Three Years After Kayla Mendoza's Wrong-Way Crash, the Victims' Families Fight to Save Lives
Gary Catronio holds a portrait of his daughter Marisa, who, along with her best friend, Kaitlyn Ferrante, was killed by a drunk driver.
Gary Catronio stands in the middle of his daughter Marisa's small bedroom inside a tidy Coral Springs home. A New Yorker with a head of white hair and a trimmed white beard, he is careful not to bump or knock anything over. He points to a pile of women's jeans and T-shirts folded at the foot of her twin-size bed and glides his index finger over the floral bedspread, which is tucked and pressed. Then he gestures toward a dozen white teddy bears dressed in deep-red outfits for Christmas.
The beige bedroom walls, wooden dresser, desk, and nightstand are neatly arranged with framed photos of Marisa's many friends, two younger brothers, mom, and dad. They show the evolution of a happy little girl with long brown hair who has grown up to become a stunning young woman — impeccably dressed with a swan-like elegance. In the most recent photos, her chocolate strands are straightened and spill past her shoulders. Her almond-shaped eyes are lightly traced with kohl, and her lips shimmer in a light pink gloss. Marisa's smile — subtle and effortlessly flashing a perfect row of white teeth — is the one constant among the 21 years of images of family vacations at Disney World, country music concerts, and nights out with friends.
"Her smile is so beautiful," Gary says as he looks at a selfie of Marisa in her car that's enlarged onto a canvas. Hanging on the wall is a smaller snapshot of her First Communion in second grade. "See, the boys never showed teeth, but Marisa always had this big, beautiful smile. It would just light up the room."
A photo of Marisa's hunky high-school boyfriend in his baseball uniform is posted on the wall. Her folded laundry still needs to be put away, and her iPhone charger is plugged into the power strip beside her bed. Her purple hair iron rests cold and unused atop a washcloth on her dresser. And, until recently, the room smelled of her perfume. Now, Gary says, if he's lucky, he can still catch her scent under her pillow.
Marisa Catronio and her best friend, Kaitlyn Ferrante, were killed November 17, 2013, in perhaps America's most infamous wrong-way collision a mile away, on the Sawgrass Expressway. Both were 21 years old. Twenty-year-old Kayla Mendoza hit them head-on while traveling at more than 70 mph. Mendoza showed a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. Just a few hours earlier, she had tweeted "2 drunk 2 care."
Since then, Marisa's bedroom has become a sanctuary for her family. It's not uncommon for Gary, his wife Natalie, and Marisa's brothers, 22-year-old Jesse and 20-year-old Dustin, to step inside as a way to feel close to her. Her room has been virtually untouched for more than three years. The only thing that changes are the teddy bears, which Gary costumes appropriately for Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and other holidays.
"I pass her unoccupied room, still intact the way she left it, but with her door closed, too painful to look inside," Marisa's mother wrote in a letter to a judge. "Gone is the laughter, the music, her talking on the phone, the overpowering scent of perfume, all the happiness that once came out of her room."
Wrong-way crashes are cruel. They are unexpected. And they are increasingly common around the holidays. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, about 360 lives are lost each year in nearly 260 fatal wrong-way collisions. The Institute of Transportation Engineers found that Florida, California, and Texas have the highest numbers in the nation.
The 2013 Coral Springs accident stands out, though. It wasn't just another heap of mangled machinery and deaths stemming from an awful mistake. In less than 140 characters, Kayla Mendoza made herself a villain with seemingly no regard for human life.
Eighteen months after the crash, Mendoza was sentenced to 24 years in prison. But Marisa Catronio's family wasn't satisfied. They know punishment won't bring her back. They will always question why Marisa perished and Kayla survived. And they've channeled their anger and grief into a campaign to prevent wrong-way crashes. It's called Marisa's Way, and after working with the Florida Department of Transportation to implement new roadway designs, wrong-way crashes in Miami-Dade County have fallen from a peak of 181 in 2014 to 168 in 2015. They dropped from 167 in 2012 to 112 in 2015 in Broward.
But Gary Catronio says his work won't be done until those numbers dwindle to zero. "Losing a child like this is the most tragic thing a parent or anyone can go through, and you know the pain doesn't get better and never goes away," Gary says as tears well in his eyes. "But what can you do? Life moves on. We can't."
