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3 Girls Die After 15-Year-Old Driver Crashes

June 03, 1994|JEANNETTE REGALADO and MARK SABBATINI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA CLARITA — On almost any Wednesday night for the past two years, JoKema Du Bois, 15, and her 14-year-old sister, Barbara, would either call their pastor for a ride, or get their grandmother to drop them off for youth night at a local church.

The girls were too young to drive.

But on Wednesday, JoKema hopped in the driver's seat of her grandma's gold-colored 1986 Chrysler LeBaron anyway. Piling in behind her were Barbara and several friends, Gena Watkinson, 15; Alicia Acevedo, 14, and 3 1/2-year-old Jesica Noell, who lived with a boarder in the Du Bois home.

Someone put seat belts around Jesica in the back seat, but she was not restrained in a child safety seat, authorities said.

Family members said it was the first time JoKema had taken the car.

A few hours later, after the girls had listened to a sermon on eternal life, police said JoKema lost control of the car, sideswiped a pickup truck, and then slammed head-on into a second truck.

By the end of the night, JoKema and Gena were dead, and Barbara and Alicia were hospitalized in critical condition. Jesica died Thursday afternoon.

Three other people in the vehicles they hit were not seriously injured, authorities said.

On Thursday, Barbara lay in the pediatric intensive care unit at Northridge Hospital Medical Center with numerous broken bones and a punctured lung, while Alicia was in another room with a broken leg and a head injury. Friends and families of the two prayed and waited in the hospital waiting room, anxious for updates.

Anna Du Bois, the 21-year-old sister of JoKema and Barbara, described JoKema as a good-natured kid.

"They just snuck out to go to church," she said. "She was a normal kid. I mean what kid doesn't tell a fib or so. But they don't usually snag the car."

JoKema, a freshman cheerleader at Canyon High School, loved to hang out at the Valencia Towne Center and had a close relationship with her sister, Barbara, relatives said.

The two insisted on sharing a bedroom even though their grandmother's Canyon Country house had a spare room. They shared makeup and clothes and slept in a black leather-covered water bed. Pictures of black, red and white roses were on the walls. Until this year, the two had season passes to Magic Mountain, where they spent much of their summer days, relatives said. They had matching hearts tattooed between the thumb and forefinger.

JoKema's driving experience was limited to practice runs on dirt roads at her grandfather's 90-acre ranch in Acton.

The two were raised by Mary McWilliams, their grandmother, whom they called "Momma," relatives said.

Gena Watkinson, also a freshman at Canyon High School, was a member of the school's junior varsity swim team, a member of the school and church choir, and an avid horse lover, said her grandmother and guardian, Sandra Watkinson.

The 15-year-old won numerous medals and ribbons in horse jumping and other riding competitions, her grandmother said. She also wrote poetry using a special technique.

"She took the title and used each letter as the first (in each line of the poem)," Sandra Watkinson said.

Many students at Canyon High School who knew the girls expressed sadness Thursday.

"It was just really shocking," said Dan Hart, 16, a junior who said he was a friend of JoKema's and knew the other three teen-age girls in the car. "I can't imagine seeing a person one day and the next . . . they're in the hospital."

Mike Allmandinger, the school's principal, said Canyon High teachers and faculty had been victim to a string of tragedies over the past several years, including an assistant football coach who was paralyzed in a traffic accident, and a student who died after he fell off the bed of a pickup truck.

"There have been a number of things that have gone wrong," he said. "It's hard on kids, it's hard on a school."

On Thursday, JoKema's grandmother, Mary McWilliams, said she did not know the girls had taken her car until it was too late.

"Gena's grandmother called me and she said Gena was riding home with JoKema," McWilliams said. "I said 'What?' Then I looked down for my keys, and when I noticed they were missing I hung up."

Both families got into cars to look for the girls, but couldn't find them at either the Taco Bell or the Jack-In-The-Box, McWilliams said.

Sheriff's officials said the accident occurred about 8:30 p.m., after the girls had attended an IMPACT meeting--an hourlong sermon and social gathering designed for teen-agers at Canyon Country First Assembly Church of God. Each Wednesday night, the girls took Jesica while the little girl's mother, Jamie Noell, 27, stayed at the house with McWilliams, relatives said.

JoKema and Barbara had been going to the meetings for two years, while Gena had gone for about three years, said the church's youth pastor, Ralph Millikan.

Millikan said while the meetings were designed for youths at-risk, both JoKema and Gena came from supportive households headed by grandparents. On Wednesday night, he said he did not notice anything unusual.

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