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Four days before her high school graduation, Samantha Mathus-Cooper, 18, a bride of only 58 days, was looking forward to a bright future and a lifetime of happiness with her new husband.
Then - in an instant example of life's worst fates - she was gone.
Mathus-Cooper died just after 9 p.m. Tuesday in one of those tragic automobile accidents that leaves her family, friends, classmates and her husband struggling to believe and understand.
She was the front-seat passenger in a car that veered off Burks Branch Road just before its intersection with Fox Run, crashed through a fence and violently rolled over several times in a pasture. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Three others, the driver, her friend Jeana Searcy, 18, of Waddy, her nephew Michael Rice, 20, and her brother Matthew Mathus, 24, both of Shelbyville, were transported to the University of Louisville Medical Center, where they were treated and released.
Sheriff's detective Jason Rice said alcohol and drugs are not suspected as a factor in the crash, but he said the Suzuki in which they were riding was apparently going too fast.
When the car came to rest, Matthew Mathus climbed from the back seat and tried frantically to resuscitate his sister.
"He tried to revive her, but she was already gone," said Sheryl Mathus, their mother.
Mathus-Cooper was not planning to take part in graduation tonight and instead was going to leave Wednesday to join her new husband, Ian Cooper, who is stationed at Fort Campbell. And she was eager to get there.
"She was so happy; she was going down today [Wednesday] to be with him," Sheryl Mathus said. "She wasn't going to walk [in graduation], because she wanted to be with Ian."
After a four-year courtship, Samantha and Ian were married April 6 in a quiet ceremony in Henry County.
"She couldn't have been happier," her mother said. "When she married Ian, she got a new mamma and daddy-in-law, Chris and Margie, and a new brother, Jeremy. And she loved them all."
Mathus-Cooper's family is reeling with grief and trying to make sense of such a terrible tragedy, said Peggy Reynolds, grandmother of Michael Rice, the other backseat passenger.
"We're still trying to figure out what happened and fit it all together," she said. "We don't know why [Searcy ran off the road]; the only thing we know is that speed was involved."
Reynolds said the girls had been together all day and had just run into Rice and Mathus at Clear Creek Park at about 9 p.m., a few minutes before the crash.
"Michael and Matt had just got into the car when all this took place," she said. "They hadn't been in the car but just a few minutes."
Reynolds said Rice, who sustained lacerations on his face, is devastated about his niece's death.
"He's still in a lot of pain, and he's suffering emotionally," she said. "They were all very close."
She loved her family
Sheryl Mathus took a deep breath and, bravely holding back her tears, she lamented the daughter she and her husband, Thomas, had loved so much and will continue to love.
"Hell could not be any worse than what I am going through right now," she said softly.
"She was my sweet, pretty little girl. She was everything and more than I could ever have asked for in a daughter. She surpassed my expectations in so many ways."
She smiled through her tears as she remembered an essay that her daughter had once written.
"One time she had to write an essay about who she looked up to," Mathus said. "And she wrote about how that person was her daddy."
Cooper not only inspired loyalty among her family but also among her friends, said her former principal, Gary Kidwell, who is now director of student accounting and support services,
"She had a very close-knit group of friends," he said. "She always had a smile on her face."
Kidwell described her as a very bright student, a fact that her current principal, Michael Rowe, agreed with.
"She was the epitome of what a high school student should be," he said.
Her absence tonight will weigh heavily on many hearts, including her good friend Isabella.
"She is still so sad and crying," said Isabella's mother, Lupe Vega. "I try to comfort her. I tell her that Samantha is in a better place, but all she knows is that she misses her friend. She still has her number in her phone."
At commencement, Denise Mathus, Mathus-Cooper's sister-in-law, will walk in her place and accept her diploma. Her memory will be celebrated.
And then the next day, on Saturday, that lovely young graduate will be laid to rest in the damp soil of the Pleasureville Cemetery.
One of her pallbearers will be her husband.
And on what would have been their 2-month wedding anniversary, Ian Cooper will carry his young bride to her final resting place.