A Shining Star Goes Dark

Carolyn Mosley Samuel mourns -- and celebrates -- the memory of her daughter Ortralla

Ortralla Mosley
Ortralla Mosley

Carolyn Mosley Samuel stands just inside the entrance to her low-slung brick house, in the center of a tree-lined and well-established Northeast Austin neighborhood. On the street, teenage kids play basketball and younger children ride bicycles, laughing in the waning light of a mid-April evening. Samuel fingers the framed edges of a wedding photo taken in March, picturing her smiling family members fanned out in front of an altar. On March 15, after nearly 13 years of single parenthood, Carolyn Mosley married Jeff Samuel. The union fulfilled Mosley's long-held wishes for her two teenage daughters and one teenage son: She wanted them to know what it is like to have a complete family, she said. She wanted them to see and to feel a healthy, committed relationship. "That made me feel good," she said.

Mosley got her wish, and just in time.

Just 13 days later, at 4:22pm on Friday, March 28, the Austin Police Dept. was called to Reagan High School. Fifteen-year-old Ortralla Mosley, Carolyn's youngest daughter, had just been stabbed to death in a school hallway by her former boyfriend, 16-year-old Marcus McTear. According to those present that afternoon, the scene inside Reagan's Old Mall was chaotic. Students and teachers were "screaming, crying, and hollering," they said -- no one could believe what was happening. EMS paramedics tried to resuscitate her, but Ortralla Mosley was dead at the scene.

It was Austin ISD's first on-campus homicide.

Ortralla Mosley was a good student, a cheerleader, a school dance-squad leader -- a responsible and thoughtful girl well liked by both students and teachers. "She was absolutely a shining star," said Vanessa Connor, Ortralla's English teacher, who was with her as she lay dying that Friday afternoon at the foot of a school stairway. "She was the person that a lot of students, particularly the girls, would go to when they were having problems. ... They really looked up to her." McTear, her former boyfriend, arrested and charged with first-degree murder in her death, was a Reagan football player and reportedly also a popular student, with apparently -- at least at first -- an unremarkable past.

District officials quickly defined Ortralla's killing as an act of domestic violence: "Domestic violence cannot be tolerated anywhere. We must have civility and respect," said Superintendent Pat Forgione.

It wasn't long before the story began to change. On April 1, the Statesman reported that Travis Co. Assistant District Attorney Melissa Douma, who heads the office's juvenile prosecution division, said McTear had been the subject of at least six reports of disturbances in AISD schools -- at least one of them at Reagan. Also on April 1, the Rev. Sterling Lands II, pastor of Greater Calvary Baptist Church, head of the Eastside Social Action Coalition and a persistent critic of the school district, sent a scathing letter to AISD board of trustees President Doyle Valdez. In the letter, which quickly became public, Lands charged that violent incidents at Reagan are not uncommon. Quoting "verbatim," he said, from an e-mail sent to him by an unidentified Reagan security guard, Lands said that fights between students are a "regular Friday occurrence" and that there was recently a gang rape in a school bathroom. Most alarmingly, Lands reported that on the morning of Mosley's murder, she and McTear had been seen arguing and that McTear had been sent to the campus security office, where he appeared sweaty and agitated.

"Something's Happened to Ortralla"

As far as Ortralla's mother Carolyn knew, it was just another school day.

But that Friday would turn out to be anything but typical. According to the security guard's e-mail quoted by Lands, Ortralla and McTear argued sometime that morning; it's unclear whether they saw each other again before 4pm.

Ortralla Mosley's mother, Carolyn Mosley Samuel, at Marcus McTear's pretrial hearing
Ortralla Mosley's mother, Carolyn Mosley Samuel, at Marcus McTear's pretrial hearing (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Just after 4pm, Ortralla was apparently standing in a small school corridor, upstairs and off the main walkway of Reagan's Old Mall (the older of two school courtyards flanked by classrooms), when McTear approached her, reportedly armed with two knives. Whether they spoke is not known -- but it was in that corridor that McTear attacked Ortralla.

The assault was brutal. According to the autopsy report, Ortralla was stabbed six times: once through the chest, into her heart; once through the back, piercing her left lung; once through the fleshy part on the back of her neck; once through the top of her skull, opening a wound that entered her brain; and once on either side of her head, each thrust entering her brain through the temporal lobe. The autopsy report also suggests that Ortralla fought back -- there were scratches and cuts on her hands, apparently defensive wounds.

