Chasing Hope

Jacqui decided to take a break from college and study English abroad. She settled on Austin, where a family friend who lived in Texas could help with arrangements.

Amadeo thought Jacqui deserved a rest. Rosalia pleaded with her daughter to stay.

"I don't believe in this, but I had a premonition deep in my heart," Rosalia said. "Something that told me no, no, no."

Jacqui had her own foreboding.

"I know something is going to happen to me," she told Yelitza Villar, the beloved older cousin with whom she had attended a private Catholic school. The cousins were close childhood friends — "worse than sisters," another family member said.

Don't go if you don't want to, Yeli told Jacqui. But the arrangements already were made.

A week before leaving, Jacqui went to their beach club, where she rode her Jet Ski up and down the channels, slicing through the still, murky water. It was overcast and cool. She breathed deeply, savoring the breeze.

"Well, enjoy this," she remembers telling herself, "because you don't know if you're going to have another chance."

At Caracas' main airport on Aug. 20, 1999, Jacqui and her parents took pictures in the cafeteria.

"Use the time well," Amadeo told her.

Rosalia and Jacqui hugged and kissed. "See you soon," her mother said.

From the plane, Jacqui spotted her parents on the observation deck. They were standing apart. She started to cry. 

Austin, Sept. 18, 1999

Jacqui called Amadeo from Austin. She wanted to go to a birthday party that Saturday night outside the city on Lake Travis. The birthday boy, who was Venezuelan, would pick her up.

Her father didn't like the idea and told her to take cab fare with her in case she got stranded.

Jacqui had been in Austin for almost a month, studying English at a private language school near the University of Texas. She was happy on her own and was thinking about staying another semester.

At first she lived with a Spanish-speaking host family, then moved into her own apartment in a dormitory. Her neighbor was Johanna Gil, a 20-year-old Venezuelan student she had met in English class. Jacqui and Johanna did everything together.

Johanna wasn't interested in the party that Saturday, but Jacqui insisted.

"Let's go, let's go," she said, until Johanna gave in.



That morning, Reggie Stephey's mother picked him up from football practice at Lake Travis High School. The 18-year-old was a popular wide receiver with a narrow build and wavy light brown hair.

Earlier that summer, Reggie had moved into his own apartment. His father had died when he was a child, leaving him $70,000 from an insurance policy. Reggie supported himself with that money and a paycheck from folding clothes at a mall store.

Reggie's mother drove him to pick up his prized blue 1996 GMC Yukon, which was getting a new bumper. He had bought the sport-utility vehicle with his inheritance and had it customized and raised.

That night, Reggie met some high school friends at a dock on Lake Travis, where they drank beer from an ice chest. Reggie said later in a court deposition that he had had two or three beers.

About midnight, when his friends started leaving, Reggie drove alone to a college party downtown.

When he arrived, a witness later testified at his trial, Reggie's eyes were bloodshot.

Two Parties

At the party, Jacqui and her friends watched the Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad boxing match on television, then danced salsa and merengue. It felt like a party back home.

She and Johanna gossiped with Laura Guerrero, a 20-year-old student from Colombia. Laura was with her boyfriend, Johan Daal, a 22-year-old Venezuelan. The couple had met the previous year after coming to study in Austin.

As the hours passed, Jacqui grew bored. The birthday boy, who had picked her and Johanna up, was drinking and couldn't drive them home. They waited around for a ride.

In Austin, Reggie walked to his car.

He seemed unsure of his words and footing, a witness later said. Describing that night to a jury, Reggie said he couldn't remember how many beers he drank at the party.

A few minutes after turning west on RM 2222, Reggie's Yukon began climbing a steep incline firefighters call Tumbleweed Hill.

A Ride Home
A Russian girl offered Jacqui and her friends a ride home. Natalia Chpytchak Bennett was an 18-year-old student at Austin Community College.

Jacqui, who rarely drank, said she had been watching Natalia. She seemed sober.

Laura and Johan climbed in the back of Natalia's 1990 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency. Jacqui and Johanna remember arguing over who would ride shotgun.

You sit in front, Jacqui said. No, you, Johanna said. Finally, Jacqui gave in.

Jacqui doesn't remember whether she fastened her seat belt. The autopsy report would say that Laura did not.

Natalia put on her seat belt and turned on the radio. Laura fell asleep in the arms of Johan, who also dozed off.

Johanna complained that Natalia wasn't driving fast enough.

"We're never going to get there at this turtle's pace," Jacqui remembers Johanna whining.

As Johanna spoke, Jacqui remembers turning around and thinking:

We're going to crash.