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Day 1: Twilight

By THOMAS FRENCH, CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD and JAMIE THOMPSON
Published November 13, 2005


After the accident, the desire for a face grew almost unbearable. People saw the mother cracking with grief on TV, begging someone to come forward, and it became impossible not to wonder who could have driven away from such a thing, who could have felt those impacts and heard those sounds and then kept going, staring ahead through a broken windshield, the night and the future suddenly fragmented.

Finally, a young woman stepped in front of the TV lights. A schoolteacher, so still and muted she almost seemed invisible. Someone who had never before made a mistake, or at least none that mattered. A person who spent her days surrounded by children.

At the jail, Jennifer Porter gave her fingerprints and stood in front of a camera for the image that would follow her forever. Her long brown hair was shown hanging over her shoulders. Her eyes stared slightly downward, big and dark and dead.

It became the test. Some, seeing the photo, would say Porter appeared cold and self-absorbed. Others insisted they saw numbness, despair, a sense of something irrevocable.

Her face, identifiable at last, was no longer just a face. It had become a blank canvas on which a multitude of assumptions could be projected, on which the boundaries of justice and human frailty could be debated, on and on.

* * *

The case invited every judgment. In the long months that followed the accident, invective was hurled at not just the driver, but her family, her lawyers, the prosecutors.

Even the mother of the four children was not spared.

For Lisa Wilkins, it was terrible, enduring these things while everyone watched. She was grieving for two dead children and caring for two injured ones and carrying another in her womb, and all the while people kept pointing. Sometimes they came right out and said it.

"Aren't you the lady whose kids got run down?"

Weeks passed in a blur of people drifting into Lisa's apartment, giving awkward hugs, saying words, shedding tears, disappearing. There were activists and reporters and politicians and neighbors and attorneys - strangers, mostly - showing up all the time. Once, someone appeared, claiming to represent Johnnie Cochran's office.

Disembodied voices denounced her on radio shows and in letters to the editor, calling her a negligent mother. She had allowed her kids to play alone by that busy street, they said. She had failed in her most basic duty. There was the hint, through it all, that she hadn't loved them enough.

When asked to recall what happened, Lisa would break down. She would cry, look away, shake her head. Then she would gather herself and tell it as best she could.

* * *

It was the afternoon of Wednesday, March 31, 2004. That day, Lisa remembered, her oldest child, Bryant, came loping home from his Tampa middle school, insisting he had no homework.

"Mama," he said, "can I go to the park?"

The one just up the block, with the basketball games and cookout now in full swing. The one the kids had to cross a busy street to reach.

"Bryant, I don't want you to go to the park," she said. "It's getting cold out there."

The temperature, really, was the smallest of her worries. She had not been living in the neighborhood long, and already she had seen plenty to scare her. The block had litter-strewn lots and broken windows patched with plywood. Some of the drug dealers were so brazen they waited for children at bus stops.

She was tempted to keep her kids indoors, all the time. She feared stray bullets. She feared one of the children slipping into the long trench right outside her door, which filled with water when it rained. She feared, above all, that a robber might invade their apartment. She felt unprotected, living alone with five kids. And she was pregnant again, six months along.

"Suitcase City," people called this blighted stretch of Tampa near the University of South Florida, a nickname civic boosters had been battling for years. In many ways, Lisa Wilkins, 29 years old, exemplified the nickname's meaning. For years she had been shuttling her kids from one cramped, peeling room to another, chased by eviction notices.

The latest was a ground-floor apartment at 142nd Avenue. It had roaches, a yard of weeds. She and her kids - Bryant, Aquina, Durontae, LaJuan and LaVontre - had been living there for two months. She had not yet fully unpacked. She couldn't wait to pack again.

Lisa always seemed to be moving, even when she was holding still. Her brown eyes could turn icy cold; a second later they would radiate warmth. She was a mixture of toughness and tenderness, hard and soft. She was a scrounger and a fighter, flirty, athletic, headstrong, generous, bratty. She joked about her vanity, how she needed glasses but was too proud to wear them. She had given birth to six children in all - one of them, Sheron, lived with his father - but her pregnancy weight came right off. Right now, pregnant again, the baby inside her made a little bulge.