It appears that Ortralla then moved through the hallway doors and out onto the concrete second-floor walkway, at least another 20 feet to the top of a stairway, then down a flight of stairs, around a landing, and to the top of the lower flight of stairs, before losing her balance and collapsing, tumbling to the ground floor. Some students saw her and began screaming for help, attracting Connor's attention in her classroom. "It was very chaotic," said Connor, the first teacher to reach Ortralla at the foot of the stairwell. "I was there when she stopped breathing and when her pulse stopped. I was with her when EMS arrived."

When the story broke on the evening news, Ortralla's mother Carolyn was heading home from a friend's house. A few minutes later, the friend received a call from her mother, who'd seen the news on TV. "Her mother called her," Carolyn recalled, "and said, 'Is Carolyn there? You'd better find Carolyn -- something's happened to Ortralla.'"

Her friend couldn't reach her. Instead, Carolyn was paged by a student who saw the ambulance arrive at the school and heard from other students about the attack on Ortralla. Carolyn raced to Brackenridge Hospital, where she was told Ortralla was dead. "I begged; I pleaded with them to let me see her, to let me have a moment with my baby. But she wasn't there," Carolyn said. "Somebody had already identified her, and they'd sent her to the morgue."

Each morning, in her bright pink front corner bedroom, Ortralla had gotten ready for school. Now, sitting on Ortralla's bed not a month after her daughter's death, Carolyn says the room remains exactly as Ortralla left it -- the single bed is made, the orange-shag area rug straightened. Several T-shirts and a pair of cutoff jean shorts are folded neatly on the pink bedspread, a hairbrush tossed between them.

Ortralla left for school at the usual time -- and that was the last moment Carolyn saw her daughter alive.

"The Media Says She's Dead"

No official notification of her daughter's last day at Reagan High School made its way to Carolyn that afternoon, she says. She knew very little about exactly how her daughter died until nearly two weeks later, and she knew nothing about the reported argument that morning between Ortralla and McTear until reading the Rev. Lands' April 1 letter.

"They should've called me that morning," Carolyn said. "I would've come up there and gotten her. That would've set off some alarms in my head." Moreover, Carolyn says that she had never been contacted about any problems or incidents at the school at any time since her daughter, a sophomore when she died, enrolled at Reagan two years before.

Apparently, that's not uncommon for AISD. An Austin High School mother recently told the Chronicle that she never hears about serious on-campus incidents from school administrators, even though the principal sends out a weekly e-mail newsletter. Yet her daughter, an AHS freshman, says that during one April school day a bloody fight broke out among a throng of students. Several school officials were injured, she said, and a handful of students were arrested by APD.

Marcus McTear, Ortralla's alleged killer, listens to the judge at his pretrial hearing.
Marcus McTear, Ortralla's alleged killer, listens to the judge at his pretrial hearing. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Most painful for Carolyn, she says, is that even now -- several weeks after her daughter's violent death -- she has yet to receive a single condolence call, or even an official notification, from any school administrator or district official. "I still haven't gotten a phone call telling me that my baby was injured at school," she said. "I was the last person to know anything and everything -- and that's my child." District officials doubt -- uncertainly -- Carolyn's charge. Superintendent Forgione says "it seems impossible" that she hasn't been informed. Reagan High Principal Nolan Correa says that because of the various ongoing investigations into the murder, he cannot comment directly on anything related to Ortralla's death.

Carolyn says she learned of Ortralla's death only when another student paged her. "Her friend Brian said, 'The media says she's dead,'" Carolyn recalls. Moreover, she says that because she hadn't been alerted immediately to her daughter's death, she wasn't able to see Ortralla until more than 24 hours after her murder. "You know how long it was? It was from 4:22pm that day until 8:19pm the next night before I got to see my baby," she said. "That was at the funeral home. They authorized the autopsy without me."

Protecting Ortralla

While Carolyn mourns her loss, district officials have begun, tentatively, to act. On April 21, board Chair Valdez announced the formation of the Reagan High School Safety Review Team, with two assignments: 1) to review Reagan's safety policies and procedures to determine whether violence "is beyond what exists at similarly situated campuses"; 2) once the district attorney's office and the APD have completed their investigations, to "ascertain and advise" whether Ortralla's death was "reasonably foreseeable." The team is comprised of four local attorneys, including former Travis Co. Attorney Ken Oden. On April 30, trustees were presented with a Forgione-designed plan to create a larger community task force, charged with reviewing current safety policies and helping to develop comprehensive safety practices for every AISD campus, in order to "enhance the safety of students, staff, and the community throughout the district."

