Crash kills girl, 15, who took family car
By CHRIS TISCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001
INDIAN SHORES -- The phone shook Mike and Kimberly Mathis awake at 2 a.m. Sunday. The caller was the mother of a girl spending the night with the Mathises' daughter at their home.
She went to the bedroom expecting to see her daughter, 15-year-old Maddie Bledsoe, and her friend, 14-year-old Ashley Beerbohm.
But the girls were not there.
Ashley's mother told Mathis there had been an accident, that the girls had been involved. She told the couple to go to Bayfront Medical Center.
Then the couple saw that their 2001 Pontiac was not in the garage. "That's when it hit us," Mike Mathis said.
When the couple arrived at the hospital, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper was there. So was a chaplain.
Maddie was not.
The eighth-grader had been pronounced dead at the scene of a car accident. She had been driving her parents' car, with her sleep-over friend Ashley in the passenger seat. Neither had been wearing seat belts. Maddie did not have a driver's license or even a learner's permit.
"Never in our wildest dreams would we think this would happen," Mike Mathis said. "Otherwise I would have hid the keys."
Ashley also suffered injuries in the crash and was taken to Bayfront, where she was treated and released Sunday. She came to school at Madeira Beach Middle School for a half-day Monday, but she and about 60 friends and schoolmates left early, said principal Brenda Poff.
Mathis said that if there is a lesson to be learned from his stepdaughter's death, it is that parents need to take every precaution -- and then some.
"We didn't do the "then some,' " he said. "You just don't know these days."
This was a tough lesson. Maddie was a superb child, according to those who knew her.
Maddie, whose full name is Madeline Kay Bledsoe, moved here in February 2000 from Omaha, Neb. She quickly became a leader and role model in school, where she earned A's and B's in the classroom while impressing on the athletic field.
She was involved in volleyball, basketball and track. This spring she broke the school's shot put record, hurling the metal ball 30 feet, 4 1/2 inches, Poff said.
"We never had one ounce of trouble with Maddie," Mike Mathis said. "Kids of all ages just absolutely loved her. She was well-loved by everyone that she met. She had a heart of gold."
Maddie also was involved in DARE, as well as a student watch group that focused on keeping the school safe.
"Her friendships were broad," Poff said. "There were a lot of kids that enjoyed her and looked up to her. She was a good role model."
Mike Mathis said he and his wife went to bed about 10 p.m. Saturday. The girls, in Maddie's room, also said they were turning in.
Mike Mathis said Maddie's mother took her to the driver's license office recently to get a driving instructional book. They planned to get a learning permit for the girl this week, which would have allowed the girl to drive with an adult in the vehicle.
Mike Mathis said he has learned that Maddie and Ashley were invited to the home of a friend who lives in the area of 113th Street and 102nd Avenue North. Instead of asking the Mathises for a ride, they decided to take the car.
"God only knows the reason," he said.
Because the Mathises' bedroom is two stories above their garage, they didn't hear the girls take the car. The girls apparently went to their friend's house, then left. They took back roads.
But they became lost. Maddie turned around in a dead end, then sped down 86th Avenue N, Mike Mathis said. Just east of 141st St. N, Maddie lost control of the car.
The car veered off the south side of the roadway, struck a concrete pole, then swung into a tree, according to troopers.
Mike Mathis said his stepdaughter didn't drink alcohol and he doesn't think it was a factor; troopers said alcohol tests are pending.
Grief counselors were on hand at the school to help grieving students, who were encouraged to write letters to Maddie's parents or to make necklaces in her memory. School officials blew up Maddie's photograph and played her favorite song -- Amazed by Lone Star -- in the library, where grieving students gathered.
"It's been a rough morning," Poff said. "A lot of the children have gone home that were most immediately overwrought with grief."
Mike Mathis said he just hopes children learn that bad decisions can have fatal results.
"None of us is invincible. Sometimes the easy way isn't the right way," he said. "I just hope and pray this stops someone else from doing it."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Times reporter Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 445-4156.
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