As a girl, she had dreamed of being a schoolteacher. She'd worshiped her fourth-grade teacher, Miss Norman; the woman had inspired her, and Lisa liked the idea of passing that along. She'd wanted a husband, a house, the perfect life by 35.

But then came one baby and then another, and more still. It didn't really hurt, abandoning her dreams, because they transferred to her kids. She felt like a teacher anyway, raising all of them. The best part of herself came out with her children. She knew just how to get them to sleep, what to do when they came down with a fever.

At night, if Lisa had a moment to herself, she would soak in the tub and read a Harlequin. It always amazed her, all the torments the heroines were made to suffer just so they could find, in the end, the perfect man. If it took all that, she figured, she was better off alone.

Marriage scared her. She liked men, but she didn't necessarily want them raising her kids and telling her how to live her life. She expected their betrayals and couldn't hold her tongue. It didn't seem smart to invest everything in a man, since a man didn't invest everything in you. Plus, her babies' fathers kept getting arrested, and she figured it was stupid to wait around for them.

"Love," she liked to say, "is not gonna pay my bills."

She had led a makeshift life. She had been an 11th-grade dropout. She had cheated on welfare, stolen from Wal-Mart, seen the inside of a jail. She had no job, no bank account, no savings, no checkbook, no insurance. She did not own a purse.

A few years back she had danced at strip clubs, calling herself Aquarius Champagne. Good money, and she spoke about it now as an adventure. She made no apologies, not for the dancing and certainly not for her children, how many there were, the different fathers, the paternity suits. She might be poor, she might possess little beyond some clothes and an old broken-down Dodge. But she owned her kids' love free and clear. She thought of children as the only reliable bet, the only people sure never to leave her.

* * *

The kids wanted to know why they couldn't go to the park. Lisa could see how excited they were. Especially Bryant. He was two days away from turning 14 and was already pumped up, doing a little dance as he thought about his birthday party at Liberty Middle; Lisa was planning to bring hot wings and cake for the whole seventh-grade class.

Bryant could not hold still. He kept asking about the park, trying to win her over. The others were rallying now, pleading. They wanted to go, too.

"Mama, I can watch them," Bryant said. "Stop treating me like a baby."

Although he was still clearly a boy, Lisa could see that Bryant was fumbling toward maturity. Every morning, Lisa would watch him leave with 8-year-old Aquina, taking her to the bus stop. When Lisa reached for the laundry bag, Bryant toted it himself.

"No, mama," he'd say, "you're pregnant."

He rubbed her sore back, made her keep her feet elevated in bed. He volunteered to get the mail, to cook ramen noodles for everyone. And now he wanted to take charge of his little sister and two of his little brothers, 3-year-old Durontae and 2-year-old LaJuan.

The park, only a block or so from the apartment, was part of the sprawling University Area Community Center Complex. It had a rec center, basketball courts with lights, a playground with swings and slides.

Lisa thought about it. She knew the cookout was under way over there, which meant there'd be adults around. It was only 5:30, so there was a good hour of daylight left. Plus, the playground was so close she could stand on her sidewalk and see them.

Okay, she said finally.

She walked with the four of them through the parking lot outside her apartment. The community center was a blessing, and just up the street was a new school, Muller Elementary. A sheriff's station had replaced old crack houses nearby, scaring away some of the crime. But mattresses and old tires still rotted in nearby lots, and fences ran through lawns like crooked teeth. Close by were auto body lots and fast food stands, check-cashing joints and coin-op laundries, a Gun & Pawn, a BP where Lisa cashed her government assistance check.

As Lisa and her kids made their way up 142nd Avenue, they approached 22nd Street, a two-lane road. The park waited on the other side.

She walked them across, watching for traffic. She hated how fast people drove down this stretch of 22nd, hurrying between Fletcher and Bearss avenues, ignoring the posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour. There was a crosswalk, but no traffic light.

When she got them to the park, she promised she'd be back before dark to pick them up.

"Do not cross the street," she remembers telling them, "until I come."

Later, the exact nature of Lisa's instructions would become the subject of scrutiny. Her decision would be dissected, debated, compared. Aquina, for instance, would say that her mother simply told her and the other three children to return home before dark.

Back at home, Lisa's friend Cyteria Williams was watching Lisa's youngest, 1-year-old LaVontre, taking a nap in his crib. Lisa started dinner. She was making fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, sweet peas. Cyteria kept her company. They talked and laughed. It was turning out to be a nice evening.

