SACO — Ashley Ouellette was headstrong, at times defiant. By the time she was 13, she had run away from home several times, had taken up smoking cigarettes, and had begun drinking and discovering sex.

Over the next two years, her parents struggled to rein in her rebellious spirit without alienating her. They thought they were having some success. Ashley’s grades had improved and she was trying to quit smoking.

Still, 11 days ago, Ashley Ouellette lied to her parents and spent the night partying and pursuing a former boyfriend. The next morning, her body was found lying face down on a road in neighboring Scarborough.

Police believe that sometime between 12:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. on Feb. 10, somebody wrapped his hands around Ashley’s throat and strangled her to death. She was 15 years old.

The killing remains unsolved. State police have searched a mobile home in a rural section of Saco, the last place Ashley was known to be alive. Investigators also have taken hair, fingernail and other samples from a 16-year-old boy who lives there and have gathered evidence from his car.

The horror of their daughter’s death has left Robert and Lise Ouellette shocked and bewildered, trying to reconcile their understanding of the girl they knew and loved with the lifestyle that enticed her from the security of home.

“We tried to do everything we could to get her back on the right track,” said Robert Ouellette. “We thought that part of her life was long gone. Obviously it wasn’t.”

Ashley Ouellette came from a good family and a good home.

Her parents, Robert and Lise, have been married 18 years and run a local real estate agency. They have one other child, a daughter, Lindsey, who is 12 years old.

Robert, 47, has lived in Saco all his life. He was president of his class for four years at Thornton Academy, Saco’s high school, and is a member of the city’s Historical Commission. His brother, Tom, is a former Saco city councilor.

Lise, 45, grew up in Old Orchard Beach after her family moved here from Quebec when she was 4 years old. She remains close to her seven siblings and considers herself a family-oriented homebody.

The Ouellettes live in a modern, bright-yellow Cape in a wooded, Better-Homes-and-Gardens neighborhood of Saco. The landscaping is meticulous, even in winter. Inside, family photographs are scattered on antique furniture.

In an interview last week, the Ouellettes admitted they dote on their children. If Ashley wanted an Italian sandwich when she got home from school, her mother would go pick one up for her. If she needed a ride somewhere, her father would drive her.

“Her friends used to tell her, ‘Ashley, you’ve got it made,’ ” Lise Ouellette recalled. “And she’d say, ‘I know.’ ”

Ashley’s parents knew she was special at an early age. Bright, precocious and sometimes headstrong, she investigated new things willingly and made friends easily.

“Ashley was always a little ahead of her age. When she was 5, she could communicate with kids who were much older than she was,” Lise Ouellette said.

Around the house Ashley, a petite 5 feet tall, was known as Miss Neat. Her shoes still line up in uniform rows on her closet floor. Shorts and shirts are piled neatly in her bureau drawers. Small perfume bottles are arranged precisely on her bedside table.

“I never had to ask her to clean her room or help around the house,” Lise Ouellette said. “I’d come home from work and she’d have washed the kitchen floor, vacuumed the living room and put in a load of laundry.”

In elementary school, Ashley was a good student. Her second-grade teacher once said Ashley was like a sponge, because she would soak up everything she heard.

Tough middle school years

Then Ashley entered Saco Middle School.

“Ashley was always an A student until middle school,” said Lise Ouellette. “The middle school years were difficult for her. She got a lot of attention from the kids in seventh and eighth grade. She seemed to thrive on it.”

In sixth grade her grades started to fall. By seventh grade she was missing her 9 p.m. curfew regularly. By eighth grade she was smoking, drinking and staying out later and later. Some nights she didn’t come home at all. Efforts to reason with her broke down into fruitless arguments. Ashley seemed out of control.

Stymied by their daughter’s behavior, the Ouellettes enrolled Ashley at Sweetser Children’s Services in Saco for a week of inpatient counseling. Then last year she enrolled in Thornton Academy’s alternative education program, which helps kids who struggle in mainstream classes.

Between the two programs, Ashley seemed to be turning her life around.

“After Sweetser things started to get better,” Robert Ouellette said. “She was really making an effort and I was proud of that. Her grades were improving and she was doing much better at home. And she was trying to quit smoking.”

Ashley also seemed to be developing better friendships and acting more maturely. She coached a classmate, Kimberly Vaughn, through pregnancy and childbirth last month. And she was trying to help a friend who was battling bulimia.

Sleepover turns to trouble

Ashley’s behavior had improved so much, her parents thought, that when she asked to spend the night of Feb. 9 at the house of a friend, Alia Page, her mother agreed.

“I almost said no, because the rule is you don’t go out on a school night,” Lise Ouellette recalled. “But she said ‘Mom, I’ve been doing so well.’ So I said OK. . . . When we got there, the two cars in the driveway were the cars that I knew to be Alia’s parents’, so I thought the parents were home.”

Sometime after 10 p.m., Ashley telephoned her parents to see if anyone had called for her. It was the last her parents heard from her.

Page’s parents were not home that night, and soon a party was under way at her house, according to statements made to police. Early in the evening, Ashley told Page that as the night progressed, she might seek out Steven Sanborn, a former boyfriend who was two years older than she was.

