momma D by friends for her maternal instincts, lives with her mother and 10-year-old brother. Sawyers lives nearby but visits the house every day.

Sometime last Saturday, Sawyers’ daughter took the keys to her mother’s car, and in the afternoon she drove it to Paulsen Circle.

For hours, the friends hung out, and several youths took spins in the white Mazda.

On the final trip, Sawyer’s daughter and five friends left the quiet confines of Paulsen Circle.

Soon after, about 6:20 p.m., she lost control of the car. It veered across the center of Alondra Boulevard near Central Avenue into oncoming traffic and was hit broadside by a sport utility vehicle, whose passengers suffered minor injuries.


The rear passenger side of the Mazda took the brunt of the collision, sending the car spinning. In the back seat were Ricky Ward, 13, and Derrius, both of Paulsen Circle, and Clydnesha Lindsey, 12, who was ejected from the car.

Another friend of the driver’s, a girl who has not been named, suffered several broken bones but no life-threatening injuries. Darrell Kinsey, 14, walked away from the wreckage with minor injuries.

“The car in front of us braked, and she [Sawyers’ daughter] pulled around her, speeded up and was pulling back in front of that car,” recalled Darrell, who was riding in the front seat, wearing a seat belt. “I blacked out and the next thing I remember was being pulled out of the car by the paramedics.”

Whether the girl and her mother, Debbie Abrams, would face criminal charges was undecided as of Friday night as Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials continued to investigate.


Residents of Paulsen Circle and elsewhere in Compton told authorities they had seen the girl driving previously and wondered whether her mother might have known if not permitted it.

Sawyers understands why members of the public and some relatives of the deceased are angry with his ex-wife.

“I was angry at her at first,” he said. “But I’m not God. I can’t pass judgment.... She’s a loving mother who loves children, and I’m going to be with her through this.”

Both his daughter and her mother are consumed by guilt and grief.


“I can’t face these parents now. I’m so sorry and ashamed,” said Debbie Abrams, who had been told not to talk about how her daughter came to be driving her car last Saturday.

“I’m just so sorry. So, so sorry. Words can’t express the burden I feel. My God said he would never leave me, and I’m going to cling to that.”

On Paulsen Circle, a horseshoe of 14 two-story homes with red-tile roofs, youths call adults Mr. or Mrs. and are responsible for taking turns picking up any trash.

The kids hang out around a plywood box that has long sat on a curb under a streetlight safely in parents’ view. The box, within walking distance of the crash site, by Friday was covered with farewell notes scrawled with black felt pens recalling basketball games won and lost on the street. Some of the kids who climbed into the Mazda knew the driver was underage. Darrell lives in Cerritos with his mother but spends a lot of time with his father, a computer technician who lives across from the Johnsons. He thought the driver was 16. At 5 feet 6, she looked and acted older than the other girls, he said.


Indeed, her parents said she is a leader among her friends, quick to laugh and come to their defense. She heads a social sorority at Vanguard Middle School, is captain of her drill team and adored Clydnesha and Ricky.

Charles Sawyers, 47, said his 10-year-old son was especially close to Clydnesha and brokenhearted as well by her death. Her mother, Karen, “is very angry, very irate, and I fully expect her to rant and yell at me when I go to Clydnesha’s services,” he said. “But I loved [Clydnesha] too, and I think I can take a few minutes of her yelling at me. I understand totally how she feels.”

Sawyers said his daughter has remained in seclusion with her mother at home but had received supportive cards and calls from friends and their church congregation.

“She is sick about this. She carries around a notebook, with Nesha’s photo, and she doesn’t leave one room to go into another one without that notebook.”


Into its pages she has been pouring out the grief and emotion she can’t yet express, her mother and father said.

“Oh, my God, oh, my God,” Debbie Abrams said softly into her phone on the eve of funeral home viewings of three Compton children. “Three angels. I don’t know what I will do. I have to protect my daughter, but she will never be the same after this.”

The fatally injured youths were not strangers to her, she said.

Her daughter “spoke so highly of the boys that I drove over to their house Friday just to meet them,” she said. “Clydnesha was dancing in my dining room Friday night. She’s slept in my bed, lived a better part of this summer with me; she’s like my own. I’ve got her picture on my key chain. I was folding clothes tonight and found one of her little blouses.”


Her voice trailed off again, into prayers. “We don’t know what tomorrow brings us. We can only pray.”