After a while, Lisa stepped outside, looking down the street to check on Bryant and the other children. She saw them playing by the swing set. She went back inside, seasoned the chicken, coated it in flour, put it on the stove.

Just after 7, she looked outside again and noticed how dark it was getting. The moon was high and nearly full. Time to go get the kids.

That was when a neighbor ran up, yelling.

Lisa started to run.

* * *

The calls to 911 started at 7:11 p.m.

"Someone was just hit by a car . . . There's a little, it's a girl . . . There's two of them . . ."

"Yeah, 22nd to 142nd, yeah . . . Two people laying down, one of them bang dead, man . . . One of them, one of the little babies . . . Hey, wasn't that a Honda that went that way . . . No it's three, it's a little baby down the street . . ."

"They in the street, laying flat out in the street, nobody's moving . . . Nobody's moving . . ."

"One is still alive, he's got a heartbeat . . . There were three children hit by a car, by a, by a van . . ."

"Y'all need to get out here real quick, hurry up, man . . . It was a hit-and-run, man . . . Hurry up, man . . . It was a white van . . . Hey man, don't touch her . . . She's breathing, hurry up, man, hurry up . . ."

"He dead, oh my God . . . The baby dead . . ."

From the basketball courts, from the rec center, from cars and apartments, people were spilling onto 22nd Street.

There were plastic and metal car parts scattered in the road, and sneakers and sandals that had been knocked loose from feet. Onlookers jostled in the dark street. Nobody could be sure how many bodies there were.

Lisa Wilkins came racing up, bracing her pregnant belly. She spotted a neighbor, Machaella Browder, in the crowd.

"Machaella, my babies!"

Machaella grabbed her, trying to hold her back. She didn't want Lisa to see what she had just seen: Bryant lying bleeding and motionless in the road.

"Lisa, don't go over there."

"What? Don't say that."

"Lisa, please don't go."

"Let me go! Let me go to my babies!"

Bryant lay twisted on the pavement near the center stripe. His head and mouth were bleeding. To his mother, his expression seemed to ask: "What happened?"

Through the clamor came a little girl's scream, dazed and terrified and in pain. It was Aquina.

"Mama," she said, "my leg hurt!"

Lisa found her 8-year-old daughter sprawled a few feet way. Her left leg was badly broken, her body cut and bleeding.

Aquina was begging for help.

"You gotta be still," Cyteria told her. "Baby, you can't move."

Farther up the street, people were yelling.

"There's another one up here!"

They had found Durontae. The vehicle that had hit the 3-year-old had dragged him 151 feet. He was not moving.

A tall man in the crowd found the fourth and smallest child, LaJuan, and handed him to Machaella Browder. LaJuan was conscious, but in the dark it was impossible to tell how badly he was hurt. Machaella cradled the crying toddler in her arms.

* * *

Time went crazy. One second Lisa was kneeling in the road beside her children, and the next she was sitting in the front seat of one of the ambulances.

They were racing Durontae to St. Joseph's Hospital, 10 miles away. Lisa was sitting beside the driver, her body turned around so she could watch as paramedics struggled to revive the boy. She watched his body, so small, jumping and thrashing under their instruments.

LaJuan was being taken to St. Joseph's in another ambulance. Aquina was being flown there in a rescue chopper.

In a third ambulance, paramedics raced Bryant to University Community Hospital, about a mile away.

Sheriff's deputies were converging on 22nd, taping off the scene and pushing back the crowd, trying to preserve evidence. Along that section of the road, some of the street lights were not working.

"Did anyone see the accident?" officers asked the crowd, which now numbered between 300 and 400. They took several witnesses aside to give statements.

"I remember sitting on the bench and I looked over and I saw a white van speeding and I heard a loud boom," a 16-year-old wrote in a statement for deputies.

A 13-year-old remembered the children standing on the grass between the sidewalk and the road. They were holding hands, as if they were about to cross the street. Then a few seconds later, the teen saw the children tumbling over a white van. They went down on the pavement. "Sort of like dominoes," the teen later said.

Recollections poured out, full of inconsistencies. Several witnesses said two vehicles were involved. According to one person, a Honda had dragged a child down the street - Durontae, it turned out - before flipping off its lights and speeding away.

