CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tiffany Wright stood alone in the dark, waiting for her school bus.
It was just before 6 a.m., and her foster grandmother had walked back home to get Tiffany's water bottle.
Tiffany, 15, was eight months pregnant but determined to stay on track in school. She wanted to be a lawyer. And after just a few weeks at Hawthorne High, she had impressed teachers as smart and ambitious, despite a difficult childhood.
At 5:51, Tiffany sent a text.
"Wheres the bus?"
One stop away, replied her friend, already on the bus.
At 5:55, as the bus lumbered toward Tiffany's stop, people began calling police to report gunshots.
A school bus dispatcher radioed Tiffany's bus driver: Change course - something's happening ahead.
Tiffany lay dead in the road, shot in the head, that morning, Monday, Sept. 14. Her baby girl was delivered at the hospital and lived a week, but died Sunday.
Nobody's charged in the killings, but police call Tiffany's adoptive brother, Royce Mitchell, a "person of interest."
In the months before she died, local agencies took steps aimed at stabilizing her home life and keeping her safe. But her story exposes failures in the system that was supposed to protect her.
Among the missteps:•In February, a Mecklenburg court clerk appointed Mitchell as Tiffany's temporary guardian — even though he was a felon who served time in federal prison. He was also tried in 2006 for murder, but found not guilty. And last year, he was accused of domestic violence, though the case was dismissed.
•In July, social workers told police that Mitchell, 36, might have committed statutory rape with Tiffany, but police didn't question him about it for seven weeks, and didn't charge him with the rape until after Tiffany was killed.
•This month, Mecklenburg social services failed to cut off communication between Tiffany, who was in foster care, and Mitchell, said a source close to the investigation.
On the day of Tiffany's killing, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police jailed Mitchell for statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child, naming Tiffany as the victim.
Police defend their work, saying they followed the industry's best practices - which takes time. Police didn't feel a need to rush, they say, because they believed Tiffany was secure, hidden in a foster home with no threat to her safety.
Police say it's hard to prove statutory rape: Of the 262 reports of statutory rape police received over three years, only 16 percent - 42 cases - were accepted by prosecutors.
Experts say statutory rape cases are complicated because they involve victims ages 13, 14 or 15 who often consider themselves voluntary participants in sex with someone at least six years older. So victims can be reluctant to help police.
But child advocates say in cases like Tiffany's, police should act more aggressively. An immediate arrest sends a signal to a suspect and can persuade them to stay away from victims.
"The cases may be difficult to win, but they're not difficult to charge," says Brett Loftis of Charlotte's Council for Children's Rights.
UNCC criminologist Paul Friday says: "Often, nothing is done in these kinds of cases because they're based on improper assumptions about the rationality of someone that age. But the minors are often unaware of disease, birth control and they can be exploited by someone."
Adopted by foster mother
Tiffany first entered the child welfare system as a toddler in Buffalo, N.Y., when her mother lost custody.
She was adopted at 4 by her foster mother, Alma Wright, an older woman with eight grown children, who was excited about raising another child.
One of Wright's grown sons was Royce Mitchell, a star quarterback in high school who'd gone on to play for a semi-pro team in Buffalo. But Mitchell also was indicted in 1999 as part of a drug trafficking ring and went to federal prison.
While he was in prison, authorities also charged Mitchell with an earlier murder, but a jury found him not guilty.
In 2004, Alma and Tiffany left Buffalo for North Carolina, settling near Kings Mountain. Tiffany made friends easily at school and church. She ran track at Bessemer City High School.
In 2007, Mitchell was released from prison and followed his mother to North Carolina.
But last fall, Alma Wright got sick. Friends at church helped out with Tiffany, inviting her for dinners and weekends. Tiffany spent time with Mitchell and his wife, too.
Alma Wright died Jan. 25, and Tiffany moved in with the Mitchells in Charlotte.
On Jan. 30, Royce Mitchell asked a Mecklenburg court to appoint him and his wife as Tiffany's guardians.
On his application, he wrote: "We are seeking guardianship because we were requested to do so by Mrs. Alma Wright before she died."
He wanted to transfer Tiffany to West Mecklenburg High School.
The court set a hearing for Feb. 5 and appointed a child advocate to study the situation and look after Tiffany's best interests in court.
There's no transcript of what happened in court, and the clerk who handled Tiffany's case declined to discuss his decision.
Frederick Benson, a Mecklenburg assistant clerk of superior court, appointed Mitchell the temporary guardian of Tiffany's welfare.
