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A prom dress she never got to show off

June 01, 2009|Tony Barboza and Ari B. Bloomekatz

It was prom night and Jennifer Perla was wearing her beautiful purple dress.

But she would never get a chance to show it off at the dance.

The cheerleader from Taft High School in Woodland Hills died Saturday night in an accident on the 110 Freeway as she and a group of friends were heading to their prom at the California Science Center.

Perla, 16, loved to dance and had been invited to the prom by a senior, said her brother, Mike Perla, 24, in a phone interview from the family's Encino home.

"She looked so beautiful in that dress," he said. "She was stunning."

Seven other passengers, ages 16 through 18, were treated for minor to moderate injuries after the 2003 Chevrolet SUV overturned about 8 p.m. on the freeway in downtown Los Angeles, California Highway Patrol officials said.

The driver, 18-year-old Kenneth Mullen of North Hollywood, lost control just south of 3rd Street and the car ended up on its side, officials said.

News of the crash spread quickly, with friends and classmates learning about it on their cellphones as they arrived at the dance in the Exposition Park area.

"Everyone was just really saddened," said Doug Lasken, an English teacher and prom chaperon. Although the dance continued, the accident cast a pall over the event.

Principal Sharon Thomas left recorded phone messages for the staff Sunday explaining some details of the accident. Choking back tears, she said that not all the school's students made it to the prom. Perla apparently died after being thrown from the vehicle. She was the only passenger not wearing a seat belt, said history teacher Jim Woodard, who received the message.

Grief counselors would be on campus Monday, the message said.

Jennifer Perla's sister, Janet, is a senior at the high school and was also in the vehicle.

Mike Perla was at home with his parents, who own a design firm, when Janet called.

Janet said "that they had gotten in a car accident and that she thought my little sister was dead," Mike Perla said.

"You just can't imagine. It's horrible. Plain horrible. . . . She was very popular in high school. Very friendly, very loving, beautiful," Perla said.

"She wanted to be in the FBI," he said. "She said she wanted to save and protect people."

Jennifer, who had turned 16 just over a week ago, held a special place in her heart for animals. She named the family's two dogs: Little and Nemo.

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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