Right off, deputies had a hard time getting a solid description of the vehicles. People did not agree on the models or their makes, which direction they were traveling, which ones had actually struck the children. No one got a license plate number.

Sheriff's officials pieced together a preliminary account for the late-night TV news.

As best they could tell, a car driving north on 22nd Street - described as a late 1980s or early 1990s Honda Civic or a Toyotawith tinted windows - was the first to strike the children. Then a second vehicle, traveling south - described as a white Ford Econoline van with a work ladder on top - hit them.

"I've never seen anything like this in 27 years," a sheriff's spokesman told a reporter. "Two people have hit four children and left them here to die."

Debris stretched north from the crosswalk in the shape of a cone. Officers began marking items with yellow plastic numbers:

No. 1, Durontae's small black sandal, from his right foot.

No. 2, a piece of black plastic.

No. 3, a crushed hot dog bun.

No. 4, Aquina's blue flip-flop with butterfly imprints.

Deputies worked to the sound of basketballs thumping in the distance, as young men continued playing on the community center's outdoor courts.

Crime scene technicians collected their evidence. They didn't know what would be important. But several items had promise, particularly No. 24, a piece of black fender molding. On the inside, it said: T O Y O T A.

* * *

At University Community, a doctor pronounced Bryant dead at 8:07 p.m. Across town, at St. Joseph's, where the other three children had been taken, another doctor pronounced Durontae dead two minutes later.

Both boys' necks had been broken. LaJuan, who had been conscious at the accident scene, had suffered a head injury. He flatlined in the emergency room, his vital signs gone.

The chaplain came up to Lisa, where she waited at St. Joseph's, and told her LaJuan was dead. She had lost all three boys.

Lisa does not remember what happened next, what she said or did. So much of that night would become a blank, an unapproachable place in her memory. With the boys gone, that left Aquina. Her skull was fractured. Her left upper leg was shattered.

The hours and minutes were jangled. Lisa felt as though she were walking with her eyes closed.

A little while later came news of a miracle. Doctors had succeeded in reviving LaJuan. A machine was breathing for him, but he was alive. As Lisa watched him on the hospital bed, a tube down his throat, he looked to her like he was fighting for every breath.

At some point, she doesn't know when, Lisa was ushered into a room to identify Durontae's body. Then she was taken to University Community to identify Bryant.

She entered a room and saw her firstborn, laid out on a hospital bed before her. She leaned over, spoke to him, stroked his face.

* * *

She hadn't been ready for Bryant. Not at first, when she carried him inside her. At the time, she was 14, just growing out of her tomboy shell.

As she would later tell it, she was at a sleepover at a friend's house when a man in his 20s raped her. He twisted her arm and said, If you tell, I will kill you.

She learned she was pregnant during a physical, when she tried out for the basketball team at Van Buren Middle School. She kept it a secret. She was afraid of her life being upended, of how people would bad-mouth her. When her parents asked her why she didn't make the team, she lied.

"Scoliosis," she said.

Her parents found out from the school. They talked her out of an abortion. She transferred to a school for pregnant girls.

She spent 17 hours delivering him. The nurses cleaned him up and brought him to her. She looked at his fingers and was astounded. Fingernails. It occurred to her that he wasn't a doll.

Her parents watched Bryant when she was at school. Afternoons, she came home with her books under her arm, and there he'd be, standing in his orange walker at his favorite spot in the window, his arms reaching for her.

As Bryant grew, Lisa ribbed him about the way he could empty a fridge. At 13, he already stood 5-5 and weighed 129 pounds. When he returned from a weekend with his grandpa, he would breathlessly recite everything he'd eaten: rice, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, on through dessert.

He hated it when he heard adults arguing. He said "No, sir," and "Yes, ma'am." He had a crush on one of his seventh-grade teachers and bought her a plant. Once, when he had no Halloween costume, he said, "I'll go as mama," then put on one of Lisa's wigs and lipstick and a dress.

She thought of Bryant as her best friend. She would watch him walk, dragging his bookbag behind him, shoulders back and chest puffed out, pretending to be tough. She knew how soft he was, how he cried when he was scolded.

Aquina, the 8-year-old, was her whirlwind. She was a tomboy, skinny-legged and knobby-kneed, just like her mom. Always running, wearing out the soles of her sneakers.

