Rising Star, Tragic End

updated 11/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Blasts from a rifle ring in the air and three people fall to the ground. Two men survive the shooting, but the third, a girl—only 16—is not as lucky. On Oct. 21, on a street in Inglewood, Calif., Tara Correa-McMullen became the city's 24th homicide victim this year.

To many her death seemed especially tragic. In the past year McMullen, who had a tough childhood herself, portrayed a teen caught up in gang violence on the CBS show Judging Amy. Her character, Graciela, was murdered by gang members, and police believe Tara may have been too. "There's no indication she knew the people who shot her," says Sgt. Steve Overly of Inglewood's homicide unit. "She may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Tara's talent nearly saved her. She was living with her mother, Mary Devra, and older sister Abigail in Inglewood when Devra, who worked for a casting agent, sent her to an audition on a whim. She won a role in the film Rebound in May 2004. That fall Tara got a part on Judging Amy. "She was just a kid, but she had so much confidence," says producer Carol Barbee.

But by the time Tara got her own apartment in early 2005, she had changed. "She became more and more disruptive," says Barbee. Relatives believe Tara was dating an older gang member, though she wasn't part of a gang. During reshoots on Rebound, "everyone encouraged her to finish school," says costar Oren Williams, 14. "But she wanted to live a street life." In the end that desire put Tara in harm's way. "She was funny and smart and would have been a huge star," says Barbee. "But we lost her to the undertow."

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