A mother and daughter travel to a wheelchair competition in Texas to find each other
Echoes of Aaliyah live beyond Jenni Del Prete’s lost years in prison
By Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project
GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas—Jenni Del Prete presses up against the railing in hopes of getting a better view. In front of her is a maze of ramps, rails and small flights of stairs. Hidden from view is her 27-year-old daughter, Tia, busy tying the yellow straps of her knee and elbow pads, adjusting her helmet and wheeling back and forth in her custom-made wheelchair. She calls it practicing. It looks more like pacing.
Jenni, 46, is jumping up and down, as if her 4-foot-11.5-inch frame can’t contain her nerves. Tia is about to compete in the world championship of wheelchair motocross—known as WCMX—where the challenge is to perform the best tricks, and a panel of three judges awards points. For Jenni, it’s not so much a sporting event just west of Dallas but a chance to create a memory with her daughter after their long separation. This is the first time she gets to see Tia compete since fourth-grade karate.
“I wasn’t home for any of it,” Jenni says of those lost years.
Jenni cries out the moment she sees Tia roll out, the red spokes of her wheels a blur. Holding her phone up in the air to record the moment, Jenni cheers her daughter on as she speeds past in a steel blue wheelchair. Tia performs a series of tricks—sliding down a rail on the bar between her back wheels and clunking down stairs one at a time on her back wheels, all while maintaining control of her wheelchair without assistance. She is beaming the whole time she competes, but she smiles a little bigger, her eyes shine a little brighter as she wheels in front of her mom.
Then she’s gone. From across the park, Tia pokes her head out from behind a ramp. She makes eye contact with her mom, who gives her two thumbs up. In unison, they do a celebratory dance move—moving their forearms around each other in a spinning motion. Tia’s eyes crinkle into a huge grin.
After the competition, Jenni bends down, her hand on Tia’s cheek, for a private moment, mother and daughter. Someone snaps a photo. The photo doesn’t capture what isn’t there but never goes away: nearly a decade of missed moments.
In 2005, Jenni was convicted of first-degree murder for violently shaking a 3 ½-month-old infant to death. The descent only worsened: Jenni was raped, her nose was broken twice by other inmates, she struggled with her faith in God, and the bonds with her two children, especially her son, frayed to the breaking point.
At the thought of the children she had left behind, then 7-year-old Draven and 15-year-old Tia, Jenni wanted to end her own life. Instead, she found a way. To get by. To do more. To break through.
After serving nearly half of her 20-year prison sentence, a federal judge released Jenni on bond in 2014, saying no reasonable jury would have found her guilty. Two years later, her conviction was overturned. After she was released, she expected to rediscover that close bond with her children.
It didn’t happen.
Bitterness remains. “I don’t think, you know, anything could compensate for what they took from me and the kids,” she says.
For Tia, the pain of her mother’s absence was palpable. Then-18-year-old Tia developed a hernia in her groin, an injury she attributes to “the stress of my mother being in prison,” she says.
In 2011, Tia started using a cane, and within four years, long walks became too painful, so painful that a simple trip to the grocery store would leave her in tears. By 2015, she was spending most of her time in a wheelchair.
“Now I’m in pain every day,” she says. “It never goes lower than a five.”
Tia had to give up many of her beloved hobbies, like skateboarding and hip-hop dancing, but found a close kin in another sport: In 2013, she came across wheelchair motocross videos online and immediately wanted to try it. She got her first custom wheelchair in October last year.
Six months later, Tia is one of six competing in the women’s division at the world championship.
Jenni only got here because a federal judge granted her permission to leave Illinois. It’s been a long ride. One of the last of Tia’s milestones Jenni witnessed was her daughter’s fourteenth birthday.
Jenni remembers throwing her daughter a party at a camp resort, where they went on a scavenger hunt and ate a Mrs. Fields cookie cake. On the drive there, “Are You That Somebody?” by Aaliyah floated through the radio. As they drove farther from home, the radio started spewing static, and Jenni pulled over onto the shoulder of the two-lane highway and reversed the car for better reception so she, Tia and Tia’s friends could dance and sing along to the rest of the song.
In prison, you can’t go in reverse. Jenni missed Tia’s sixteenth birthday, her high school graduation, nights of eating fast food together and watching all-day marathons of Roseanne, one of their favorite TV shows. Jenni left behind a gangly teenager who wore sweatpants in Jordan basketball shoes.
What Jenni returned to was an adult daughter with a fiancé and a son. All that remained of the years in between were pictures and videos. After missing so much, she couldn’t have missed another moment like this competition.
“I couldn’t have called Tia and told her that I couldn’t go,” she says. “There was just no way I could have done that.”
Tia remembers when she got her driver’s license, and her dad—not her mom—took a video of her driving away for the first time. “The moment was captured, but it was just, like, always different,” she says. “Even watching it, it was like, ‘Oh, if my mom was here, it would’ve been a bigger deal.’”
Tia remembers when she danced onstage to Michael Jackson’s pop song, “Thriller.” She performed the same dance several times, and she was “shocked” that she didn’t have more family members at all of her shows; once was enough for them, she says. Tia knew things would have been different if her mom had been there. “My mom would be at every show,” she says. “… She would’ve been there every performance, recording every performance.”
Tia remembers when she started a business as a disc jockey and grew her reputation as the “dancing DJ.” She never got to play for her mom. “I wish she was there to see me DJ, I wish she was there to see me dance, and stuff like that just got missed,” Tia says tearfully. “[T]he hardest thing about this was, like, I knew the time would end, but there were so many things in between that were missing. There were so many things that she wasn’t going to get to see in person, that she wasn’t going to get to experience.”
Not anymore. Jenni dotes on Tia, adopting the role of proud mama that she was deprived of for so many years. Right before the first competition, Jenni kisses a giggling Tia over and over on the cheek. As Tia is about to make a video for her video blog, Jenni stops her so she can fix her daughter’s eyebrow. A few hairs are slightly askew. After Tia competes, Jenni wraps a maroon windbreaker around her daughter on this unseasonably cold day, letting her arm linger around her shoulders.
Tia comes in fourth place. She didn’t win. But it doesn’t matter. “It’s huge, of course, that my mom got to be here to finally see me compete in something,” she says.
The family huddles around Tia, and Tia’s wife Anne recalls what happened three years ago to the day, April 23, 2014.
“On this day three years ago, they found out [Jenni] was going to be released,” Anne says. Her revelation is greeted with murmurs. “Oh, yeah,” punctuates the air. Then, after a brief pause, they turn to pack up their things and head back to their small town in northwest Illinois, choosing to leave the past in the past.
“When I was home, I always was there,” Jenni says. “… The moments I missed I at least got to take a peek at them [in photos], but being here today, it just felt like it never had stopped. Like I was always there.”
(View images from the trip in the accompanying photo essay, “Freewheeling.”)