Courtesy of Ashley Speziale
Kaitlyn Nicole Ferrante was born May 12, 1992, on Long Island to Philip and Christine Ferrante. To her parents' surprise (both have dark hair and complexions), Kaitlyn's tresses were platinum blond. As a toddler, Christine says, her daughter was happy-go-lucky but headstrong and determined to walk before her first birthday. When Ashley was born in 1995, 3-year-old Kaitlyn became a big sister. As kids, the pair loved to watch movies and shows that other kids scorned. Mrs. Doubtfire and I Love Lucy were their favorites. When Kaitlyn was 6, the Ferrantes had a third child, Nico. Soon after, in 1998, the family moved from New York to Coral Springs to be closer to Christine's sister, Lee Marie.
The Ferrantes purchased a two-story home on a quaint, winding street in a gated Windham Lakes community. Kaitlyn attended nearby Eagle Ridge Elementary School, where she met Marisa Catronio in third grade. The 8-year-olds were immediately inseparable.
"They loved to bake," Christine Ferrante recalls. "Of course they made a big mess in the kitchen with dirty pots and pans, but they loved to bake cookies and then take them to the fire department."
Kaitlyn was blond, more outdoorsy, and charismatic. Marisa was brunet, girly, and a little shy. Both were the oldest of three. As a little girl, Marisa cared for Jesse and Dustin and made sure all the chores were finished on time. Because Marisa was allergic to dogs, her parents picked out a special hypoallergenic terrier they named Sammy. The young girl made intricate jewelry, listened to country music, binge-watched Twilight movies with her mom, and rode around town on the back of her father's motorcycle.
"Marisa was my copilot," Gary says. "It can be very dangerous, but Marisa just knew to lean into the curves. No matter what she was doing, when I said I was going out on the bike, Marisa would drop everything."
Kaitlyn, too, was a daddy's girl. According to her mother, Philip "gave her anything she wanted." But there was a dark secret in the Ferrante household. In 2006, 44-year-old Philip Ferrante chatted online with a 13-year-old girl and allegedly met her at a friend's bar mitzvah. According to the Sun Sentinel, Philip took the girl to a movie in West Boca Raton and afterward drove her to an isolated street and had sex with her in his car. He claimed she said she was 18. He was arrested two months later, convicted of lewd and lascivious sexual battery on a minor, and sentenced to prison. Her parents divorced the following year. Kaitlyn was just 13 years old.
At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Coral Springs, the girls grew even closer. Marisa and Kaitlyn weren't bookish types, but they enjoyed school. Some mornings, Christine says, the girls would go out for breakfast before class. After school, Kaitlyn played soccer, went shark fishing with her boyfriend, and babysat. In tenth grade, Marisa began dating a boy on the baseball team. She also tended her pets: a hamster named Charlie and a dwarf rabbit she hid from her parents in her room. She especially enjoyed dressing up Sammy her terrier for every holiday. Both girls spent their allowances shopping online and swapped clothes. On the weekends, they'd spend hours in front of their bedroom mirrors, ironing their hair, slathering on perfume, painting on makeup, and trying on outfits.
"I miss their smell, their perfume. You could smell them all the way upstairs," Christine says. "You always knew they were home because of their perfume."
After graduating from high school, both Marisa and Kaitlyn received cars as gifts and commuted to Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth. Kaitlyn babysat to afford her car payments each month and also to buy clothes. She had a knack for understanding children. Families even paid her to accompany them on vacation.
"Kids just adored her," Christine says. "And Kaitlyn loved people."
Though the recession forced the Catronios to downsize to a smaller, three-bedroom home in Westwood in 2011, Gary bought Marisa a red Toyota Camry. He was nervous when she started driving, but he knew she was careful. Marisa had a strict 2 a.m. curfew. If she missed it, it was only by a few minutes, and she'd always call or text to let her parents know.
In 2013, both girls were sophomores at Palm Beach State College. They commuted to class together almost every day. Though neither had yet to declare a major, they settled on prospective careers: Kaitlyn wanted to become a pediatric nurse, and Marisa planned to study accounting and work with children.
Then, on Saturday, November 16, 2013, Marisa and Kaitlyn spent hours ironing their hair and putting on makeup upstairs in Kaitlyn's bedroom. The girls were meeting two other girlfriends at Lulu's Bait Shack on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Around 7:30 p.m., Christine Ferrante says, she was curled up on the couch watching TV when Marisa and Kaitlyn filed downstairs and out the front door. It was the last time she saw them alive.
