Jenny Campos’ dream became real last July when nearly 350 friends and family helped celebrate her quinceañera in Laguna Hills. Wearing a red dress, the shy 14-year-old, just weeks from her 15th birthday, danced to “Summer” by Calvin Harris and was especially proud of the ring that her uncle had given her for the occasion.
Designed with a heart and the number 15, the band of gold represented her entry into the world as a young woman who had just started high school and one day wanted to become a crime scene investigator.
Her name had been inscribed on the inside of the band, no longer Jenny but Jennifer Campos.
But she was remembered by her baby name when her family spoke about her hopes and ambitions, lost in the aftermath of the fiery car crash that claimed her life and those of four other teenagers Saturday morning on their way home from Knott’s Berry Farm.
As the Orange County coroner’s office was working to identify the victims, the ring was retrieved from the wreckage, all the family has to confirm that Jennifer was in the car.
“I don’t think the family quite understands,” said Diana Vizcarra, 29, a cousin and Jennifer’s godmother. “Her uncle says he can still hear her laughter as if she is just hiding.”
The family is still trying to understand the circumstances of the crash, Vizcarra said. Jennifer was supposed to be home by midnight but stayed late at the theme park with a new friend, Jennifer Bahena.
They were coming home at 2 a.m. with four teenage boys when the BMW sedan they were in drifted off the southbound lanes of the Santa Ana Freeway, just north of the 133 Freeway in Irvine.
Three of the boys, identified as Alex Sotelo, Matthew Melo and Brandon Moreno, were killed, and the driver, Bradley Morales, is in serious but stable condition at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital.
The two girls, who were freshmen at Laguna Hills High School, had met on the school’s water polo team. Although Jennifer Campos had played basketball at Los Alisos Intermediate School, she loved to swim.
“She probably didn’t know water polo was a sport until she got to high school,” Vizcarra said.
They were driven to the popular Halloween event at Knott’s by Bahena’s cousin. According to Vizcarra, one of Jennifer’s friends had received a text message from her saying that she wanted to come home but didn’t have a ride.
Vizcarra believes that the boys were friends of Bahena. According to the California Highway Patrol, one of the boys was 15 and the other two were 14. Bradley Morales was 16, and authorities said he didn’t have a driver’s license. The name of the owner of the vehicle was not released.
Jennifer, who lived with her mother, stepfather and four siblings in Aliso Viejo, was the middle child. Her stepfather works at a local restaurant, and her mother is a housekeeper at a hotel. Jennifer would often take care of her two younger sisters, ages 4 and 5.
“She didn’t want to be the status quo,” said Vizcarra, “and have the stigma of being a young Hispanic mother. She wanted to go out and make a difference — and provide for her mother.”
The quinceañera was important to Jennifer, said Vizcarra. It became a chance for the family to see their daughter as an adult.
Her mother wanted Jennifer to wear a traditional white dress, but she insisted on red, and the centerpiece was her dance to an unapologetically romantic song by the Scottish musician.
When I met you in the summer
To my heartbeat sound
We fell in love
As the leaves turned brown.
Considered shy and reserved, Vizcarra said, Jennifer had changed into white shorts and performed to a medley of songs. “We weren’t expecting her to dance,” Vizcarra said. “She was so shy.”
Just a week ago, the family received photographs and video of the party and had a chance to relive the moment.
Jennifer had dreamed of becoming a crime scene investigator — as she once wrote on a list of her lifetime ambitions — “in order to help people who are hurt.”
“I don’t want to see people who are hurting,” she wrote.
On Sunday afternoon, the south Orange County communities where the families lived were trying to find words for the tragedy.
Dozens of students gathered at Capistrano Valley High School, where Alex Sotelo and Matthew Melo went to school and dyed their hair in honor of Matthew, who had blond highlights.
At nearby Tesoro High School on Monday, students are being encouraged to wear black and gold — Capistrano Valley High School’s colors — in solidarity.
And pastors, who use Laguna Hills High School and Capistrano Valley High School for Sunday worship, reminded their congregants of the tragedy.
“You can imagine the grief these families are feeling, such young lives taken away in such a violent way,” said John Nelson of the Freedom in Christ Church.
“We never know why things happen,” said Pat Giraldin of Hope Crossing Community Church, who skipped morning announcements to lead a prayer for the families. “They’re going through the darkest moment in their life.”
Later Sunday, hundreds of people gathered for a candlelight vigil at Capistrano Valley High School.
Two gold balloons shaped like the number 9, to signify Matthew’s longtime soccer number “99,” flew over the outdoor speaker’s stage.
“The kid just couldn’t get enough soccer,” said Ajay Bhardwaj, Matthew’s former coach, who attended the vigil. “It’s beyond tragic to lose a kid.”
Times staff writers Kim Christensen and Emily Foxhall contributed to this report.