Eventually, Ashley persuaded a friend to drive her to the Sanborn house at 50 Mast Hill Road, even though Steven Sanborn had refused to talk to her on the telephone minutes earlier.

Inside the house, 16-year old Daniel Sanborn, Ashley’s classmate and Steven’s younger brother, got permission from his mother for Ashley to spend the night. Ashley told Muriel Sanborn that she had fought with her parents and had been kicked out of the house for the night. Ashley settled down on the family room couch in the basement, where Steven and Daniel Sanborn sleep in separate bedrooms.

Daniel Sanborn told police that Ashley complained minutes later of being too hot and went upstairs to sleep on a couch in the main part of the house.

That is the last time anyone has said Ashley was seen alive.

Just over three hours later, Michael Lopes was being driven home to Old Orchard Beach by his mother after having car trouble on his way out of work.

The night was pitch black as they headed down Pine Point Road in Scarborough at 4 a.m. They saw no other cars and nothing unusual until his mother suddenly swerved to avoid what she thought was an animal in the road.

But Lopes could see it was a body.

“If my mother hadn’t swerved, we would have hit her,” Lopes said. His mother called state police on her cellular phone and turned the car around.

Lopes ran to the body and knelt beside it, while his mother stopped her car in the middle of the road, the headlights illuminating the scene.

“My initial thought was somebody had been hit by a car. But she was just placed so perfectly. Her hands were right by her side, legs straight, toes pointing down.” She lay, face down, directly on top of the road’s center line, dressed in two loose-fitting shirts, black bell bottoms and platform shoes. She had no coat.

“I didn’t even know if it was a male or female,” Lopes said. “I’ll never forget that image, grabbing her shoulder and slowly turning her over. The body could have no face for all I knew.”

But it did have a face, the young, expressionless face of Ashley Ouellette, her eyes closed and a bluish hue to her cheeks. Her skin felt warm but she had no pulse.

Lopes labored over Ashley’s body, trying to resuscitate her, until police and rescue workers arrived. But he got no response.

“The police said it was too late,” Lopes said. “I could have given her CPR for hours and it wouldn’t have done any good.”

The state medical examiner told police that Ashley was probably strangled. The doctor also said that Ashley appeared to have had sexual contact sometime before her body was discovered.

Inquiry sheds a little light

State police investigators spent Wednesday, Feb. 10, interviewing the people who had seen Ashley the night before.

Daniel Sanborn told police that the last time he saw Ashley was when she headed upstairs to sleep on the living room couch. He said he woke Wednesday morning, went to school and returned home at lunchtime.

But when police confronted him with records from Thornton Academy showing he was absent, he changed his story. He said he slept in and then skipped his afternoon shift at the South Portland Pizza Hut and spent the afternoon with friends in Old Orchard Beach.

After searching the Sanborn house, police collected fibers, fingernails and stains as well as articles of clothing, jewelry and scraps of upholstery. They also retrieved a condom. Investigators also collected clothing and jewelry, as well as hair, fingernails, saliva and other samples from Daniel Sanborn. His car has been impounded.

Police have made no arrest and planned to work through the weekend studying the evidence collected so far.

It is a frustrating ordeal for the Ouellette family, but the police investigation has helped answer some questions about Ashley’s troubled adolescence.

During the course of the investigation, the Ouellettes learned for certain that their daughter had a brief sexual relationship two years ago with Steven Sanborn. The Ouellettes now believe that may have contributed to Ashley’s problems.

“Even through counseling, we never found out if something could have triggered it,” Robert Ouellette said. “When she went through her rough time about two years ago, we knew (the Sanborn house) was one of the places she went. We weren’t sure what was going on, but we figured sexual activity, alcohol and drugs were part of it, too.”

Despite Ashley’s difficulties, as the Ouellettes wait for police to find their daughter’s killer, they take solace in the strides she had made to turn her life around.

Her mother clings to the memory of a paper Ashley wrote for school just days before her death. The topic was “The Person I Admire Most.”

Ashley told her mother she planned to write about Marilyn Monroe. After all, Monroe was her idol. Photographs of the tragic movie star adorned Ashley’s bedroom and perhaps explained her fascination with makeup and hair. A Marilyn Monroe calendar in Ashley’s bedroom was marked with the birthdates of friends, including Steve Sanborn. And the Hollywood-style bedroom set Ashley picked out for herself last year was one that Marilyn might have liked.

Then, on the Sunday before Ashley’s death, her mother saw Ashley’s paper in her open notebook.

“It was about me,” Lise Ouellette said. “She said her mother was the person she admired most. I never told her I read it. I figured it was going to be our memory. That was a nice paper. I don’t know if she ever turned it in, but it doesn’t matter.”

The Ouellettes’ biggest regret is that Ashley won’t be around to share her life with them, and to fulfill her potential.

“Kids are kids,” Lise Ouellette said. “We all go though difficult phases. We all take different roads to get where we are going. I think she was just starting to realize that she was OK. She never got the chance to show that to someone.”