As the countdown to Christmas entered its final week, Angela Jennings stared down at the carpet lining a dimly lit living room in the Petersburg community of Marshall. Seated on a sofa next to her son, Travis Raby, with her mother and step-father, Vicki and David Mitchell nearby, Jennings reflected how the date, Dec. 19, had filled her more with sadness than any hopes of holiday joy.

“It’s been eight months today,” Jennings said, trying to hold back tears. “I’ve had a really rough day.”

The calendar is just one of the many triggers that can flood the family with emotions as they remember their daughter, granddaughter and sister Lillith DeCarlo. Lily, as the four always called her, was only 13 when she died the night of April 19, the only fatality in a head-on collision on U.S. 25-70 in Madison County.

Memories surrounding that experience are still too raw for Jennings to consider. When asked if she could talk about that evening, Jennings sat quietly for a moment before answering. “Probably not,” she said quietly.

“She said something to me at the hospital that night, when it first happened, that absolutely ripped my heart out,” Vicki said, turning to face her daughter. “I know you don’t remember it. You said, ‘Momma, you've always fixed it in the past, you need to fix this.' And I was like, 'Baby I can't fix this. If I could have I would have.’"

This Christmas will be the first for the family after Lily’s death. A lovingly decorated purple urn holding her ashes sits in the Mitchell’s living room, underneath the colorful Christmas tree Lily likely would have helped her grandmother decorate.

“She put the Christmas tree up at our house and was responsible for waking everybody up on Christmas Day,” Jennings said, imagining Christmas past.

Vicki also fondly remembered holiday traditions she shared with her granddaughter. “She always put it (the Christmas tree) up on my birthday, which is the first of December. It took me two days just to get the tree up this year, just to get the tree together,” Vicki said of the smallish artificial tree standing atop a TV tray. “Every time I’d touch it, I’d start crying.”



Every day since Lily's death has been difficult, say the family members closest to her. Jennings, who works in mental health, said the emotions constantly swirling inside have made it hard to hold down a steady job. Lily, her mother said, was her “rock.”

“She still speaks to me through music,” Jennings said through tears. “She says that I need to be stronger than I am. She tells me, ‘Get up, Mom. It’s time to do this.’”

Lily’s family described the teenager as someone who was “always smiling.” Lily’s individuality, which she would display with constantly changing hair styles and colors, inspired all of them. “She was her no matter what and she was proud of it,” her mother said. “She would not let anyone or anything get her down.”

Lily and her older brother Travis, who Lily affectionally called “Bubby,” were best friends according to their mother. “She really helped him accepting of who he was,” their mother said.

Asked to describe his relationship with his younger sister, Travis wavered. “You’ll have to talk to them,” he said.

David Mitchell has no such hesitation speaking about how his granddaughter’s affection won his heart. “She knew that every time she came over, she better give Papaw a hug,“ he said, as he leaned back in his recliner. “And she knew that if she didn’t, that I'd give her a hard time.”

Inside his home decorated with Christmas stockings and family pictures, David said Lily is always present in the thoughts of those who loved her. “Very seldom are we doing anything that she does not cross our minds.” He said he now is able to find some measure of comfort by attending to a memorial along the bypass in Marshall near the crash site. “Time doesn’t heal. It just helps you accept it,” he said.

Justice to be done?

While working through emotions around Lily’s life, the family also faces reminders of her tragic death.

The accident report from the crash shows a vehicle driving on the wrong side of U.S. 25-70. That vehicle, a 2002 Chevy Trailblazer driven by Sarah Shelton, struck the 2003 Impala on the passenger’s side, according to Highway Patrol records, instantly killing Lily in the backseat. A Madison County grand jury indicted Shelton on charges of felony death by vehicle, felony serious injury by vehicle, driving while impaired and reckless driving to endanger. The 32-year old Alexander woman has remained in custody in the Madison County Jail since the accident. According to arrest records, the injuries she suffered in the accident did not require an overnight hospital stay. She is being held on a $200,000 secured bond.

“I found out that woman who did this to her lived on my bus route and I have to go by where she lived twice a day,” said Vicki, who drives a school bus for North Buncombe Middle School. “That, like, killed me.”

The family has attended all of Shelton’s scheduled court appearances and has received support through the process from Mother Against Drunk Driving. “Martha Collins has been very informative and supportive. She's been to every court date," Jennings said of the local contact of the national organization. "Michelle Collins, (Martha's) daughter, was killed right here on R.A. Hill (NC 213). She's basically trying to prepare us for the fact that justice is not going to be served."

The family fears that even if convicted, Shelton will not spend long behind bars. "The D.A. (District Attorney Seth Banks) explained to us that she (Shelton) has no record they can find at all. Not even a traffic ticket," Jennings said. "So she will start at the very bottom. She gets the least amount of time." Felony death-by-vehicle is a class D felony. Convicted motorists face 38 to 160 months in prison. 

"I wonder if she'll ever realize what she's done," Jennings said. "She didn't just take a person, she took a light out of this world, a very bright light."

Jennings said its also difficult for her whenever she sees the survivors from the April accident. Kara Raby, who Jennings said is Lillith's brother Travis's sister on his father's side, rode in the front seat of the Impala driven by William Dean Roberts. 

"I'd hate to live with the images she (Kara) does," Jennings said. "I feel really bad for her. I know it still hurts."

"It affected him (Roberts) very seriously, too," David said.

Community support 

The roadside memorial near the accident site constantly sees new additions and is just one of many places where family and friends pay tribute to the Lily. The budding musician, her mom proudly points out, played first chair trombone for the Madison Middle School Band. Band director Drew Brooks created a memorial rock garden outside the school for Lily.

"He's a real good man," Jennings said of Brooks, who led Lily's memorial service.

The family of one of Lily's closest friends added a marker for her in their family cemetery, Jennings said. 

"Everyone in this community who knows who we are, when we go to the grocery store or the gas station, they'll comment on the decorations we've put out," Jennings said. "She will never be forgotten."

"The county rallied around us," Vicki said. "They really did."

Lily's Facebook page remains active, with friends and band mates posting pictures and videos from recent performances. Really close friends of Lily check in occasionally on their friend's mother. "Her really good friends, we talk once a week. It's a way to keep connected to her."

"It says that she was a good friend and they miss her," Vicki said. "It's absolutely amazing to see how many people Lily had touched. She had no clue how loved she really was."

Even with the support, though, Jennings said she still has "breakdowns on a daily basis." 

"Nobody really know's what to do or say," Jennings said. "First day of school I sat on the couch waiting on Lily to come home. That would have been her first day of high school and I wanted to hear all about it." Jennings said she still sometimes thinks Lily will be coming home, eventually.

"She's in your heart, sweetie," Vicki said to her daughter. "She's in your heart."

"I know where she's at," Jennings said. "But that doesn't make it any easier."

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