Nicole MacFarland was heading home to Fields Corner Tuesday morning when she spotted neighbor Olivia Mora. MacFarland’s uncle honked to get Mora’s attention, and Mora came over to say hello.
Mora’s slurred words and vacant look signaled that Mora had been drinking, MacFarland said Wednesday outside a Dorchester courtroom. “She was definitely under the influence,” she said.
Just hours later, their paths crossed again. Mora was behind the wheel of an SUV that sped down Olney Street, jumped the curb, and struck a mother and daughter walking home from school. Brianna Rosales, 7, was killed. Her mother, 26-year-old Glendalee Alvarado, was injured.
Mora, a 36-year-old with a long record of traffic violations, was drunk behind the wheel, law enforcement officials said. After the crash, she tried to back up and flee the scene, said MacFarland, who witnessed the accident. Other witnesses said the same.
Mora later failed three sobriety tests and refused a Breathalyzer test, according to authorities.
The crash left Brianna clinging to life, MacFarland said.
“You could see her try to lift her head,” she said in a soft, pained voice. “She was fighting to get her breath. She fought a little more, but after a while she just stopped.”
Mora was driving “like a bat out of hell” before the crash, MacFarland said. Police said she “was flying.”
Mora pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in Dorchester District Court to charges of motor vehicle homicide and causing bodily injury while operating under the influence. She stood out of view during the arraignment.
She was ordered held without bail as prosecutors described her as a convicted felon who had ties to other states, including California, where she is from. Her lawyer, Gerasimos Antzoulatos, denied that she was a flight risk, calling her “rooted in Boston.”
Antzoulatos said Mora had come to Massachusetts in 1999 to attend Babson College and graduated a few years later. She now lives in Dorchester with her 3-year-old daughter, he said.
Few details about Mora’s past emerged in court, but her senior year of high school was chronicled in a 2000 book about a program for gifted students at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, titled “And Still We Rise.”
According to the book, Mora was removed from her home when she was 12 because she was abused by her mother; by 16, Mora had lived in a dozen foster homes.
“It takes a really special kid to come out of those circumstances. Just to get to college was beating the odds,” said Miles Corwin, the book’s author, who said he was heartbroken to hear of her involvement in the crash.
“I’ve only got positive things to say about her,” he said. “She was such a compelling story. That’s why this is so shattering.” Corwin said he had not spoken to Mora since she graduated from Babson.
In court, Mora’s lawyer argued she has eyesight problems that affect her depth perception. Mora told investigators that her car had “terrible tires” and lost traction, causing her to lose control of the car, according to Assistant District Attorney Masai King.
King said the SUV struck a parked car, jumped onto the sidewalk, hit a fire hydrant, and then hit Alvarado and Brianna. During interviews, police detected a strong odor of alcohol, he said.
“We believe the evidence will show this driver was impaired,” Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said in a statement. “If so, this tragedy was 100 percent avoidable. Our hearts break for Brianna’s family and the unimaginable loss they’ve suffered.”
Alvarado remained hospitalized in stable condition Wednesday, authorities said.
Mora “continuously denied” having had any alcohol that day, saying her last drink was at 10 p.m. the night before, according to a police report.
Mora, who has never held a Massachusetts license, has been cited multiple times for traffic violations such as speeding, improper equipment, seatbelt violation, and improper passing. More than once, she has also had her right to operate suspended.
The district attorney’s office said Mora was convicted in 2010 for larceny, and was charged with assault and battery in 2003, a case that was continued without a finding.
A former landlord on Dix Street in Dorchester said Mora had been a problem tenant and that he’d been forced to take her to housing court.
“She had this ability to come across as this sincere, educated, all together, emotionally stable person,” said Jonathan Shubow. But, at other times, he said, she exhibited odd behavior.
Shubow said Mora ran her business, Media Soul, while living in the apartment, and would hire college-aged people to pass out fliers for upcoming rap shows at clubs.
Mora had helped with children’s art and music classes at a community center, according to her attorney. Walter Ramos, chief executive of Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, a community health center, said Mora previously served as a board member there.
At Alvarado’s home on Hamilton Street, the family’s upstairs neighbor recalled Brianna, a second-grader at the nearby Holland Elementary School, as a happy little girl who loved to give hugs.
“She and my daughter played all the time,” said Jaleisha Covertt. “I really loved her. She’s nothing but sweetness.”
“I’m trying to hold my tears back, but it’s really hard,” she said.
Alvarado’s relatives could not be reached for comment.
Julia Perez, whose second-grade daughter was best friends with Brianna, remembered her as a sweet little girl. She had learned about the crash Tuesday from an automated message from Holland Elementary.
“It is with great sadness that I must let you know that late this afternoon just a few blocks from school, one of our young students was struck by a car and she later passed away,” the principal, Jeichael Henderson, said in the message.
On Wednesday morning, Perez found out that the little girl who had died was Brianna.
She said she told her children, “Look at the sky. She’s up there and she’s protected and she’s little, so no matter what, she’s going to heaven.”
Perez later visited the crash site, where mourners had left stuffed animals, flowers, and candles by a lamp post.
“She was a great little girl,” she said. “She did not deserve this, and I hope that judge gives us justice. That’s one of our children.”
On Olney Street, grief and anger ran deep, as mourners stood by the memorial in the pouring rain. The fence that Mora allegedly struck remained in a crumpled heap, and the fire hydrant was overturned on the sidewalk.
Yvette Brown, who witnessed the crash, said the terrible image won’t leave her mind.
“Last night was a restless night,” she said. “Who speeds down a residential street with school buses? A little girl on the sidewalk, walking home from school. Tragic, for no reason.”
Laying among the candles and stuffed animals was a handwritten note left by a girl named Gabby, the ink blurring in the rain.
“Dear Brianna,” she wrote. “I hope you be OK. I miss you so much.”Travis Andersen and Lisa Wangsness of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.