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Hit and run

How could the woman they know drive away?

Two boys were dying in the street. Those who have met Jennifer Porter can't imagine her fleeing.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published April 18, 2004

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Above: On April 5, five days after the accident, Jennifer Porter told the media she was the driver of a Toyota Echo involved in the hit-and-run accident.

Right: Jennifer Porter's 1994 high school yearbook photo.

TAMPA - When the news finally hit Muller Elementary, it was so unsettling and perplexing some of the children cried and others simply put their heads down on their desks. Their 28-year-old dance teacher had been involved in the hit-and-run that killed two boys just down the block from the school.

What kind of person would drive away, leaving children dying in the street?

Pretty, soft-spoken Jennifer Porter?

Porter's students couldn't understand "why someone who is so good" could be that person, said Dr. Tracy Schatzberg, a crisis counselor who visited the school. "They want to know why, and we can't really explain why."

But how to explain to 10-year-olds something that makes little sense even to adults, particularly to those who know Jennifer Porter?

Across the country, people acquainted with Porter in various stages of her life are struggling - with no success - to square their memories of her with her decision to flee the crash scene.

People knew Porter as the shy, quiet girl at River Ridge High in Pasco County who gravitated toward outsiders.

They knew her as a dance student at the University of South Florida who could be reduced to tears by what she felt was a bias against women like her, who did not fit the ideal ballerina's body.

They knew her as an endlessly encouraging dance studio teacher who had students over for slumber parties.

They knew her as the teacher who chaperoned girls on a jaunt to Disney World, who drove carefully and made sure everyone wore their seat belts.

They did not know her as someone capable of driving away from the tragic scene on N 22nd Street just after dark on March 31.

Porter's exact role remains unclear, but that day, after working late at Muller Elementary, she steered her silver 2000 Toyota Echo onto 22nd Street. Moments later, four children who had been crossing the street lay on the pavement behind her. Two of them would die.

The Echo, like one or two other vehicles that witnesses saw, did not stop. Five days passed before Porter came forward to make a public apology.

Elize Selvarajah was Porter's close friend at USF and now lives in California. Knowing what she does of Porter's character, Selvarajah told the Times, her actions must be torturing her.

"She can't pretend her conscience isn't there," Selvarajah said. "Some people can lock it up and pretend it isn't there. She definitely can't."

* * *

Jennifer Porter was born at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, said her grandfather, Cuban-born lawyer Felipe Pacheco. It is the same hospital where three of the four children were taken after the hit-and-run.

Porter's father, James, is a postal worker, and her mother, Lillian, is a teacher's aide at Lake Myrtle Elementary in Land O'Lakes.

Dancing was Porter's passion from childhood. Her father built her a dance studio in the garage of their Land O'Lakes home.

At River Ridge High, Porter belonged to Students Against Driving Drunk and Florida Future Educators of America.

Regina Seballos-Forster, who was close to her there, described Porter as "the average friendly girl next door," and added: "She has a very sweet demeanor, probably one of the sweetest ones that you would ever know."

Porter befriended Seballos-Forster, who was a goth in high school. Now 27 and living in Cleveland, Seballos-Forster had not heard of the accident that put Porter's face in newspapers and newscasts across the country. Her first thought was that it couldn't have been Porter's fault.

"Jen, if anything, is not a wild person at all," she said, adding she was impressed by Porter's morals and character.

When Seballos-Forster had a bad breakup with a boyfriend, Porter was there to offer positive words. Rather than bad-mouth the boyfriend, Porter told her friend it was for the better.

"I don't think she's got a mean bone in her body," Seballos-Forster said. "I don't even remember a time that girl had a frown on her face."

Porter performed in - and won - the River Ridge talent show with her little sister, Kelly. Porter's dance number surprised classmates, who hadn't realized the depth of her talent.

In her high school yearbook, Porter wrote of her ambitions: attending the University of South Florida, teaching dance, owning her own studio.

She would achieve all of them.

* * *

Elize Selvarajah knew Porter as a fellow student in the USF dance department. They have been out of touch recently, and Selvarajah learned of the accident that killed 13-year-old Bryant Wilkins and his 3-year-old brother, Durontae, when a reporter called her in California.

"Oh, no," said Selvarajah, 30. "Oh, my God."

They used to hang out at Porter's home in Land O'Lakes, where Porter still lives with her parents. Selvarajah remembers Porter as quiet and sensitive, with a deep attachment to her Catholic family.

"She's not a drinker. She's not a wild partier," Selvarajah said.

Porter danced flamenco at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City while she was going through USF. In the USF dance program, Selvarajah said, "We were not the popular, beautiful people."

