08.06.10

Mean Girls Love-Triangle Murder

Pitted against each other by a boy, two Florida teens seemed to lose their minds. Taunts became fist fights, fist fights became death threats—and then both of them snapped.

Eighteen-year-old Sarah Ludeman was enraged. Her boyfriend Josh was two-timing her with his ex—a girl named Rachel Wade. And Rachel had been taunting Sarah about it all day: sending her vile text messages bragging about how she was with Josh, posting the phrase “Lovin’ my boo:)” on her MySpace page, and calling Sarah’s cellphone to threaten her life.

It had to stop. With a couple of friends in tow, Sarah drove her parents’ minivan to where Rachel was staying. But Rachel, 19, was ready for her—she was toting a razor-sharp steak knife. When the two girls saw each other, they both charged. Rachel grabbed the knife and stabbed Sarah once in the shoulder before piercing her heart. Sarah died within an hour, and now Rachel is facing a life sentence.

Sarah and Erin, the mother of Josh’s child, allegedly slugged it out just two weeks prior to the knife-wielding fight that ended Sarah’s life.

Two girls who wanted the same boy.

This crude, Shakespearean tragedy played out in April 2009 in sunny Pinellas Park, Florida, a working-class town of about 50,000 between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The recent trial and conviction of Rachel Wade on July 24 has revealed in technological clarity how the series of events escalated from a simple high-school love triangle to a murder no one could have foreseen.

Sarah, Rachel, and a third teen, Erin Slothower, had been battling for the heart of a well-built, smooth-talking boy named Josh Camacho for the better part of eight months. At five-foot-five, Josh is a bantam rooster of a young man with angular features, coarse black hair, and café-latte skin. Friends of the lovelorn girls’ call him a moocher. The police call him a player. He called the three girls “friends with benefits.”

By all accounts, Rachel was more worldly than her rival Sarah. She quit school at 16, got her GED, and paid for her own apartment by working as a waitress at Applebee’s. She was named “biggest flirt” in her high-school yearbook and had dated a lot of boys by the time she hooked up with Josh. Yet he managed to have a hold on her like none other.

In contrast, Sarah was a late bloomer when it came to romance. According to The St. Petersburg Times, before Sarah fell for Josh, she made straight As and aspired to be a veterinarian. She hadn’t really dated before, and was apparently still a virgin. After meeting Josh at the Chick-fil-A where he worked, all of that changed.

In the fall of 2008, Josh was dating (or at least hooking up with) Sarah, Rachel, and Erin. How he juggled them all isn’t completely clear, but the three teens’ differing schedules probably helped. Sarah had an 11 p.m. curfew. Erin worked two jobs and was only available late at night. Rachel had her own apartment, where Josh would sometimes crash.

Erin, who declined by email to comment for this article, had already gotten pregnant by Josh; she now takes care of their toddler son. It was Rachel and Sarah who most savagely homed in on each other when they learned that Josh was hooking up with both of them. They began to needle each other relentlessly, and many of their vicious exchanges took place online. They swapped venomous texts and voicemails, and provoked each other with incendiary posts on MySpace and Facebook. It wasn’t long before the virtual fights became real: There were drive-by shout-downs, intimidating glares, and eventually, public brawls in which the young girls duked it out like hard-bitten street fighters.

What is it about this young man that would make two girls commit such violent acts? Friends of the girls are at loss to explain it. “I personally don’t think he’s good-looking,” says Jamie Severino, Erin’s close friend and, incidentally, the mother of Josh’s brother’s child.

Only 19 at the time of the slaying, Josh lived with his parents, worked menial jobs, had a baby he didn’t financially support, and cheated on his women with wild abandon. He was seeing at least the three teens, and possibly more during the months leading up to the stabbing. “I’m pretty sure he had more girls than just the three,” says Jamie. “They all were supporting him, buying him clothes, buying his shoes, paying his cellphone bill, and they all knew about each other.”

Rachel Wade’s attorney, Jay A. Hebert, characterizes Josh’s sweet-talking as “manipulative” and “conniving.” He says that Josh, while not legally responsible in the murder, is ethically culpable. He cites the repeated refrains from witnesses at the trial who said Josh told the girls, “If you love me, you’ll fight for me.”

Jamie says Josh has a way with words. Despite evidence to the contrary, he was often able to convince each of the girls that she was his one and only, according to their friends.

He was so successful at it that he even began seeing Sarah while Erin was pregnant with his son, and then managed to keep both of them on a string after they found out about each other.

