Just like the flower that is part of her name, Charlotte Rose McNeil MacLean had begun to blossom since late last year.
The 19-year-old Santa Ynez woman, who was killed Aug. 3 when she was ejected from a pickup that rolled over on Ballard Canyon Road, had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in December 2012 while attending a therapeutic boarding school for girls in Utah.
Since the December 2012 diagnosis, Charlotte had begun to overcome the struggles she had grown up with, being bullied and other maltreatment, and the fear of not knowing who she was, to graduating high school and completing her therapy program, both at Eva Carlston Academy in Salt Lake City, said her mother, Teresa McNeil MacLean.
“It was just an immediate turnaround,” she said.
The June 27 graduation was so significant to Charlotte that she had the date tattooed on her wrist as a reminder of what she described as “the happiest day of my life.” The tattoo was so new, she still had it covered up to protect the ink.
Named after Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, the syndrome falls on the autism spectrum disorder. People with Asperger’s can be highly intelligent and have sometimes obsessive interests while often lacking social skills.
The cause is unknown and there is no cure, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. However, early intervention, such as individualized therapy, is considered the best treatment by most health care professionals.
Asperger’s syndrome in girls is different than it is for boys and tougher to diagnose, Teresa said. The teasing Charlotte suffered because others thought she was angry actually was her protecting herself, she said.
Teresa said Charlotte was “irresponsibly helpful and kind.” She would stop in the middle of the road to help a dog, gave away her clothes in Mexico and thought about others in need of help first, even if they were strangers.
Charlotte was beautiful, kind, sensitive, poised and extraordinarily bright and talented, Teresa said.
“A wonderful gem of a child we were privileged to parent.”
Teresa, an artist and musician, said she and her husband, Doug MacLean, a retired teacher, have been “buffeted and lifted” by the support of friends and acquaintances from the Santa Ynez Valley and beyond.
Charlotte left for Utah in October 2011 sullen and angry, and came back this summer happy and focused, Teresa said.
The teen returned to the Central Coast having figured out who she was and excited about starting classes at Santa Barbara City College. She had moved to Santa Barbara where she planned to live with several other girls and was the first to move in.
She had enrolled in three SBCC classes and planned to volunteer at the Braille Institute of America and a senior facility in Montecito.
On the day of the crash, a Saturday, Charlotte had spent the morning washing the truck, which was registered to her mother. Charlotte drove from Santa Barbara to visit her parents on weekends.
The crash that killed Charlotte also injured five other teenagers, including the driver, who was arrested.
The 16-year-old driver, a juvenile who has not been identified, has been charged with felony manslaughter, reckless driving causing injury or death and driving on a suspended license, according to the California Highway Patrol.
About 7 p.m., the suspect was driving Charlotte’s 2003 Toyota Tacoma on Ballard Canyon Road, north of Chalk Hill Road, at an unknown speed when the crash occurred. Three people in the open bed of the pickup were ejected when the driver lost control and the truck overturned, the CHP said. Listed by the CHP as not using safety equipment are Charlotte, a 15-year-old Solvang boy and a 14-year-old Buellton boy.
Charlotte’s friend Ashley Alulkoy Cash, 18, of Santa Ynez, Charlotte’s boyfriend, Cody Epley, 18, of Lompoc, and the driver appeared to be using seat belts, the CHP said.
The injured passengers were taken to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for treatment of moderate injuries. The Solvang and Buellton boys have not been identified. Cash and Epley were treated and released.
Teresa said it is her understanding Charlotte had allowed the suspect to drive the truck without knowing he had a suspended license. They were coming back from Buellton to Solvang, she said. Charlotte didn’t know the driver and the other boys well, she added.
About 10 p.m., the MacLeans were watching a movie about a parent losing their only child when law enforcement officers came to the door to deliver the news every parent fears.
Born July 17, 1994, in Apple Valley in San Bernardino County, the MacLeans adopted Charlotte as a newborn. The MacLeans, who moved to Santa Ynez from Santa Barbara in 1983, had been on a waiting list at a Santa Barbara adoption center for several years.
Charlotte bounced around from school to school in the Santa Ynez Valley, she repeated seventh grade, and also attended Lompoc Valley Middle School, where Doug taught science.
Her treatment at Eva Carlston included weekly family therapy via Skype. She also wrote many letters to her parents and made several phone calls a week. The curriculum included art, music, cooking, poetry and outdoor activities.
Classmates, teachers and therapists from Eva Carlston are expected to attend a Sept. 7 memorial for Charlotte in Los Olivos.
Charlotte had said the people she met at the Utah facility were her heroes, but Teresa has learned they were just as inspired by Charlotte.
“She really touched a lot of people there,” Teresa said.
A “can-do kid,” Charlotte taught herself to play the piano and other musical instruments. She loved theater, whether it was singing, dancing or costumes and had a knack for mimicry. She loved animals and had a soft spot for pit bulls, a breed she felt was maligned and mistreated.
Rock Creek in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains was one of her favorite places and her ashes will be spread there, according to Charlotte’s mother.