It's unclear if Benson, a lawyer, knew about Mitchell's criminal background. Court clerks are not required to perform background checks in guardianship cases, says Clerk of Superior Court Martha Curran. It's up to each clerk to decide what checks are necessary, and they often rely on court-appointed child advocates to advise them in such cases.
Tiffany's advocate, lawyer Martha Efird, declined to discuss her actions in the case.
It was in the weeks surrounding the Feb. 5 court hearing that Tiffany got pregnant, if hospital estimates are accurate.
But friends say Tiffany, who started at West Mecklenburg High in February, wouldn't realize for four or five months that she was pregnant.
On Feb. 27, clerk of court Benson ordered DSS to conduct a "home study" of the Mitchell household. Officials won't release their findings.
But Mitchell didn't keep custody long, according to several of Tiffany's friends in King's Mountain.
In late March, Mitchell left Tiffany at a group home called With Friends in Gastonia, according to Marlene Jefferies and Cruceta Jeffeirs, two adult family friends who watched Tiffany grow up.
The group home wouldn't confirm that. But the friends say the home reported to social services that Tiffany was abandoned. And she was soon back in foster care.
On March 31, Jeffeirs, a Shelby pastor, wrote a letter to Benson seeking custody of Tiffany: "My desire is to see Tiffany accomplish all the goals that she has set for herself and I believe she can do that in a stable environment with lots of guidance and love."
DSS officials in Gaston and Mecklenburg won't discuss Tiffany's case or answer questions about what steps they took to protect her.
But friends and family say Tiffany was eventually placed in the care of foster parent Susan Barber, in a townhome off Mallard Creek Road in Derita.
By July, it was clear Tiffany was pregnant, friends say.
Barber tried to shield Tiffany from talking to those she believed might be bad influences, according to Tiffany's cousin Brittany Page. But a source close to the investigation said Tiffany and Mitchell continued communicating.
Despite repeated attempts, Barber could not be reached.
As the school year approached, Tiffany prepared to change schools again, this time to Hawthorne High in Charlotte, which offers a special program for pregnant students.
On July 27, social workers reported to police that Royce Mitchell might have committed statutory rape with Tiffany.
It took eight days for a detective to look at the case, and three days more for it to be officially assigned to Teresa Johnson, a detective with CMPD's youth crime and domestic violence unit.
Another 12 days passed before Johnson interviewed Tiffany.
It's unclear when detective Johnson discovered Mitchell's background, but it wasn't enough to ramp up the investigation. Investigators say they believed Tiffany was safe in a foster home and faced no threats from Mitchell.
Police say their performance in the case followed procedure and met standards.
Police interview alleged victims immediately if the crime has occurred within the previous 72 hours, so they can gather evidence that may remain. But in cases like Tiffany's - where months had elapsed since the alleged offense - police try to arrange just one interview when children and teen victims of abuse are involved.
Police acknowledge that strategy takes time but minimizes trauma and reduces the chances that young victims might be led into inaccurate testimony by repeated questioning.
Police also let such victims decide when they want to be interviewed at the county's child-victim center called Pat's Place. There, specially trained interviewers talk to victims, while social workers, psychologists, police and others watch from another room.
Tiffany chose an Aug. 19 interview. She didn't say much during the formal interview. But later that day, Johnson won her trust and obtained enough information to move forward with the investigation.
No response from Mitchell
The next day, Aug. 20, the detective made her first call to Mitchell to ask him about the charge, she says. Johnson left a message and gave him a few days to call back.
When Mitchell didn't respond, she made calls over the next two weeks to social workers and a federal probation officer to ask Mitchell to come talk to police.
Police say they didn't immediately arrest him because they believed they could get better information if he talked voluntarily.
On Sept. 9, a federal probation official told Johnson that Mitchell was not coming in.
On Sept. 10, a team of social workers, police and other agencies held a standard follow-up meeting to discuss how to proceed in Tiffany's case.
On Friday, Sept. 11, detective Johnson phoned Mitchell's wife and left a message. She asked her to call back to discuss Tiffany, Johnson says, but didn't give details of the rape allegation.
That Monday, Tiffany was shot and killed.
As emergency vehicles rolled to the scene, Tiffany's school bus was diverted from its normal route. But the students could see flashing lights. Tiffany's friends on the bus, Cimone Black and Tamia Corpening, began to worry.
"I kept texting her phone...," Cimone said. Then she started calling, but all she got was voice mail.
The bus continued on to Hawthorne. For Tamia, the hourlong ride was excruciating.
Nobody said a word.
Staff writers Liz Chandler and Ely Portillo and researcher Maria David contributed.