It was after one of his nights with Rachel that the tug-of-war over Josh turned deadly. According to The St. Petersburg Times, Rachel told a friend that Josh had slept over, but she suspected he was still seeing Sarah as well. Later that day, when she learned that Josh was indeed with Sarah, Rachel went on a rampage. She drove over to where they were standing and texted Josh from her car:

"Now I know why you're not talking to me—because you got her," Rachel texted to Josh.

"That's right," Josh wrote back. "I don't like you no more. Why are you down this street? Go home."

"No. I'll wait for her to go home," Rachel texted back.

She didn’t, but witnesses testified they heard Rachel on the speakerphone threaten Sarah: “I'm going to stab you and your Mexican boyfriend."

Fights and threats between girls were common in Josh’s world. And not just catty little spats between debutantes—smack-talking text messages frequently led to physical altercations. The level of female-on-female violence that characterized the scene would shock most people. In total, the four teens are mentioned in more than half a dozen police reports directly related to the struggle for Josh’s love. And not all of the fist fights were called in—Sarah and Erin, the mother of Josh’s child, allegedly slugged it out just two weeks prior to the knife-wielding fight that ended Sarah’s life.

Jamie says that she herself had attempted to fight Rachel after Rachel slept with her boyfriend at the time. “I tried to fight her, but she wouldn’t fight me,” says Jamie, who is awaiting trial on unrelated charges of being an accessory to an armed robbery related to a prescription-drug deal gone bad.

But even in this arena of bruises, black eyes, and profane death threats, murder still came as a shock to all parties involved. Rachel “was crazy but I never thought she would stab somebody,” Jamie admits.

Even Rachel seemed surprised at what she had done. When Pinellas Park detectives told her that she had killed Sarah, she broke down in sobs. At the trial, she tearfully told the jury, "When I looked down, I saw blood. I didn't know she had been stabbed."

A petite five-foot-four, 115-pound blonde, Rachel said she was carrying the knife because she was scared of Sarah, who was five inches taller and about 45 pounds heavier. She testified she also feared Josh, who she said once threatened her with a gun if she left him, something he denied.

The image of her as a fearful waif conflicts with her MySpace profile (since shut down), which featured her posing on a bed with a come-hither look and a bio that proclaimed she was an “independent chick.”

Jamie says that “Sarah was no saint either. She was craaaazy about Josh.” So, instead of attacking him, she took her frustrations out on her rivals. She and her friends harassed Rachel while she waited tables at Applebee’s, and even followed her around, bumping into her car and shooting Silly String at her, Rachel told police.

None of the voicemail messages Sarah allegedly left for Rachel were saved. But there was one damning one that Rachel left for Sarah seven months prior to the stabbing. It was played back for the jury at her trial, to dramatic effect. "I’m guaranteeing you I’m going to fucking murder you,” Rachel ranted on the recording. “You’re a fucking fat bitch. I'm going to fucking kill you..." And on and on.

After the verdict was read, Sarah’s parents had little to say to the press. “It’s a tragedy on both sides,” said her father, a cab driver.

Josh was conspicuously absent. Since the murder, he’s kept a low profile. His parents reportedly shipped him off to a relative in New York, but Jamie says he’s still around, and that he even got back together with Erin for a couple of months after the stabbing. He’s avoided reporters and has only spoken publicly during Rachel’s trial. There, he briefly took the witness stand in a cuffed shirt and tie, his curly hair tamed. He testified that he wasn’t “dating” either girl. He told police in a prior recorded interview that he had broken it off with Rachel because other guys told him she was sleeping around.

According to Jamie, Josh has been devastated by the tragedy. He no longer works or has a car. “After this stuff happened, he would just be crying and crying. Since then, he is real quiet all the time. Now he doesn’t do nothing.”

He also hasn’t visited Rachel in jail, who, with a conviction of second-degree murder, is facing 20 years-to-life for her fight for his affection. Her sentencing hearing is September 3.

But even if her former boyfriend isn’t rushing to her aid, others are. Already, Rachel has attracted a small army of supporters, some as far away as Southern California. They watched the trial on truTV, and like her attorney, they argue that she acted in self-defense, that it was Sarah who instigated the fight.

Their campaign to free her is fittingly being waged where it all began: online, on a Facebook page called “Free Rachel Wade.”

Lynn Waddell is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. She's a former staff writer of the Las Vegas Sun and The Birmingham News.