05/13/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
For R&B star Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, Honduras was a frequent retreat from the demands of the music business, a sanctuary where she could commune with nature, sip drinks brewed from tree bark and, as she put it, "disappear into the bush for days." So on March 30, with work on the long-delayed fourth album by her Grammy-winning trio TLC halted by a flare-up of bandmate Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins's sickle cell anemia, Lopes headed to the Central American country for a break. She was joined by 12 guests, including members of Egypt, a female quartet from Lopes's native Philadelphia, whom she was mentoring. With the star picking up the tab, the group indulged in yoga classes, hot-spring baths and vegetarian meals cooked by the 30-year-old singer. "She did so much for us," says Egypt's Sophia Gibson, 19. "She was like an angel."
The spring idyll ended horribly on April 25 on the way to shoot video footage with Egypt and local children. Lopes—at the wheel of a rented SUV built for seven but carrying 10—careened off a two-lane highway after passing a pickup truck. Lopes, who was thrown from the van, died from chest and head wounds. Several passengers suffered broken bones. "She was exceeding the speed limit," says Marco Tulio Palma Rivera, police chief for the Honduran department of Atlantida, who estimates Lopes (pronounced LO-pez) was going 85 mph. "There was no indication of drugs or alcohol."
It was a brutal end to the life of a colorful and controversial pop diva. Though she stood barely 5 ft. tall, Lopes—who got her nickname from a boyfriend who noticed that her left eye was slightly larger than her right—captured crowds with her flamboyant style and her willingness to use TLC's music to tackle serious issues like crime and AIDS. When the band started in 1991, she wore a condom patch over her left eye to promote safe sex. Lopes stoked her bad-girl reputation offstage as well—most notoriously when she ended a 1994 fight with her boyfriend, professional football player Andre Rison, by burning down the $1.3 million mansion they shared in Atlanta. After pleading guilty to first-degree arson, Lopes received five years of probation and was ordered into an alcohol treatment program for 28 days.
Even her death was surrounded by controversy. As her family was making plans for a private May 2 funeral in Atlanta, the Honduran press reported that in early April Lopes's personal assistant Stephanie Patterson, 31, had fatally struck Bayron Fuentes Lopes (no relation), a 10-year-old Honduran boy, who darted in front of her rented minibus. Lopes's Honduran attorney Patrick Bennett Connor says neither Patterson, Lopes (who was in the minibus at the time) nor the boy's parents reported the incident to the police. Instead, he says, Lopes paid $3,700 to cover Bayron's hospital bills and funeral. "They assumed responsibility," the attorney says. "The family did not want to give Stephanie a hassle." The boy's mother, Gloria Fuentes, agrees: "Why should we have called the police? Lisa was an excellent person, the way she treated me and took care of my son."
Despite such incidents, pals insist that Lopes could also be down-to-earth, so unassuming that even after TLC's three smash albums she still bought her hair extensions at a local grocery. In Atlanta she clung close to home and family. Her mother, Wanda Lopes, 50, an interior designer who decorated Lisa's modest brick house, lived just 15 minutes away. Her siblings Raina, 28, a personal trainer, and Ronald, 27, a karate instructor, were among her recent guests in Honduras. (Her father, Ronald, an Army staff sergeant whom Lopes both credited with encouraging her music and accused of beating her, died in 1991.)
Recently Lopes had been caring for Snow, the 8-year-old daughter of a struggling friend. TLC founder and friend Ian Burke says she also spoke of having a child, though her tempestuous relationship with Rison, which included multiple canceled engagements, was most recently off, say friends. Her aunt Andrea Lopes, 52, was less sure. "Ultimately," she says, "they were meant to be together."
One thing not in question, say pals, was Lopes's generosity, particularly when it came to children. Initially lured to Honduras to do relief work following '98's Hurricane Mitch, Lopes later promoted literacy in the impoverished country and purchased three acres near La Ceiba to develop as a children's camp. In Atlanta she often dropped in on the children's wards of local hospitals. After connecting with the Atlanta-based Lost Boys of Sudan Foundation, which provides services to Sudanese youths, "she got so involved that she planned to go to the refugee camp in Kenya in January," says foundation head Mary Williams.
Lopes also loved to nurture young talent. After unloosing some Lost Boys in her studio, she included their music on an Egypt demo and on her own singles that she planned to distribute free over the Internet. Such gestures gave meaning to one of her favorite aphorisms. Recalls her brother Ronald: "She used to say, 'Energy doesn't die, it just transfers.' "
Siobhan Morrissey in La Ceiba, Jill Westfall, Michael Cohen and Gail Wescott in Atlanta, Lori Rozsa in Miami and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles