August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

The school year over, Carla Wagner and her friend Claudia Valdes enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the Green Street Café in Miami’s Coconut Grove. After Wagner, then 17, paid the tab with her credit card, the two hopped into her 2000 Audi A4 and headed to a girlfriend’s house, stopping en route to pick up a $25 bottle of tequila using a bogus ID. There Wagner and Valdes drank several shots, passed around two pipefuls of pot and watched TV.

It was well past 7 when Wagner realized she needed to catch her parents at their Coral Gables home and get some money before they flew to New Orleans on business. Wagner jumped back into her car with Valdes, then 18, taking the passenger seat and Nicole Goudie, 17, climbing in back. Racing home, Wagner rounded one curve at more than 50 mph. “I told her, ‘Carla, slow down, there are a lot of cops around here,’ ” said Goudie, who had not partied with the others that evening. A few moments afterward, as Wagner tried to dial a cell phone, the car hit gravel and fishtailed out of control. Valdes, who sustained a broken pelvis and lacerated liver, recalled later, “I think I saw an image walking or Rollerblading or whatever she was doing.”

That shadow was Helen Marie Witty, 16, out for an early-evening skate. But the Audi, doing 60 mph in a 30-mph zone, had left the north-bound lane and veered onto the bike path, hitting Witty and tossing her 30 ft. before the car wrapped itself, like a giant C, around a tree. Motorist Lawrence Freshman saw the crash and hurried to the scene to find Goudie shaken and weeping. As for Witty, “She still looked like an angel, her eyes open,” says Freshman, who realized she was dead. “She looked peaceful and angelic.”

In June, at a time when the popular honor student might have been preparing for college, Wagner, now 18 and just two days out of high school, was sentenced to serve three to six years in a youthful-offender program at a women’s prison. During sentencing Wagner, who on April 10 pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, manslaughter, vehicular homicide and other charges, sobbed heavily when the prosecutor held up a photo of Witty.

As part of her plea agreement, Wagner must give speeches every three months to schools about the dangers of drunk driving. “I don’t think there will be anything more powerful than having Carla Wagner stand in front of an assembly with a picture of Helen Marie and say, ‘I killed this girl,’ ” says Wagner’s lawyer Richard Sharpstein. ” ‘Here’s how, and here’s how you can avoid it.’ ” Her first stop, scheduled for the fall, will be Miami’s Palmetto Senior High School in Pinecrest, where Witty would have been a senior.

The case alarmed the affluent community because of the destruction wrought on two promising young lives. Some saw the fatal crash as a cautionary tale about the use of cell phones while driving. But others said it highlighted the dangers of teen drinking. With Carla’s blood-alcohol level slightly above the allowable state limit, Goudie maintains her friend was remorseful. ” ‘I’m the one that deserves this, not her,’ ” Goudie said Wagner told her at the hospital shortly after the crash. Witty’s parents hope people don’t take the incident lightly just because teens were involved. “Carla Wagner’s willful criminal behavior killed Helen Marie,” Witty’s mother, Helen, told the court at the April 10 plea hearing. “It’s important that our community understand that killing an innocent bystander while speeding drunk on drugs cannot be dismissed as mere youthful high jinks.”

Despite their loss, the Wittys have exercised restraint and shown compassion. “The classiest people I have ever met,” says Assistant State Attorney Michael Gilfarb. “They want Carla Wagner to have a productive life after this.” To that end the Wittys, who were consulted during the plea-bargain process, never pressed for the maximum of 25 years. But while Wagner can petition for early release in three years, the Wittys retain final say and may request that she serve the full six years. “It delivers the ultimate justice,” says Gilfarb of the plea, “because it puts justice in the hands of the victims, Helen Marie’s family.”

No matter when she gets out, Wagner, whose family paid $1,600 toward the Helen Marie Witty Memorial Scholarship Fund as part of the plea agreement, may be deported. Born in Panama to a French father, she holds Panamanian and French passports and is not an American citizen. INS spokesman Bill Strassberger would not comment about Wagner, who also faces 10 years’ probation after release, but in general, he says, “in the case of someone being an aggravate felon, they would be turned over to the INS for removal.”

Wagner has started serving her sentence at Lowell Correctional Institution in Lowell, Fla., where she faces 6 a.m. wake-up calls and days filled with regular exercise, counseling and her work detail. It’s a long way from the bosom of privilege in her family’s $850,000 home in the exclusive Old Cutler Bay section of Coral Gables. The younger of two daughters born to Marc Wagner, 60, a perfume importer, and Victoria, 46, a housewife, Wagner became a well-liked honor student at the Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, a private academy run by Catholic nuns. “People don’t know her; she’s a good girl,” says her father.

Although accomplished in school, Carla had been in a fender bender in ’99. But her friends say that when she partied, she usually maintained control. “She doesn’t get crazy,” said Valdes, who met Wagner at a summer camp in 1999. “She mellows down and she’s happy.”

Also from a well-off family, Witty grew up in Pinecrest in a house built by her grandfather (a local contractor) and in a neighborhood with a street named for her grandmother. She was the older of two children born to John C. Witty II, 49, owner of an airplane-parts supply company, and Helen, also 49, a homemaker. Though often color-coordinated down to the scrunchie that held back her hair, Witty socialized on occasion but generally immersed herself in school activities.

Particularly passionate about theater, she was vice president of her class, earned straight A’s and belonged to three honor societies. She also volunteered for community groups raising money for underprivileged children and was a leader in her church’s youth organization. “Broadway was one of her goals,” says Rick Adams, Witty’s theater teacher at Palmetto High. At the same time, he notes, “I had a young man in my class who was an ex-con, but she befriended him to be nice. She was that kind of child. She was innocent.” She was so involved and idealistic that she rarely dated. “She never had a boyfriend,” says classmate Erica Lustig, 17, “because she was always waiting for the perfect guy. A lot of guys liked her, and she would just smile at them.”

That she touched many lives is plainly evident. The day after the accident, a memorial of gifts was placed at the base of the tree where she died. A year later students and families still honor her memory, leaving passages from the Bible, scrawled notes, votive candles and fabric butterflies—lots of butterflies. In a 1999 journal entry she wrote, “First of all, it’s always been a dream of mine to fly and nothing flies more gracefully than a butterfly. Another reason is that most butterflies only live for an average of three days. Therefore, they rarely encounter any terrible hardships in their short life.”

Nick Charles

Linda Trischitta and Siobhan Morrissey in Miami

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