Video: Life imitates art for "Judging Amy" actress

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/21/2007 5:15:29 PM ET 2007-05-21T21:15:29

This report aired Dateline Sunday, May 20, 7 p.m. on NBC.

Tara Correa-McMullen played a gang girl on the CBS show, “Judging Amy.” In real life she was just like any other 15-year-old.

But she had big dreams. She was just a kid who happened to love Hollywood.  The rare and remarkable thing was that Hollywood loved her, too.

Amy Brenneman, actress: She was sort of plucked out of nowhere.

Tara became a regular on the TV show and before that, won a part in a major motion picture called “Rebound.”

Helen Shaver, "Judging Amy" director: I felt like she was standing at a crossroads.

What kind of crossroads? It seems as if Tara’s head got turned from the glamour and glitz of the Hollywood world to something darker.... something much more dangerous.

When Tara first moved to Los Angeles with her mother, seeking a better life, they lived in inexpensive hotels.  She went to the local high school where she met her closest friend Maurice Tipton.

Maurice Tipton, friend: We did everything. Anything we could possibly do in LA or Hollywood, we were there. We spent most of our time in Hollywood just roaming the streets, taking pictures with all the little people dressed up as characters.

Then, talking about acting dreams, Tara was plucked out of nowhere and cast in a Martin Lawrence motion picture. She played the only girl on an all-boys basketball team. It happened when her mom was working in a casting agency.

Devra McMullen, mother: They needed a girl that could play basketball but she was also, heavier than the other girls. And, she could be kind of a rough and tumble tomboy. But she also had this vulnerable heart that you could see on camera. And the more I thought about the role the more I started thinking, “Man, Tara could do that.” And this producer saw her and she just said, “That’s my girl.” 

Nor was that first part any kind of fluke: Tara had real presence on camera.  And very soon, this was 2004, she won another part in a primetime Emmy-nominated TV show, “Judging Amy.”

Brenneman: She had natural charisma. She was a star.

Amy Brenneman played a juvenile court judge who believes she can help save Graciela, a gang girl played by Tara. In one scene, Judge Amy orders Tara to hug her mother, instead of paying a fine for the knife found in her backpack.

Meanwhile, in real life, Tara’s real mother, Devra, finally found an apartment where Tara had her own bedroom. New to L.A., how could she have known? There are some neighborhoods in this vast anonymous sprawl that in daylight— only looked bright and safe....

Tara’s new home was in such a place where, at night, the dark side emerged. It was a neighborhood where Tara could easily pick up the local verbal patter with the same skills that made her a natural on the set.   But this neighborhood was gang territory.

Shaver: If everything I saw from her was acting, was pretend, she’d get an Academy Award.  She’s a brilliant actress. 

She was so good that the “Judging Amy” writers decided to put her in several more episodes.

Shaver: They decided to write her into the whole series.

Morrison, Dateline correspondent: They decided to write her into the whole series because...?

Shaver: Because her chemistry with Amy on screen was fabulous.  And because she’s an extraordinary little actress.

Brenneman: She had a little bit of Queen Latifah in her.

But Maurice, who still treasures a lock of Tara’s hair, noticed a change. He says she started hanging out in real life with the kinds of charactersshe played on the set.

Tipton: So, she was  taking the wrong turn: the street life, just running around, doin’ nothin’, just gang banging—get in trouble.

And then Devra discovered that her 15-year-old daughter had taken up with  a known gang member, 10 years older than Tara and with a prison record.

Devra McMullen: He was scary enough to me that I don’t want him in my house.  So...

Morrison: So you called the police and they didn’t do a heck of a lot.

Devra McMullen: I called and called and called.  They got sick of hearing me call.  They knew my name.  First name.  "Oh, that’s Tara’s mom again."

She was hoping the police could find a reason to arrest him and get him away from her daughter.

Devra McMullen: Hoping and hoping and hoping and hoping.

Morrison: What do you mean?

Devra McMullen: Hoping that she’d get away from him.  Hoping that she’d hear me.

Tipton: She told me that he had locked her in the room, and he threatened to blow her brains out if she left. I looked into her eyes, and I didn’t see the beautiful, blue eyes that I usually see.  I just saw darkness.  It was like she wasn’t even there no more.

Attorney Gloria Allred, representing the family, says Tara was not a gang member but was trying to save someone who was.

Gloria Allred, attorney: What she didn’t realize was that that’s too dangerous for a 15-year-old girl to do all by herself… is rescue a young man in trouble.  But that’s what she tried to do.

When Tara missed Maurice’s birthday, he worried that she’d crossed a dangerous line. He saw the evidence the next day.

Maurice Tipton, friend:  And she showed up the next day at my front door, and she had on all red, and her face was kinda beat up.  And she told me she had got put on the gang the day before.  And she had it tattooed on her chest right here.

Helen Shaver remembers that day as though it had just happened.

Helen Shaver, director: She showed me her tattoo that she just got. She’d gotten it the night before. She said she was really tired because she had been up all night.  And it was quite a prominent tattoo right there above the heart of letters and numbers.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: What did you think when you saw that?

Shaver: I thought, “Oh my God.”

Then Helen told Tara they had written more episodes for her.

Shaver: And she’s like, “I don’t want to do it.”

Morrison: When do you ever hear a kid say, “I don’t want to be on a TV show.”

Shaver: Absolutely. Or somebody say, “I don’t want that money.” Even if you don’t want to be on the TV show, where do you find money like that?

And when she pressured Tara to promise she would show up, the answer took Helen’s breath away.

Shaver: This young woman sat there in a group of adults, and she said, absolutely clear,  “I can’t promise that. Because I don’t know. I might be dead.” 

But Tara did show up even as her real life, like the character she played, was spiraling out of control.

In those last episodes Tara, playing Graciela, is in the back seat of a car during a drive-by shooting.  When the victim dies, Tara’s character is charged with homicide. Amy’s character wants her tried as a juvenile, not as an adult.

But she loses. Tara’s character, Graciela, is sent to prison where she is killed by a rival gang. 

A few months after that last episode aired, Tara was with her boyfriend at an apartment. It was close to 6 p.m.  Suddenly, there was a hail of bullets, three people were hit in what police described as a “walk-up gang-related shooting.”

She was hit five times. She died at ahospital less than 3 hours later.  She was 16.

Devra McMullen: I got enough information from the surgeon to know what happened to her.  And that they did everything they could do.  And that’s enough for me.

Morrison: Why?

Devra McMullen: Because that’s how I deal with my grief.  I don’t want to remember all the things that happened to her in detail.  That’s too painful for me.  I want to remember her like she was. I want to remember the good things.  Because that’s the part that, you know, gets me through.

When Amy Brenneman got the news, sadly she wasn’t surprised. 

Amy Brenneman, actress: I just thought, “Oh, they got her. They got her.” You know,this is the normal course of events  that she would die this way.

They had let themselves hope that the sheen of their Hollywood promise would save Tara. But they couldn’t compete with her real life.

Brenneman: I get adolescents needing a place that’s theirs. And we wanted to think that we would be that place, but I don’t think we were.  I think the gang that she found herself was that place.  

Morrison: You spent all of this time and effort for your art to be an honest imitation of life.  And maybe it’s the other way around in some ways.

Brenneman: Yeah.

Art and life. Life and art. This was not the ending the famous actress would have scripted.

A 20-year-old suspected gang member, Damien Watts, has been charged with Tara’s murder. He has pleaded not guilty. A hearing is scheduled for later this month.

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