A vale of mystery surrounded Philly native Lisa Lopes' short life. Her family speaks out publicly for the first time about the strange circumstances of her death.
When Lisa Lopes, star of the hip-hop/R&B trio TLC, arrived in Honduras--a small, impoverished Central American nation wedged between Guatemala and El Salvador--it was 100 degrees and it was only late March.
The sun was beating down on the 13 concrete huts in herbalist Dr. Sebi's Usha Healing Village, a compound at the base of flourishing green hills near the town of Jutiapa. But the smothering heat was a welcome respite for the 30-year-old Philadelphian, who'd overcome the turbulence of her upbringing to become a Grammy Award-winning recording artist. Honduras represented an escape from hangers-on, abusive relationships, constant turmoil and a nagging sense of loss that she'd been carrying for more than a decade.
"She was just looking for something different to do with her life," says her 51-year-old mother, Wanda Coleman. "She had been drinking all the time. She wasn't happy. She would have blackouts, didn't know what was happening. She said she had a split personality. I don't know if I believe it, but she said she would be another person."
For three years Lopes--a generous free spirit who gave even when there was nothing left--found refuge in the place she referred to as "the bush." Usha Village's electric therapy, thermal baths, natural saunas and herb compounds offered physical and emotional healing, not only from the rigors of fame, but from the haunting memories of her past and a grave premonition of her future.
In Honduras, she fasted and devoured books on Christianity, Buddhism and spiritual communication. She consumed herbs that she believed took her to a higher spiritual plane. She told those close to her that she communicated with the spirit of her father, the late Ronald Lopes Sr., whose 1991 murder haunted her.
But in the midst of the physical cleansing that transformed her, giving her a peace that sometimes showed through in her face, Lisa had dreams and portents. Not the least of which, according to those who knew her best, was a premonition of her own death.
"WHEN WE WERE IN HONDURAS, me and Lisa had a chance to take a ride by ourselves," says her brother, Ronald Lopes, who traveled there with Lisa, their sister Raina and a number of others, including a four member-singing group called Egypt that Lisa was mentoring.
"She was telling me about a dream she had," recalls her brother. "It was two lions that bit off two heads. And she told me that she thought something was going to happen on this trip. But she felt that it was going to be one of the girls in Egypt. Two of them are Leos and two of them are Geminis. She said she felt as though it's inevitable that something was going to happen."
Two weeks into the visit something did.
Lopes and other members of her entourage left the Usha Healing Village in a car driven by her assistant, Stephanie Patterson. That evening, according to those who were there, the stifling Honduran air was filled with foreboding.
Ronald sensed it while watching vultures devour a horse's carcass and a flock of birds making shrill, screaming noises from the trees. Lisa's cousin, Jasmine Brodie, felt it in the very walls of the huts where they were staying.
"The air out there was thick," says Brodie. "We were staying where people who were sick went to get well. They would take the herbs to get better, and if they didn't get better they died there. A few people died in the room, and when I was in the room, I felt them ... 'Haunted' is a pretty strong word. But I would say there were spirits in the room."
Brodie says she could feel their presence, not just in the huts, but in the air. It made her uncomfortable and afraid, and eventually caused her to make an early return to the States on April 13.
But not before the night of the first accident.
IT WAS DARK WHEN THE CAR DRIVEN BY Lopes' assistant left the village. It's commonplace for people to walk the roads that wind through Honduras, and it's often difficult to see pedestrians. When a family crossed the road in front of their car, there was the thud of a little boy's body slamming against the vehicle.