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Daughter's death gives mom new purpose

From the St. Petersburg Times

Times Staff Writer

Published March 10, 2006

TAMPA - Katie Marchetti called home last Friday night from Sarasota, where she was attending a party with her boyfriend's family.  Katie told her mom she had arrived safely and would be driving back with boyfriend, A.J. Lamantia, and his parents. A few hours later, Katie's mother and father got the call every parent dreads.

Katie and A.J. had been driving back to Hillsborough County on their own. There was a crash on Interstate 75 near Sun City Center, about 30 miles from Katie's Valrico home. Katie wasn't wearing a seat belt.  Saturday morning at 5:53 a.m. in Tampa General Hospital, Katie died.

She was 16, a junior at Durant High School in Lithia, the daughter of Laura and Vincent Marchetti, a prominent land use lawyer and former assistant county attorney.  Thursday night, Katie's family held a visitation at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon. At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, there will be a funeral mass at the church, followed by a burial at Hillsboro Memorial Gardens in Brandon.

Katie's death has shaken students at Durant High, where at least 16 students have died in the past decade, many of them in auto accidents.  It also has given Katie's mother a new cause: teenage driving safety.  "I spent my whole life protecting her," Laura Marchetti said Thursday. "I lectured her about driving until the cows came home. Now I just want to help other people. I think that will give me purpose. I want a legacy for her."

The Marchettis have set up a foundation in Katie's name, and Vincent Marchetti's law firm, Foley & Lardner, will match donations, Laura Marchetti said.  She said she will use the Katie Marchetti Memorial Foundation for Girls to launch a campaign encouraging young drivers to wear seat belts.  While state legislation in recent years put limits on new drivers, Marchetti said she will advocate for laws raising the minimum driving age.  "I don't think 16-year-olds should be driving," said Marchetti, 45.

Katie told her parents that she and A.J. would ride to the engagement party and back with A.J.'s parents.  "Otherwise I wouldn't have let her go," said Laura Marchetti.  Instead, Katie and A.J. drove in Katie's 2006 Toyota Scion.  On the drive home A.J., a 19-year-old Durant High graduate, got sleepy, he later told Katie's mother. Katie didn't feel well, so she reclined in the passenger's seat and took off her seat belt, her mother said. She drifted to sleep. It was 10:30 p.m.

A.J.'s eyes drooped shut for a few minutes as they left Manatee County and neared Sun City Center.  The Toyota drifted off northbound I-75 and hit the guardrail on the left shoulder, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Then the car swerved back to the right and hit a concrete wall on the right side of the highway.  The force of the collision threw Katie from the car, and she landed in the middle of the highway.  As A.J. watched in horror, a 2001 Ford car headed north on I-75 ran over Katie. The driver and passenger, 31-year-old David Hauser and Melissa Mannon-Hauser of Sarasota, were not injured. A.J. was treated at Tampa General Hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.

Katie suffered severe head injuries and died the next morning at TGH. Katie's mother said A.J. is so devastated, he has been sedated with tranquilizers since the crash.  The case is still under investigation, said Highway Patrol Trooper Larry Coggins.
This week at Durant High, about 85 students spoke with counselors, said Patrick Canavan, a school psychologist who serves on the school district's crisis counseling team.  Canavan said Katie's death is especially difficult because Durant has already seen so many students die.  "In the past 11 years, we have lost at least one student a year, sometimes two or three, and often in car accidents," Canavan said.

Katie was the eldest of two children, and the only girl, born to Vincent and Laura Marchetti.  Vincent and Laura were so devoted to their children, friends joked that they needed to get a better social life.  From the time Katie was young, she and her mother were best friends, Laura Marchetti said.  Both loved shopping and had a keen fashion sense. But they also volunteered with the Ophelia Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to the development of girls.  Katie became an Ophelia mentor three years ago, working with middle school girls. She worked weekends at a Dunkin Donuts in Valrico and exercised at the Campo YMCA.

"She came from a privileged background, but you would never know it," Laura Marchetti said. "She never made anybody feel like she was somebody. She told me, "I'm a down-to-earth girl."  Katie dreamed of a career in fashion, maybe designing purses. She had dogs named Coco Chanel and Louis Vuitton.  When Laura Marchetti pulled into the garage, Katie often ran to the car and settled into the passenger's seat.  "We'd sit there talking for an hour," Marchetti said.  "We were totally entwined with each other."

The Marchetti family has set up a foundation in Katie's name that will advocate for teenage driving safety. The family asks that any donations be made to the Katie Marchetti Memorial Foundation for Girls Inc., 3601 Sugarloaf Lane, Valrico, FL, 33594.

Staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com


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