Kayla Mendoza is sworn in before pleading guilty February 18, 2015.
Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/TNS/Newscom
Kayla Mendoza was born Christmas Day 1992 in Miami to Winston Mendoza and Kim Massey. When Kayla was 2 years old, her father was murdered, leaving her mother strapped for cash and forced to raise a little girl on her own. Two years later, Kim Massey met another man and had another child, a boy. Kayla attended Hallandale High and worked at chain stores at Aventura Mall. She didn't have a car, so her mom drove her to work. Kayla had no interest in academics, but she never drank and didn't start smoking weed until her senior year.
The next year, she began working at a T-Mobile store and at first relied on the bus for transportation. But then she moved in with her boyfriend, Frederico Reyes, a classmate. He would drop her off at work. Though she didn't have a license, sometimes she drove his Hyundai Sonata. It was around this time that Kayla said she began drinking beer socially. She was 20 years old.
After her shift at the phone store, Kayla would sometimes accompany her co-workers for drinks. She was underage, but bartenders didn't ask for her ID. She didn't even have a fake ID.
On Saturday, November 16, her boss invited her to watch a UFC match with other co-workers at Tijuana Taxi Co. on University Drive in Coral Springs after her shift ended at 9 p.m. It was located in the same shopping plaza as the phone store. Kayla said she wanted to show she was serious about advancing in the company. At the restaurant, receipts show she ordered two large, 32-ounce margaritas, which contain five to six shots of tequila each, and two shots of Patrón Silver.
When her boyfriend, Reyes, returned from work at a hotel and saw that Kayla wasn't at their Coconut Creek apartment, he was upset. He texted her: "I let you use my car to go to work, not out to dinner."
That's when Reyes says she tweeted around 11 p.m.: "2 drunk 2 care." He claims it was directed at him. (Reyes did not respond to a knock on his Coconut Creek apartment and a letter seeking comment for this story.)
At 12:26 a.m., Mendoza signed the bar receipt. She was so intoxicated that she wrote the tip amount on the signature line and forgot to sign. Her co-workers were headed to Vegas Cabaret strip club in Lauderhill. Mendoza was wary but agreed. Her manager drove her. But when they decided to go to another strip club instead, Kayla said she wanted to go home. Her manager then dropped her off at her boyfriend's car at Tijuana Taxi Co. She put the key in the ignition and drove toward the highway.
Then, at Atlantic Boulevard, Mendoza turned right instead of left onto the off-ramp of the Sawgrass Expressway. Calls to 911 began pouring in, and vehicles were swerving to miss the white Hyundai Sonata. At 1:47 a.m., Florida Highway Patrol was notified about a vehicle traveling north at more than 80 mph in the southbound lanes.
One of the callers was a Boca Raton man named Frank Aceste. According to court documents, he traveled beside Kayla for four miles on the opposite side of the road, traveling the right way in the northbound lanes. Seconds after hanging up with 911, he "saw a few cars swerve, and then he saw an explosion."
A woman named Ariana McCauly later told investigators that "she observed a car's headlights coming directly at her. She realized that the car was traveling extremely fast, coming directly at her." McCauly swerved to the left to avoid Mendoza. But "as soon as she moved over, the white car passed her to the right. A red Toyota [trailing her] became exposed and was struck head on."
Both Aceste and McCauly told officers that Kayla didn't brake.
Marisa Catronio's red Toyota Camry was destroyed in the crash.
Courtesy of Christine Ferrante
It was 1:49 a.m. Aceste and McCauly pulled over immediately. Aceste crossed the concrete barrier and rushed to the crash. The Sonata had rammed into the Camry. Marisa Catronio and Kaitlyn Ferrante were inside. They had dropped off friends in Boca Raton.
Both cars were destroyed. The Hyundai was in flames, and Aceste hurried over to the Toyota. When he opened the back passenger door, he saw the engine had come through the car. It had pinned Marisa. She was dead. Kaitlyn, in the driver's seat, was badly injured.
A Coral Springs Police officer soon arrived. He noted that Kaitlyn was "moving her head and arm slightly." Immediately, Coral Springs firefighters — members of the same department that Marisa and Kaitlyn often baked cookies for — arrived with hydraulic equipment. Kaitlyn was airlifted to Broward Health North. Kayla was treated on the scene and taken to the same hospital by ambulance.