She said Porter did not fit the ballerina mold - tall, skinny, hipless - and often felt like an outsider. She befriended others who were struggling in the program.

"She didn't want their dreams to die, didn't want them to feel unwanted," Selvarajah said. "She definitely is aware of being on the receiving end" of unfairness.

Selvarajah said Porter's actions after the accident do not jibe with the caliber of the person she knew in college.

"I can't imagine she'd be anywhere but in her bed crying, or too exhausted from crying to know what to do."

* * *

Jennifer Porter opened her dance studio in Wesley Chapel about a year ago. It was a big dream and she gave it a fittingly big name - the Dance Arts Center of Tampa.

Nelson Suarez, who works with Porter's father for the postal service, remembers the balloons hanging in the lobby for the studio's opening and Jennifer Porter's elation.

"She'd finally reached something she'd always wanted," said Suarez, who has known Porter since she was a girl.

In recent months Porter has had a relentless schedule, Suarez said, holding down a full-time job at Muller Elementary during the day and then driving 11 miles to her studio for evening classes. Her family lent a hand at the studio, her mother working the front desk.

Porter had occasional boyfriends, friends said, but her focus was getting the studio off the ground. With two jobs, she seemed too busy to have much of a social life, Suarez said.

"Jenny's a quiet person, and she put her business first," he said.

Andrea Ramos, 17, of New Tampa has studied dance under Porter for years. She said Porter allowed her to take dance lessons on scholarship when she didn't have the money.

Ramos heard about the hit-and-run crash on the TV news and knew authorities were looking for a Toyota Echo. Though she knew Porter drove an Echo, "her name did not even cross my mind" as a possible suspect.

"It seems surreal," Ramos said. "I wanted to cry.

Traci Koch, 18, who has known Porter for years and worked at her dance studio, recalls a trip to Disney World with Porter several years ago. Porter and her sister drove a handful of students in a rented van.

"She was a very careful driver," Koch said. "She always made sure we had our seat belts on. If we got too rough or rowdy, she said, "Girls, calm down."'

Koch said the Porter sisters invited students for sleepovers at their parents' Land O'Lakes home. They ate pizza and watched dance recital videos and "cute little chick flicks."

"It's probably breaking her heart to know this happened to kids," Koch said. "Her life is kids. She's been teaching them ever since I can remember."

* * *

Jennifer Porter is on paid leave from Muller Elementary while the investigation into the hit-and-run continues. As a first-year teacher she makes $30,501.

Muller is a magnet school, offering two specialties: environmental science and performing and visual arts. Like 80 percent of the school's students, Porter does not reside in the surrounding poor, largely black neighborhood. And like most of those students, she is white.

Asked by crisis counselors to express their feelings, Porter's students responded by drawing cards telling her they missed her, they loved her, they wanted her back.

"One fifth-grade boy with a reputation of being a tough guy drew ballet slippers on his card," said Hillsborough schools spokesman Mark Hart. "She was a good teacher, and students loved her."

Yet the school district, as Hart acknowledged, is in an awkward position: To speak glowingly of Porter is to risk alienating the many people, including parents of Muller students, who are outraged by her actions.

The anger toward Porter is particularly strong in the neighborhood of the accident victims, who were black. The rancor grew so loud that Porter's lawyer, Barry Cohen, took out an ad in the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, Tampa's black-oriented newspaper, to tout his civil rights credentials and to rebuff suggestions that race explains why Porter has not been charged.

The school district has received calls from reporters across the country.

"It's the possibility of the death of youngsters at the hands of a teacher," Hart said. "It's incongruous. People, when they heard about the accident, thought it had to be someone irresponsible and reckless. Now it turned out to be someone who is not only a good teacher, but by all accounts genuinely cares about children."

Schatzberg, the crisis counselor, said that disconnect is particularly baffling to elementary students. Because the world for children is small and they associate teachers almost entirely with the role they play at school, it can be a shock even to spot a teacher at, say, the grocery store. To reconcile such a figure with an unthinkable incident is nearly impossible.

"They're perfect people in their eyes, and it's very hard to understand that people make mistakes," Schatzberg said.

"It's okay to feel sad for Ms. Porter," crisis counselors told Muller students who were confused about their emotions, Schatzberg said. "We can not like something that someone does and still (feel) love for that person."

The Porter case represents an unprecedented situation for crisis counselors at Hillsborough schools, since it involves the death of a student and a teacher as a possible culprit.

"This is just new ground for us," Schatzberg said. "It really is a crisis in so many different ways."

- Staff reporter Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 18, 2004, 01:35:47]


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