The Reagan High student body is 43% black and nearly 53% Hispanic, and the district's responses, thus far, have not been well received by either African-American or Latino community leaders. In addition to Lands, local NAACP President Nelson Linder, Herman Lessard of the Austin Area Urban League, and Olga Cuellar of the local chapter of LULAC have each expressed their dissatisfaction with the district's initial approach. "There have been very limited responses to our concerns," said Linder. The district "gave the impression that they wanted community involvement -- a broad-based approach. ... This is all closed-door. It is a crazy situation," he said. "They're cutting the budget left and right, and then they are able to pay [four attorneys] $50,000 to do this? It is unnecessary."

District officials insist not only that AISD schools are safe, but also that their approach to handling the Reagan review is a necessary one. "I think our schools are safe and that we work diligently to maintain a safe environment so that we can achieve our academic goals," said Valdez. "You can't have, say, four people come in from the community and do this [Reagan review] because it could be a [legal] conflict and I don't know how to get around that," he continued. "We want to make sure that we have student and faculty confidentiality; we have to honor that because of the situation."

Statistics supplied by district officials on disciplinary incidents appear, in general, to support their reassurances about overall campus safety, although the records are incomplete and confusing -- confusing enough to suggest instead that the numbers don't say very much about campus safety at all. In the wake of the Reagan murder, the community may find itself looking at district records like newly skeptical parents, wondering if their children are indeed safe at school -- or if it's even possible for them to know (see "The Discipline of Numbers").

Parents may well ask, if the district needs a series of task-force initiatives to review its current safety status, how can they assure the wider community that AISD schools are safe? Most importantly and immediately, had the school or district officials been more proactive, alert, or acted more quickly, could Ortralla Mosley's murder have been prevented?

Yet whatever the district or local activists do now, the flurry of initiatives have done nothing to ease Carolyn Samuel's grief. Indeed, she says she isn't particularly happy about all the public activity now being undertaken, presumably all of it in her daughter's name. "They haven't done anything for me," she said, speaking of herself once removed. "All Carolyn does is get the newspapers and see they're doing this for my daughter or this in the name of my daughter. ...

"Yes, she's gone, but she's still with me. I protected her while she was here, I sure want to protect her now that she's gone."

The Clarity of Hindsight

For Carolyn Samuel, AISD crime stats, disciplinary referrals, review panels, and public hearings mean little now, and she is mainly concerned at discovering how little she knew about her daughter's circumstances at school. She says that just before and a few days after her daughter's murder, she became aware of problems McTear was having that apparently were not being addressed -- of failures to act that might've made a difference in whether her daughter lived or died. The Statesman reported April 3 that McTear had apparently been involved in another tumultuous relationship during his freshman year at Reagan, with a classmate named Rae Spence. Spence's mother, Elaine Gifford, told the daily that her daughter would come home crying after arguments with McTear and that after Rae came home one day with bruises, she called Principal Correa. According to Gifford, Correa did not return her calls.

Gifford said school officials finally contacted her in March of last year, after McTear allegedly pushed her daughter down a flight of stairs, and she eventually moved Rae to Anderson High. School officials would not comment about the incident or discuss McTear's disciplinary history, and Carolyn says she knew nothing about any of these prior incidents until after Ortralla's death.

Part of a memorial to Ortralla Mosley  at Reagan High School
Part of a memorial to Ortralla Mosley at Reagan High School (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Marcus McTear's family did not respond to requests for comment, but Marcus' father Joseph McTear said that the reports of his son's threatening or violent behavior are false.

In retrospect, the relationship between Marcus and Rae Spence seems unnervingly similar to that between Ortralla and Marcus. After Ortralla became a cheerleader, Carolyn says, McTear began to be more possessive and domineering and would complain about the kinds of clothes Ortralla would wear, insisting they were too revealing. "I told him, 'Look, I buy the clothes, and I don't have a problem with them,'" Carolyn said. McTear had also asked Carolyn, as he had Gifford, to help him get counseling. McTear had begun to call Carolyn "Momma."

"He'd say, 'Momma, I need some help,'" she recalls.