Back at Marisa's home in Coral Springs, Natalie Catronio was concerned. Her daughter had missed her 2 a.m. curfew. She awoke Gary, who jumped on the computer in their kitchen and used the Find My Phone app to track his daughter's location to the Sawgrass Expressway. They were relieved that she was less than a mile from exiting the highway. Then they noticed the GPS dot wasn't moving. Frantically, they called Marisa over and over. Then Kaitlyn. No answer.
Marisa's brother Jesse had been watching a movie with a friend in the family room. The friend's mother, an ER nurse, called to check in. She notified the family of a horrible accident on the Sawgrass. The Catronios hoped that Marisa was stuck in traffic or that she was being written up for a ticket. Immediately, the family rushed to the crash site. Dustin was left sleeping at home.
"All I wanted to do was to go there and visually see for myself," Gary says. "[But when] we got there, everything was blocked off. It was a surreal sound, and everything was quiet."
State troopers were confused to see the Catronios asking about the red Camry. Officers didn't understand how the family had been notified. They couldn't say whether Marisa was OK.
"We kept asking if there were hearts on the license place," he says. "I kept saying, 'Just tell me that you're working on a brunette.'?"
After what felt like an eternity, an officer said a passenger had died on impact, but the driver was airlifted with a pulse. Because Marisa's car had been involved in the crash, the Catronios believed she was alive. Police escorted them to Broward Health North.
For three hours, the family waited in the ER without updates. They were afraid and angry. Then, shortly after 5 a.m., an officer walked into the waiting room carrying an ID. Gary Catronio says he saw Marisa's picture and collapsed before the officer could finish. His son Jesse collapsed against a wall. Gary ran outside and leaned against the building.
"This can't be. It just can't be. Not my daughter," Gary remembers thinking in those moments, sobbing as he retells it. "My daughter can't be gone."
A state trooper knocked on Christine Ferrante's door at 4:30 a.m. She, her daughter Ashley, and son Nico rushed to the hospital. They saw the Catronios overcome with grief but couldn't talk to the family. They were quickly ushered to a room near the ICU, where Kaitlyn was in surgery.
Investigators handed the family Kaitlyn's purse. "There was blood splatter and glass," her sister Ashley says. "We still hadn't seen her, so we could only imagine what she must have looked like."
Christine Ferrante says her daughter's jaw, nose, arms, and legs were broken. Her brain had swelled from the impact. The doctors were able to keep her stable but explained the injuries were so severe that it was unlikely she would ever wake up. If she did, she might never walk again. A few hours later, a hospital representative began talking to Christine about harvesting Kaitlyn's organs.
"It was too soon," Christine says. "I felt rushed."
But the doctors explained that Kaitlyn was brain-dead and there was nothing they could do. "I was still angry," Ashley says. "I kept thinking, We just can't give up on her."
Meanwhile, just down the hall, Kayla was recovering from surgery. She had broken her legs in multiple places and suffered a brain injury but was expected to make a full recovery. Weeks later, investigators would learn, samples taken 2.5 hours after the crash revealed a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 — twice the legal limit.
Marisa's Way founder Gary Catronio speaks to high-school seniors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School November 17, 2016.
Every year, hundreds of family members receive the devastating news that loved ones have been involved in wrong-way car crashes. They are almost always seriously injured. Many die. Since 2013, 260 have perished in wrong-way crashes in the Sunshine State. The Florida Department of Transportation found 280 wrong-way crashes caused more than 400 injuries and killed 75 people on Florida highways between 2009 and 2013. Sixty of those crashes, or 21 percent, occurred in Miami-Dade County; ten of them were fatal.
Highway on- and off-ramps are nearly indistinguishable. At T-intersections, drivers can generally turn left onto the on-ramp or just as easily turn right onto the off-ramp, unknowingly accelerating into oncoming traffic — as Kayla Mendoza and other drivers have done.
Red reflectors and wrong-way signs are meant to alert drivers, but critics say they don't draw enough attention, especially if drivers are intoxicated. Minimal lighting at night can add to the confusion. When few cars are on the road in the early morning, anyone could misinterpret the traffic flow.
"The state needs to overhaul our roads," Gary Catronio says. "We can't put a price on a life."
Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other safe-driving initiatives have warned about the dangers of wrong-way crashes. But until the 2013 Coral Springs accident, no organization in the nation had focused entirely on preventing these accidents.
