Hours before she died, a Burlington County teenager on a mission to find her younger sister in foster care messaged her mother that she would be OK, and included: "I love you."
Early Monday afternoon, Tatiana Carter was killed in a crash in Shamong, Burlington County, that also took the lives of her boyfriend, who was driving a stolen SUV, and a third friend, according to New Jersey State Police. Family members Wednesday were still struggling to understand what happened on that rural road.
The driver was identified by police as Xzavier Wells, 18, of Burlington City. Carter and the third victim, Nicole Ross, were both 16 and from Shamong, police and family said.
The trio were pulled from the green 1999 GMC Yukon, which had veered off the roadway at Flyatt and Carranza Roads with troopers in pursuit. The SUV hit a utility pole and caught fire.
"Tati" Carter's mother, Amber Turner, said Wednesday that she did not know why police initiated a high-speed chase or why Wells lost control of the car. Her daughter, she said, wanted to find her younger sister, who is in foster care in New Jersey. Wells had agreed to help and the three stole the Yukon, Turner said.
"Tatiana was driven by ohana," her mother said. "Ohana means family [in Hawaiian], and no one gets left behind or forgotten."
Turner said her daughter and Ross had run away from Crossroads, a residential program based in Willingboro for homeless, abandoned, and at-risk youth. Both were reported missing by Crossroads, she said. They had been staying in a residential home in Mount Holly. Turner said her daughter left the program in mid-November. Ross left the program about two weeks ago, Turner said. Wells had been a student for a brief time at Burlington City High School.
Michelle Wright, marketing manager for Crossroads, said she could not comment on whether Carter and Ross were part of the program, because of privacy laws.
Turner said she is involved in a custody dispute with the state. She said that her four children were removed from her home based on false allegations and that she had petitioned to have them returned to her. Tatiana Carter feared her younger sister, Jasmine, was being relocated out of state to live with a relative, her mother said. Turner said Tatiana left the foster care program because she was living in poor conditions and "she thought living on the run was better than living in custody" of the state.
"My daughter was killed in a situation so far beyond a car accident and being a teen," Turner said. "She was trying to save her sister."
The two exchanged numerous messages from late Sunday into early Monday as Turner worked the overnight shift at a diner. Her daughter said, "I'll be fine mommy. I love you."
According to state police, troopers had been dispatched to the Pic-a-Lilli Inn on Route 206 in Shamong about noon Monday, when the Yukon was reported stolen from the parking lot. Minutes later, while heading south on Route 206, the officers saw a vehicle matching the SUV's description in the northbound lane.
The troopers turned around, and the SUV driver began speeding and driving erratically, police said. According to some reports, the driver was traveling between 70 and 80 mph. State Police spokesman Maj. Brian Polite said the speed of the SUV and police remained under investigation.
State police also have not said whether troopers activated their lights and sirens.
Family members said Wells did not own a car or have a driver's license, but Turner said he was an experienced driver. Turner said a friend told her the three were dropped off in the area by another friend.
In a GoFundMe page, Wells' cousin Stacy Lynn Snyder said: "He was such a sweet, caring young man. He didn't deserve this at all. He would give you the shirt off his back. No matter what he did in his past that don't mean nothing right now. He is a young man that shouldn't have lost his life to something so senseless." She did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday night.
Citing the investigation, a woman who answered the phone at the Pic-a-Lilli on Wednesday said no one from the restaurant would comment.
Burlington City School Superintendent Patricia Doloughty said Wells, who had been a junior, was no longer attending school in the district. She said he had been "dropped from the rolls" on Dec. 12. Doloughty would not be more specific about the circumstances. Wells had attended the high school for about two months, she said. The school, with 750 students, had counselors available for those who wanted to talk Wednesday.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family," the superintendent said. "It's always hard. It's a tragic loss."
Ross also was identified by family members in a Facebook GoFundMe page. The page is seeking to raise $5,000 for funeral services for the teen, who according to the fund-raising page was pregnant.
The person whose name is on the page is identified as Marlene Ulloa, who posted that she "lost my 16-year-old pregnant sister-in-law Nicole Ross in a fatal car crash. My heart breaks for my mother-in-law." In asking for donations, the post said there was "no worse pain than losing a child."