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Honoring a life cut short

This was not to be a somber affair, said Elizabeth Sweet, moments before the memorial. It was to be a celebration of life, of the upbeat spirit that for so long had typified her daughter, Ashton Sweet, a 14-year-old cheerleader from Irvine who died in a violent Memorial Day weekend car wreck allegedly caused by a drunk driver.

On Monday evening, about 300 of Ashton’s friends and family members jammed into the brightly lighted Chinese Baptist Church of Central Orange County, to say a final goodbye.

They sang “Amazing Grace.” They dressed in green and white -- colors, her mother said, of renewal. They laughed and shed tears, prayed and told stories.

Ashton was a unique teen, they said. She was a popular student who made funny faces and was always gabbing with her friends. But she was also a sensitive girl who took time to help disabled children, a girl so troubled by the plight of a neighboring family struggling to pay its bills that she volunteered to mow the family’s lawn.

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“She had a heart to serve,” said her grandfather, Dean Jordan, who reminded the crowd to thank God for giving them “14 precious years of Ashton.”

“Now,” he said, “her troubles are over.”

On May 31, two and a half days after her crumpled body was pulled from the wreckage, Sweet was pronounced dead.

On the night of the accident she and three girlfriends, all students at Northwood High School, were being driven from a birthday celebration by one of their fathers when his Mercedes-Benz was T-boned by a Toyota pickup. Everyone in the Mercedes was hospitalized, most with minor injuries. Aside from Sweet, 15-year-old Krista Merassa was hurt the worst: She suffered a lacerated spleen and damage to her lungs but has since been released.

The truck’s driver, Austin Jeffrey Farley, 26, has been charged with murder and driving under the influence of alcohol; he is being held in lieu of $1-million bail. Uninjured in the wreck, he agreed to an interview at Orange County Jail with a Times reporter late last week in which he expressed concern for those who were harmed but didn’t admit to causing the accident.

“As a human being, as a person, I feel terrible for their family,” said Farley, who was arrested at the scene and who prosecutors say had a blood-alcohol limit more than twice the legal limit.

Farley wouldn’t discuss the crash or his past. Court records show that he has been convicted of drunk driving and has had a series of driving infractions and criminal offenses dating back to 2002 that include battery, resisting arrest, vandalism, and petty and grand theft.

“They’re making me out to be a monster, and I’m not,” Farley said of the media. “Like any average American human being with a heart, it’s a tragedy. Whether I was in the accident or not, I would be upset. I’m not an animal. I’m just a person.”

Sweet’s stepfather, before the memorial, offered a sharp reply.

“I understand he is just a person, I don’t think of him as an animal,” David Pidcocksaid in a phone interview. He “has made continual choices that endanger others and himself, and he has to take responsibility for the choices he makes as a person, as we all do. He chose to drink and drive and his choice ended up killing someone very close to me.”

Monday’s memorial was informal and prayerful. Michael Ghaemi, who drove the Mercedes, was there. So were the three friends who were in the car that night: Krista, Ali Rivas and Parisa Ghaemi. The 15-year-olds wore green shirts adorned with a silk-screened photo they had taken with Ashton just before the accident.

The sting of the tragedy has been eased somewhat by the outpouring of love, Pidcock said. “Everyone has been very supportive. We did not realize how many people would be touched by this terrible event. We’re hearing from people all over the world.”

Memorials were planned in Melbourne, Australia, where Pidcock’s parents live, and in a Ghanaian village where Elizabeth Sweet, the daughter of missionaries, grew up.

Ashton’s heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas were donated, along with portions of her skin and other tissue. Her stepfather said the organs will help save six lives.

At the service, Michael Ghaemi said he has been plagued by a recurring flashback. In it, he sees two car lights coming his way, and then he feels the crash and his car spinning and he hears the girls’ screams. When the car comes to a stop he prays that none of “these angels” has been hurt, only to find that his wish has not been granted.

lauren.williams@latimes.com

kurt.streeter@latimes.com


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