Nita's classmates remember Mysterious death prolongs grief

June 20, 1993|By Aminah Franklin | Aminah Franklin,Staff Writer

Before the end of their junior year, they all pitched in and paid off the balance on her class ring.

Somehow, they said, it seemed fitting, for she so looked forward to slipping the shiny gold and black onyx ring on her finger. They collected more than $100 in their homerooms, paid the balance on the ring, and now plan to give it to the family of Nita Milak in a private ceremony.

Their friend, confidante, teammate, the 16-year-old John Carroll High junior, died hours after being found unconscious on a remote stretch of road near Level in November.

Seven months later, her classmates at the Catholic school in Bel Air still shudder at the thought of Nita lying helpless, face down in a pool of blood, with her 1990 Jeep Wagoneer backed against a tree 60 feet from her, its keys in the ignition.

Once again, the students ponder questions nobody has answered: Was their classmate an accident victim, or was she murdered on the little-traveled Wilkinson Road on Nov. 25, as persistent rumors have it?

Police initially called her death a fatal accident involving a motor vehicle, but within days reclassified it as suspicious after undisclosed evidence prompted traffic investigators to turn the case over to criminal investigators.

Police and prosecutors say they have no suspects and that the investigation is continuing.

Today, as the John Carroll students leave their classrooms for the summer and look forward to vacations, they still struggle for understanding, still grieve for their absent friend, still lament the hollow feeling of never getting the chance to say goodbye.

Unwilling to let Nita disappear from their lives so suddenly and completely, determined that she will never be forgotten, her classmates decorated her vacant desk and empty locker with flowers and photos of the girl with the loud guffaw, the radiant smile, the flashing dark eyes.

Justin Pugh, 16, puts a rose at the site Nita was found on the anniversary of her death each month.

"Nita will never truly die," he says, wiping a shock of wild, curly, light brown hair from his forehead.

"All the empty seats in school, she still sits there. She'll go on somehow. I want to believe that her soul will never die."

Because the Hindu girl's remains were cremated, he says, "There's no other way for me to memorialize her. There's no grave to go and visit, there's no place where I can say goodbye to her."

His hands shake when he says that. He starts to shiver and tries to stop himself, gripping his bobbing knees with his hands.

Taking a deep breath, he says, "That's the hardest thing for me -- not being able to say goodbye."

He squeezes his eyes shut. "In my mind, I can see her," he says, "still hear what she said the very last time I ever saw her."

For many of Nita's closest friends, hers marked their first direct encounter with death.

Lisa Shim, 17, still has a hard time containing the anger and the hurt.

"I'll never get to see Nita graduate from high school, I'll never see her marry, I'll never get to see the family I always pictured her having," Lisa says. "I ask myself, 'Who could do this? How could someone have done this to her?' "

With Nita's death, Lisa says, a part of all the students' youthful innocence died.

"Ever since Nita's death I feel really old," Lisa says. "With Nita you felt young and carefree. Now I feel like I'm 17 going on 95."

"When you see someone every day, talk to them every day, share your life with them and then suddenly they're just gone, it's weird," adds Kristen Millard. "You just keep expecting them."

And, says Justin, "I'm kind of morbid now. I wonder who's going to come to my funeral. What are people who knew me going to say? These are the things I ask myself now."

Nita's former cross country teammates are paying their small tribute to her by naming her an honorary cross country captain next year.

Her friends said she was no star athlete, but sure brought fun to the team.

"Nita had such a funny way of running," says 17-year-old Raven Goel, a friend of Nita's since elementary school.

"She took these small steps, but she really pounded that ground and almost looked like she was half-squatting."

Raven laughs at the picture in her mind, her rounded face now dimpled and her deep brown eyes dancing.

"I remember Nita and I were supposed to be running but we'd get so bored, and finally, when we were out of sight of our coach, we would sneak down to the pond and just watch the ducks and goof off," she recalls.

Robert Garbacik, the John Carroll principal, commends Nita's classmates for presenting the ring to her family -- and for the way they've handled the loss.

Compounding the death, he says, is the fact that it remains a mystery.

"It's been extremely rough on them," Mr. Garbacik says. "There's just been no closure here."

He says the school is arranging a private ceremony where the students will present the ring to Nita's father, Surenda K. Milak, who prefers not to speak publicly of the death.

Nita's friends, meantime, do their best to go on with their lives while preserving the memories of her in countless ways.

For Kristen, there's the rainbow-colored, striped fishing hat Nita loved to borrow. It still hangs on Kristen's mirror.

Raven has pictures of long-ago birthday parties that Nita attended.

Jennifer has a box full of notes that she and Nita passed back and forth in homeroom.

Justin has pictures of Nita and himself at a party. Nita's wearing the silly technicolored fishing hat and her trademark smile that lighted a room.

Lisa has a high school yearbook that she pages through on occasion.

And they all have other things they want to give or say to Nita.

Lisa has a letter she wrote that she never got to give her.

Raven wants to thank Nita for being such an awesome friend.

Kristen wants to let Nita know that she brought her family of friends closer together.

Justin wants to tell Nita goodbye.

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