The morning after the death of his daughter, Gary and his brother, Ron Catronio, founded the nonprofit Marisa's Way. They drew the pink heart-shaped logo and planned their mission: to spotlight wrong-way car accidents. By describing Marisa and Kaitlyn's tragic crash to young drivers at high-school assemblies, the Catronios hoped to reinforce smart tactics such as relying on designated drivers or Uber, and driving more cautiously between midnight and 5 a.m. The organization began lobbying the state to install new preventative technology at off-ramps.
"No one can understand what that pain and loss is like until it happens to you," Gary says. "When it happens, I reach out. I understand."
• Saturday, July 19, 2014, just before 8 p.m., 22-year-old Clarissa Vargas was driving north in the southbound lanes of I-95 near the Dolphin Expressway when she struck a Yamaha motorcycle driven by Norman Mello — a recovering alcoholic weeks away from celebrating 13 years sober. Mello died on the scene. Vargas, who eventually recovered, showed a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit.
• One afternoon seven months later, 24-year-old Woody Jacques was driving his Dodge Challenger more than 100 mph southbound in the northbound lanes of Jog Road near Florida's Turnpike when he hit a Toyota driven by 57-year-old Rui Rodrigues. Rodrigues was unharmed, but Jacques struck a tree and was killed. Federal agents later said he was running away from an oxycodone drug deal in which he was the lookout.
• At 5:53 a.m. Saturday, July 11, 2015, 23-year-old Subhan Saigol Khurram was driving a 2000 Honda Accord the wrong way on I-95 just north of Yamato Road in Palm Beach County when he crashed into a car carrying 50-year-old Frans McCatty and 33-year-old Ricardo Fletcher. Both fathers of small children were killed. Khurram's blood showed almost 2.5 times the legal limit of alcohol, as well as some pot. He sustained serious brain injuries. Khurram, who had been ticketed before the crash, had recently completed a driver improvement course.
• Two months later, on Labor Day weekend, 46-year-old Javier Landron was driving his Toyota Tundra west in the eastbound lanes of Oakland Park Boulevard before dawn when he crashed into a Toyota Camry carrying 44-year-old Audrey Williams Ives, who was pronounced dead at the scene. When rescue workers asked Landron if he had been drinking alcohol, he reportedly extended his thumb and pinkie and shook his hand to throw the "hang loose" sign. Tests later revealed his blood-alcohol content was twice the legal limit.
And there have been many more. Just before New Year's Day 2016, 23-year-old Amanda Lefler crashed into three sedans in the northbound I-95 express lanes near Miami Gardens, killing four people returning home from the airport. And on October 27, 2016, there were two wrong-way collisions in Broward, one on Florida's Turnpike near Sunrise Boulevard and another on the Sawgrass Expressway in Sunrise. Daniel Laguna, age 47, was killed, and several others were seriously injured.
Natalie Catronio, Marisa's mother, tends to a memorial along the Sawgrass Expressway where her daughter and Kaitlyn Ferrante were the victims of a wrong-way crash.
At 9 a.m. November 17, 2016, the entire senior class of about 300 is seated in the auditorium at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Coral Springs. Restless students ask about homework and fiddle on Snapchat. One student says they're here to "talk about a bad car accident," and another shakes his head and shrugs.
Then Gary Catronio walks to the podium onstage and looks out at the audience. Six years ago, Marisa and Kaitlyn had sat in this auditorium for their senior assembly. Now, 20 or so of their relatives and friends are seated quietly in the first few rows. Most wear burgundy shirts bearing images of the two girls' smiling faces.
"Three years ago today, my daughter Marisa and her best friend Katie died in a car accident less than a mile from here," Gary announces. "I would like to ask for a moment of silence. If everyone could please stand up and turn to the back of the room in the direction of the highway."
Something comes over this place, something that rarely happens at a high school. The students stop whispering. They put down their smartphones. They look at Gary and oblige. In unison, hundreds of students stand and turn. A few seconds later, everyone takes a seat.
For an hour, the grieving father holds their rapt attention as he describes the horrific car accident to students who are too young to remember the tragedy. Though Gary has told the story dozens of times, it always brings him to tears. He explains everything, including the awful moment when the family was informed that Marisa had perished.
"I saw [the officer] holding a picture of my daughter," he tells the students, his voice cracking and tears swelling in his eyes. "She was a passenger in her own car." He begins to cry.
In the fourth row, tears stream from Christine Ferrante's eyes too. She sits next to her daughter Ashley, now 22, and her 2-year-old granddaughter, a precious girl named Grace Kaitlyn in her aunt's memory. Christine tries not to interrupt the ceremony but can't hold back little sobs.
