The stabbing of Christa Lewis - allegedly by another teenage girl from the same neighborhood of tidy brick rowhouses - shocked the city and smashed a sense of security held dear by the people of Tacony. The trial of Lewis' accused killer, Deidre Frazier, 18, begins today in Common Pleas Court with jury selection.
The slaying was a defining, disillusioning moment for the close-knit Northeast community, awakening parents to dangers they once thought were confined to poorer, tougher parts of the city.
``It made the community closer, but it also made it see things in a different way,'' said Rosemary Watson, 44, whose 16-year-old daughter, Christina, walked to and from school with Lewis. ``I think it was just as hard for the parents as for the kids. Now we're extra, extra careful with them. The focus has been on keeping them safe.''
Frazier is charged with murder and possession of an instrument of crime - a seven-inch dagger that prosecutors contend she plunged into Lewis' chest during a heated argument at a traveling carnival on May 3, 1996.
Lewis and Frazier belonged to separate cliques of girls that ran into each other that night in Russo Park at Frankford and Torresdale Avenues, police said. At first, the two groups exchanged looks, gestures and taunts. Then there was pushing and shoving.
At some point during the melee, Frazier pulled out her knife. The blade pierced Lewis' breast bone and penetrated her heart, an autopsy found.
During a court hearing last year, an assistant district attorney said the facts warranted a charge of murder. ``Look at that knife,'' he said. ``It's not a pocket knife or a Swiss army knife. That knife serves one purpose - it's a stabbing knife.''
Jack McMahon, Frazier's attorney, said his client, who stands 5-foot-2 and weighs 105 pounds, acted in self-defense.
``It's an unfortunate tragedy all around,'' McMahon said in an interview. ``Deidre certainly didn't go to the park that night thinking, `I'm going to kill somebody.' Christa didn't go to the park that night thinking it was her last evening on earth. Neither one thought what happened was going to happen that night.''
In a statement to police hours after the slaying, Frazier, then a student at Lincoln High School in the Northeast, said she and two girlfriends had been surrounded by 30 teenagers and challenged to a fight. Frazier said someone shoved Lewis into her, that Lewis started swinging at her, and that she pulled out the dagger to protect herself.
One of Lewis' friends inadvertently pushed her into the knife, Frazier said.
To Tacony residents, homicide had been something that happened elsewhere. No longer.
``It changed everybody,'' said Dana Quintieri, 18, a close friend of Lewis' who was at the carnival that night. ``It hasn't been the same since.''
In Tacony, several generations of the same family often live within blocks of each other. Parents casually chat at their sons' Little League games after work, and teenage girls do each other's hair before the Catholic school dances.
Today, there is a different feel on the streets, an air of caution. Jim Hellings said he constantly warns his 18-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter to stay out of trouble and avoid confrontations.
``I keep more of an eye on them,'' said Hellings, 37. ``I realized how short life can be and how you should cherish the time you have with your kids.''
Bob Bryan, president of a town watch in the area, said public drinking and hanging out on street corners by young people have decreased dramatically over the last year.
``You used to be able to count the number of fights every weekend,'' he said. ``Not anymore. There hasn't been a whole lot since the incident.''
There was no carnival in Russo Park this spring. The organizers canceled the annual event out of respect for Lewis, and because of safety concerns.
The voices of Lewis' friends still crack when they're asked about the girl they nicknamed ``Duck,'' because of the way she ran when weighed down by her books and knapsack, and ``Oprah,'' because she asked so many questions.
``After something like that, you have a very different outlook on things,'' said Maria Marrone, 16. ``We became a little bit more serious. People realized that you have to start doing something with your life.''
They cope, Marrone said, by keeping Lewis' memory alive.
Russo Park, which is across the street from St. Hubert's High School, has become a shrine to Lewis. A giant mural depicting her in a yellow soccer uniform covers a wall of a recreation center overlooking the park. Pink ribbons drape the park's maple trees.
A section of the park reserved for small children was dedicated to her on May 3, the anniversary of her death. A brick patio surrounded by begonias, petunias, and geraniums was built with donated materials.
A dogwood that blooms white flowers in early May, around the time of Lewis' death, stands in the middle of the patio. The site is kept pristine by her friends, who still light candles every night beneath the dogwood.
Stevean Dieterle, 20, Lewis' closest friend, said the park stopped being an after-school hangout after the stabbing.
``Everyone has kind of gone their own way,'' he said. ``We're not hanging out in groups in the park anymore, except for special occasions.''
Last Christmas, friends decorated and lit a small spruce tree near the dogwood. About a hundred people, including Lewis' family, attended a birthday party at the park Feb. 16, the day Lewis would have turned 17.
Members of St. Hubert's lacrosse team dedicated every game, every goal, every victory to Lewis this season, and wore black armbands with No. 7, her uniform number.
When Dana Quintieri gave birth last July, she named the baby Christa.
``The park is just like going to her grave in Neshaminy, but a lot closer,'' said Kristin Weaver, 17, who played lacrosse and soccer with Lewis. ``We ask her for her help and to watch over us. We always feel she's with us.''
``I tell her about the school gossip and the new couples,'' said Christina Watson, 16, as she sat in the park recently, ``so she still knows what's going on. That's how she was. She always knew everything.''
While the park has become a sanctuary for Lewis' friends, her parents have poured their emotion and energy into an organization called Lost Dreams, Living Hopes. The members are parents and relatives of murder victims.
They include John and Kathy Polec, parents of Eddie Polec, the 16-year-old beaten to death in 1994 by a bat-wielding mob of teenagers in Fox Chase; Tony and Rochelle Yates, whose 5-year-old son, Marcus, was killed in a cross fire in 1988; and retired Philadelphia Police Officer Keith Daily, whose son, Sean, was killed by a group of youths in Kensington in 1989.
``People think you should be in bed all day crying,'' said Lewis' mother, Joann, 34, who works with her husband at his construction business in the Northeast. ``People look at me and wonder aloud, `How could you still be standing?' We have other kids. We have to go on living.''
``You're supposed to have all this hatred and vengeance for the person that did this,'' said Greg Lewis, who is vice president of Lost Dreams. ``It's just not there. That doesn't accomplish anything.''
Greg Lewis said his involvement with Lost Dreams had helped with the healing process and served as ``good therapy.''
``You can feel sorry for me, and you can try to understand what I'm going through,'' he said. ``But with the people of Lost Dreams, they all have the same problem. They've all been there.''
The couple have three other children: daughter Cory, 14, and sons Buddy, 9, and Evan, 6. Greg Lewis said sports was one way he tried to keep them busy and out of harm's way. Christa started playing soccer at age 8 and later took up lacrosse.
``It was a joy just watching her get better every year,'' he said. ``It was real strange not going to the practices this year. There was something missing.''
``I don't think I've even begun to heal yet,'' said Joann Lewis. ``There was some reason this happened, but I don't get it. I still don't get it.''
A year later, the voices of Christa Lewis' friends still crack when they are asked about her.