Durontae, the 3-year-old, was her shadow. He would follow her wherever she went, even into the bathroom. He had lasted just two weeks in day care, because he went to pieces when his mother left. Out shopping, the child would make himself go limp so his mother would have to pull him across the floor.

Then there was LaJuan, the 2-year-old, the one she thought of as her Terrible Little Boy. Even as a newborn, he clenched his fists under his chin, reminding Lisa of a boxer ready to brawl. Now he was just learning to talk, a song of beautiful babble. He wouldn't listen. He would leap off stairs like Superman.

LaVontre, her youngest, laughed at everything. Lisa would watch him toddle up to the door when Bryant came home from school. The boys had instantly bonded. Without a man in the house, she figured, it was good for LaVontre to have a brother like Bryant.

Now Lisa was pregnant with another. She'd had an ultrasound; this time, she was having a second daughter.

Aquina was thrilled. She couldn't wait to teach her new sister how to walk and talk and sing.

"Hey, little girl in there," she would say, speaking directly to her mother's belly. "I know you about to come out. You need to come out."

Then she would wrap her arms around the belly and squeeze, prompting Bryant to scold her.

"You better get off my mama's stomach."

Lisa and the kids slept in the same bed, all those arms and elbows and knees and curled bodies arranged like puzzle pieces on her king-size mattress. It felt safe to go through the night in that tight family circle. If something bad ever happened, Lisa had always figured at least they'd be together to face it, one way or another.

Durontae would squeeze himself right beside her, because he had to be closest. At night, Lisa would feel his arm flung across her, his breath puffing gently against her neck. Come morning, she'd feel him stir.

"Hey," he'd tell her, waking up, another day older.

* * *

All night, Lisa shuffled numbly from one emergency room to the next. First she was at St. Joseph's with Durontae and Aquina and LaJuan. Then someone was taking her to University Community. Then, after midnight, she went back to St. Joseph's.

Puffy-eyed, she walked into the ER and found a clutch of cousins and aunts and friends, waiting to gather her in their arms.

"What am I going to do without my babies?" she said.

At some point in those early morning hours, someone from the hospital - a nurse maybe - came to Lisa and informed her Aquina was doing well.

"What about my other baby?" she asked wearily.

The hospital worker replied that LaJuan was on a ventilator.

"He's in God's hands."

"Is my baby all right?" Lisa demanded.

"I don't know," the worker said. "His blood pressure is okay."

Lisa was worried about Bryant's and Durontae's funeral. How would she pay for their caskets, the service? She had no life insurance on the boys.

* * *

Thursday morning, the hit-and-run accident was on TV, on the radio, all over the papers.

At Muller Elementary, the details were sinking in about what had happened just down the street.

"I can't imagine," Enid Jack was saying, walking through the school with her friend before first bell. "I just can't . . . I can't imagine."

Enid was Muller's art teacher. This was her first year at Muller. In fact, it was everyone's first year at the new school. The dedication for the school was scheduled for Sunday. The teachers at Muller had been working overtime, preparing for the ceremony.

The evening before, Enid had been sitting with Jennifer Porter, the school's dance teacher. The two of them had been listening to the radio as they worked in the art room. Enid was fighting an empty stomach; she was on the Atkins diet and feeling hungry. Porter was finishing a decoration, a large silhouette of a symphony conductor.

Porter's dance studio was next to Enid's classroom, and they had become close. Enid liked the way Porter carried herself and how gentle and nurturing she was with her students. Although the school day officially ended at 2:30, the two of them had stayed in the art room until just after 7 that Wednesday evening. As they walked out to the parking lot, Enid remembers, it was getting dark. Porter had turned her car right on 22nd, headed for a private dance lesson she was teaching. Enid had turned left, headed for home.

Now it was the next morning, and the hours of preparing for the dedication were catching up with Enid. She was so exhausted that at first she did not notice anything different about Porter. Her friend was quiet, yes, but then, she was always quiet.

The two of them were walking through the school, getting ready for their first class, and Enid was talking about the hit-and-run and how relieved she was that no Muller students were involved.

"I can't imagine," she was saying again. She remembered when she was a girl and her mother would tell her to hold on to her brother when they were out somewhere. She talked about how awful it must be for these children's mother.