Then Ashley takes to the podium. "I lost my sister," Ashley says, her voice strong and unwavering. "I wasn't sure what to tell you this morning, but this picture says it all."
On a projector screen, a photo of Kaitlyn the day after the crash pops up. The room gasps. The beautiful blond 21-year-old is covered in bandages and casts. Tubes protrude from her nose and mouth. Her eyes are shut and bruised. Ashley lies in the hospital bed next to her sister, cuddling her.
That assembly — the third Gary has hosted in this auditorium on the tragic anniversary — is never easy. It's important, he says, to reach out to young drivers before they start drinking.
Gary has also pushed state and law enforcement officials to widen a pilot program that has been successful in reducing wrong-way accidents through solar-powered signs and vehicle-detection equipment on exit ramps to turn drivers around. At ten locations on the Homestead Extension of Florida's Turnpike and five locations on the Sawgrass Expressway, agencies have spent $14,000 per ramp. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, the system has turned around 23 of 24 detected wrong-way drivers.
There have been other positive results from the accident as well. An after-school program named Katie's Kids in Kaitlyn's honor has helped some South Florida kids cope with personal problems rather than resort to drugs and alcohol.
And Kaitlyn's family eventually donated her organs, which saved four lives. A 38-year-old woman received transplants of Kaitlyn's left kidney and pancreas. A 15-year-old boy was given her right kidney. And 56-year-old Julia Banegas de Alvarado, who was near death after catching a parasite while crossing the Mexican border, is alive thanks to Kaitlyn's heart. A week before the wrong-way accident, Banegas says, her heart had given out. She was pronounced dead for two hours. Her husband even received the phone call that said she was gone. But then doctors revived her and moved her to the front of the transplant list.
"I didn't know the family, but it brings me pain to know that a young girl had to die in order for me to live," Banegas says in Spanish. "I am so grateful to her mother. I owe her my life."
It took state prosecutors a year and a half to bring formal charges against Kayla Mendoza. Kaitlyn's and Marisa's families tried to be patient. They sued Tijuana Taxi Co., where Kayla had been drinking, and Mobile Store Operators LLC, where she worked. Those cases are pending.
Kayla couldn't be reached for comment for this story, but in February 2015, she pleaded guilty to two charges of DUI manslaughter, opening herself up to a maximum of 30 years in prison. Sitting in handcuffs in a Broward courtroom, she apologized to the families for the first time.
"I know this is long overdue, but I just want to tell you all how sorry I am," Mendoza said. "If I could trade places with them, I would, but there's nothing I could do to change it, and I'm sorry."
When she was sentenced May 4, 2015, prosecutors submitted 11 pages from her "Pothead Princess" Twitter account, @highimkaila. Three days before the accident, she tweeted, "I break all my bongs cuz I have butter fingers."
In the month leading up to the accident, she tweeted, "Can't sleep without my bedtime blunt" and "I really am so baked right now" and "my car permanently smells like weed."
And she tweeted "2 high 2 care" five days before the accident.
During sentencing, she asked for forgiveness. "I think about [Kaitlyn and Marisa] every day, and I regret my choices every day," she read. "I don't remember deciding to drive, so I can't even tell you what was going through my mind when I made that decision. I have no excuses for anything I've done. I just ask for forgiveness."
Broward Circuit Court Judge David Haimes sentenced Kayla to 24 years in prison and six years of probation. It was one of the most severe penalties in recent fatal car accidents involving alcohol. It was also one of the first times a defendant's social media use had been employed to prove reckless behavior.
If she is not released early, Kayla Mendoza will be locked away at Homestead Correctional Institution until she is 46 years old. In 2015, she filed paperwork to request that the sentence be reduced.
"I'd like to get out and be involved in Mothers Against Drunk Driving," Mendoza wrote to the judge. "I can't bring back the lives I took, but I can if I'm allowed to help save lives."
Her cellmate for the past year has been a woman named Tina Schlegel, who is serving three years after violating probation. According to Tina's husband, Frank Schlegel, Kayla is "a very smart girl" who should be shown compassion. Schlegel says Kayla is now teaching other inmates who are trying to earn their GED.
"What difference does it make if she's in here? It won't ever bring those girls back," Schlegel says. "Maybe if she's released, she can speak out and help bring some good from this."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.