IRVINE — A green tent and a table lined with dozens of cupcakes was set up alongside the skinny sapling planted in memory of 14-year-old cheerleader Ashton Sweet, who died after a car crash on Memorial Day weekend.
Friday would have been Sweet’s 15th birthday, and friends and family gathered at Irvine Boulevard and Culver Drive to honor the memory of the Northwood High School freshman who prosecutors assert was killed by a suspected drunk driver.
“We feel so connected to this spot. It is where it happened,” said the girl’s mother, Elizabeth Sweet. “There’s a lot of love attached to this corner.”
Elizabeth wore a green blouse — Ashton’s favorite color — in her daughter’s memory.
It was a hard week for the family. The Orange County district attorney’s office charged Austin Jeffrey Farley, 26, of Irvine in connection with the death. Prosecutors alleged in court this week that he was drunk and on prescription medication when his truck plowed into a Mercedes-Benz carrying Ashton Sweet. The crash injured four others.
Farley has pleaded not guilty. He had a preliminary hearing Friday in the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach and is due in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana on Oct. 17.
After Sweet’s death, the corner was covered by an impromptu memorial covered in goodbye notes — messages written on the lightpost and utility box — candles and flowers.
About three months after the girl’s death, the city of Irvine suggested a tree be planted for Sweet. City officials worked with the family to select a tree that would properly remember her life.
A crape myrtle was eventually selected, in part because of the pink buds that will blossom on the tree in the summer, said Sweet’s brother, Caden Sweet, 19.
“She was just a very colorful girl,” Caden Sweet said. “We just wanted something that would stand out like she did.”
The tree will reach about three quarters of its maturity around the time Sweet would have been graduating from high school.
The tree was selected in part because it would parallel her maturity, Elizabeth Sweet said.
In preparation for the party, Sweet’s brother and a few friends baked a variety of cupcakes, including chocolate, lemon and one of Sweet’s favorites, “Funfetti,” Elizabeth Sweet said.
“They’re not the most beautiful in the world — it’s about love,” Elizabeth Sweet said to a friend of Sweet’s who was sampling the goodies.
Sweet made the Northwood High football team baked goods each week, and the pre-party baking was also in memory of her weekly routine.
A large balloon tied to the tree read “birthday girl” and Elizabeth Sweet brought dozens of flowers for the memorial. Along with the cupcakes were lemonade and soda for friends dropping by after class.
Sweet’s grandmother sent a birthday card about two weeks ago, but Elizabeth Sweet waited until Friday, while she was at the memorial, to open it.
Inside the teal card read, “God’s masterpiece … you! Happy birthday,” and a song chimed along to the sound of teens chattering and passing afternoon traffic.
For her 14th birthday last year, the family had a quiet celebration at home. They baked a cake and gave Sweet an iPod Touch.
“We miss her at home,” Caden Sweet said. “If we didn’t celebrate without her it would be weird.”