"Can you imagine?"

Porter did not reply. Later, looking back, Enid would remember how her friend had kept her head lowered, how she had seemed so pale. Porter was more than quiet. She was silent.

* * *

A 21-year-old drug dealer sat in a small room at the Sheriff's Operations Center, wired to a polygraph machine.

"Did you drive your vehicle down 22nd Street and strike a child yesterday?" the examiner asked.

"No," the man said.

"Were you completely truthful about not striking anyone with your vehicle yesterday?"

"Yes," the man said.

The examiner analyzed the man's breathing, heart rate and perspiration. His responses indicated deception. The investigator pressed. There are two sides to every story, she said. Did anything happen accidentally? Did the children run into the street without warning?

The man admitted to selling drugs that evening in the area. But he was adamant: He did not hit the children. He had no idea who did.

It was one of dozens of leads that poured into the Sheriff's Office. People called to report colleagues, enemies and neighbors. Anyone with a damaged vehicle was suspect.

One caller reported a co-worker with fresh car damage who said she'd hit a dog. Another reported a 24-year-old who allegedly hit pedestrians in the past. People called about suspicious white vans from miles around.

As deputies sifted through evidence, they came to believe their original account of the crash was incorrect. They issued a press release with a new version: A southbound Toyota minivan struck the children first, then two of the kids were thrown into the path of a northbound Honda.

That afternoon, two sheriff's deputies went to the parts department at Courtesy Toyota on Adamo Drive in Tampa. They had brought some of the auto parts found at the accident scene, including the black fender molding. They put the pieces on the counter top and asked one of the parts specialists to help them identify the vehicle.

The specialist examined the fender molding. There was a part number imprinted on the back: 76083 - 52010. He looked it up.

The deputies were not searching for a Toyota minivan. They were after a 2000 to 2003 Toyota Echo.

* * *

The grieving mother's pleas were all over the news.

Lisa Wilkins faced the cameras and spoke directly to whoever had driven away from the scene.

"Whoever hit my babies, you're probably scared," she said. "But I hold no hatred in my heart. Please just say something, because I have a hole that ain't been filled yet."

* * *

Enid Jack was in the Muller Elementary cafeteria when an assistant principal walked up.

"Do you know anything about Jennifer?" the person asked. "She's not here. She called in. She's not coming."

"What?" Enid said. "That can't be."

She was stunned. It was Friday morning. There were only two days left before the dedication. There was so much left to do. How could Porter not show up?

This wasn't like her friend. Once, earlier in the year, she'd had strep throat and had called Enid, telling her she couldn't come in, but helped Enid find her lesson plans for the day. This time, Porter hadn't said anything about lesson plans or what the students were supposed to do.

Enid called Porter's house in Land O'Lakes, where she lived with her parents and sister. No one picked up, except for the answering machine. So Enid left a message.

"Please, Jennifer, if you're there . . . Please, just give us a call."

Enid phoned again and again. No one answered.

* * *

Jennifer Porter wasn't at home that morning. She was in a law office in downtown Tampa, sitting across a table from the area's best-known criminal defense attorney.

Barry Cohen looked at his new client. She was crying. She thought she might be going to jail that day.

Tell me everything, Cohen said. Start at the beginning.

COMING MONDAY: The mystery of the woman behind the wheel.

About this story

This series is based on a year of reporting. Staff writers Christopher Goffard, Jamie Thompson and Thomas French interviewed Lisa Wilkins and Jennifer Porter, as well as prosecutors, defense attorneys, investigators and others involved in the case. In addition, information was gathered in court proceedings and from more than 2,000 pages of police reports, court documents and other records.

Some of the quotes and scenes were witnessed by the reporters or were taken from transcripts of official proceedings. Others are based on people's recollections. In today's story, Ms. Wilkins shared the details of her life and her children. The scene describing the immediate aftermath of the hit-and-run accident is based on witness interviews, law enforcement reports, court testimony and transcripts of the 911 calls. The scenes at Muller Elementary are based on sworn statements and court testimony and were confirmed with Enid Jack.

On the Web

- Read each day's report of "The Hard Road: Inside the Jennifer Porter Case" at www.sptimes.com/porter

- Readers can share their insights about this story at www.itsyourtimes.com