Carolyn says that for most of the five months that her daughter and McTear were dating she was unaware of any problems between them -- until March 16, the day after her own wedding. Carolyn and her new husband Jeff had just begun their honeymoon when she got a phone call from home, where McTear and Ortralla were having an argument. "He tried to cut his throat," Ortralla told her.

"That was when it turned. He knew that she was [planning to break up with him]," Carolyn said. "We were called, and we came home from our honeymoon. From the time I saw him falling, I tried to get him help, but it was too little, too late. My honeymoon and my daughter ended in tragedy."

Carolyn says she never foresaw McTear's attack on Ortralla, nor her daughter's death. She is starting to put the pieces together -- and the picture has made her angry. "There are lots of things that I am finding out that I am not very appreciative of," she said. "But I am waking up now." For example, she says, she has heard from sources at the school that on the day of Ortralla's death, McTear may have told another student that he planned to stab her. Carolyn says that the same student allegedly reported McTear's plan to both a teacher and a school administrator, "but nobody did anything."

She's also begun to think back on other incidents, like a student fight on campus that she learned about only from a student. "The school did not call us," she said. "The student did. [And] there was another girl [who] Marcus told what he was going to do. [The school] should've told me."

"I need some answers," Carolyn says, "whether it's going to make me feel good or bad."

"Love Like It's Your Last Time"

Despite her own grief -- and the occasionally thoughtless or hysterical official and public response to Ortralla's death -- Carolyn herself has responded with extraordinary courage and restraint and remarkable forgiveness. On the Monday following her daughter's murder, she addressed Reagan students over the school's P.A. system. "Tralla is fine. She loves you," she told the students. "She knows you love her."

"It all works out OK. We don't want no hatred in anybody's heart. All we want to feel from everybody is just love," Carolyn continued. "Let's love like we've never loved before. Love like it's your last time."

Ortralla's English teacher Vanessa Connor says the effect of Carolyn's address was profound. "A lot of the kids cried. I sat here and thought, that's just the kind of kid Tralla was," she said. Carolyn's remarks also indirectly reached out to McTear, because, Connor said, "I'll tell you, there are a lot of students here that wanted to hurt him, and the only reason for the peace that there's been is because of Mrs. Mosley Samuel." Shortly after the murder, Carolyn also appeared on television with her family. With tears streaming down her face, she said she held no hatred for McTear and that even if the state could seek the death penalty against him, she would oppose it. "I would, because [seeking the death penalty] would make me just as bad as what he did," she said. "I do love Marcus. The person that did that to my daughter on those stairs, that's not him and I don't want to know him."

Carolyn has appeared at each of McTear's legal hearings and says she will follow the case to its end. On May 1, McTear appeared again in juvenile court, before Judge Jeanne Meurer. Despite his athlete's physique, McTear, with his glasses slipping down his nose, appeared almost timid and displayed no signs of the kind of rage expressed by Ortralla's murder. The Travis Co. district attorney's office has decided to pursue prosecuting McTear as an adult, and Meurer set his certification hearing for May 20. After the short pretrial proceeding, McTear was led away, his orange jumpsuit almost baggy on his frame, the chains of his ankle cuffs jingling slightly against his county-issued rubber flip-flops. Carolyn sat in a chair on the far side of the room, staring after him.

Carolyn expresses no desire for vengeance. To the contrary, she seems to understand that the school has lost not one child, but two. "He needs help; Marcus needs some help," she said. "Justice will be served. ... You do your judging, and let the Lord do his work. But in the meantime, don't keep that boy locked up in a hole without getting some help."

Butterflies Are Free

At home, Carolyn walks into her daughter's tidy bathroom -- like her bedroom, Carolyn says, it remains exactly as she left it before leaving for school on March 28. And like her bedroom, it is a bold and bright place, reflecting the youthful energy of the child whose spirit still inhabits it. The blue wallpaper is splashed with dots of red and yellow, and a shaggy orange-yellow-pink daisy covers the toilet seat. On the neat countertop rests a colorful, butterfly-shaped soap dish and toothbrush holder. Carolyn lightly touches the plastic butterfly. "She always said she liked butterflies because they are so free. She said, 'Momma, they're locked up in a cocoon, and then they're free,'" Carolyn remembers. "She lived a very full life, and I feel very satisfied -- that's what keeps me comfortable, knowing that her life was so satisfying to herself. So it wasn't the way that she died, it's the way that she lived, her legacy. The freedom that people have in their hearts -- building part of their lives on some of her strengths." end story

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