Looking for answers in devastating loss

Hit-and-run: As the trial date nears for the man accused in their child's death, a Harford family struggles to cope.

October 07, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Annie Cumpston was waiting for her front teeth to come in. For almost as long as she could remember, since she tumbled off a chair at preschool, she hadn't had them.

On the early spring night when she left the circus in Baltimore with her family, Annie - happily waiting for all of the things 6-year-olds anticipate - crossed the street at Hopkins Plaza, waving her light stick and holding her mother's hand.

Then a truck veered into the crosswalk toward the Harford County family, hitting Annie and pinning her to another car. The driver backed up and sped away.

Within hours, Annie was dead.

Six months have passed since the driver left Annie and her stunned sisters - Susie, 7, Alice, 4, and Madelyn, 18 months - and parents, Megan McGann Cumpston and Tom Cumpston.

But now, with the trial of the driver nearing, the Cumpstons are talking for the first time about the little helper they called "Mother Annie," and about the struggle to learn to think of their girls as three instead of four, while still keeping Annie alive in their hearts.

During the first months after Annie died, Megan Cumpston, 39, and Tom Cumpston, 41, who live in Jarrettsville, often awoke with the fleeting sense that a new day would bring their child back.

But the reality is different.

"You just look in the [rear-view] mirror, look back and there's an empty seat," said Tom Cumpston, who would have driven Susie and Annie to school together for the first time this year.

Instead, he drops Susie off and goes to sit by Annie's grave.

The Cumpstons know that the man charged in the incident, Guillermo Diaz, will likely serve less than 10 years if convicted in the killing.

"We don't have a 10-year hurt," said Tom Cumpston, a mortgage broker. "Our lives are ruined."

The 24-year-old Halethorpe man, whose trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 15, is charged with vehicular manslaughter, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence.

Diaz, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who has been in the United States for four years doing construction work, also was charged with traffic violations, driving under the influence of alcohol and attempted first-degree murder for allegedly dragging a man, who tried to stop him that night, with his truck.

Diaz's lawyer, Jason Shapiro, declined to comment or to allow his client to be interviewed for this article.

"I don't know that there's anything worse than losing a child and helplessly watching it happen," said Megan Cumpston's best friend, Sharon Perfetti of Fallston. "Everyone around them just feels equally helpless. ... We can't bring her back, and we can't take away the images."

But they can reach out. From the time the Cumpstons returned from the hospital, friends and relatives have ferried the girls to activities, bought their school supplies and offered countless other acts of kindness.

And they are sharing keepsakes of Annie - drawings they had tucked away or photographs from a roll of recently developed film.

The discoveries are priceless, yet piercing. "I hate when new stuff comes in," Tom Cumpston said. "It just tears you up."

But for Megan Cumpston, they are touchstones to be preserved.

"I think a lot of her fear is that everyone's going to go on with their lives, and Annie will just be forgotten," said Megan Cumpston's sister, Kate McGann, of Havre de Grace.

With donations increasing for a scholarship in Annie's memory at the John Carroll School, a high school in Bel Air - as well as a foundation created in her memory - Annie will be remembered with a generosity that was so much a part of her nature.

And on the soccer field, where Annie played for the first time last year, she will be recalled with sportsmanship trophies given to a player on each kindergarten team in the Fallston girls soccer league.

Perfetti, who helped organize the awards, said it's a way to say to her friends, "You're going to remember every day of your lives, and we're going to make sure everyone else does, too."

"Mother Annie" was a nickname Annie hated, but it captured her so well: She was always the first to help her little sisters, or to seek out a classmate's lost hat at school.

She was one of 19 grandchildren in the large McGann-Cumpston family and was active in dance, gymnastics, Brownies and sports.

Annie was tender, too.

"Boy, she could cry," said McGann. "That was one of the more beautiful things about her. She didn't have an aggressive bone in her body."

In her room, her jewelry box still sits on the dresser, with treasures such as a dainty charm bracelet and costume jewelry from her grandmother.

Her journal is still there, too, with its last entry, "This is my dad's phone number," penciled in at the top of the page.

Though anger and grief pursue Tom and Megan Cumpston through hard days and sleepless nights, those feelings are softened daily by Annie's sisters, who can be found in the back yard racing scooters around the pool or kicking soccer balls.

Without the girls, the parents say bluntly, the two of them would have checked out.

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