Brittany Clardy was bright, beaming and confident, friends said. A grade-school teacher called her a high achiever. A neighbor recalled “a beautiful young girl, always laughing and smiling.”

But a year after leaving high school in the middle of her senior year, the popular and promising 18-year-old was working as a prostitute, according to police, when her body was found, bludgeoned to death with a hammer and frozen in the family car in an impound lot.

“Sometimes, even good kids make bad choices,” said Beth Bowman, whose 9-year-old son called Clardy his favorite teacher at a St. Paul recreation center. “But how could this happen?”

Alberto Prece Palmer, of Woodbury, has been charged in the Feb. 11 slaying of Clardy. The 23-year-old is wanted in Georgia on charges of attacking three women he met through, the same online site that carried Clardy’s advertisements.

Alvin Clardy, Brittany’s father, is still struggling to reconcile the daughter he knew with the one who police say was advertising massage services on the website.

He wonders about the friends he never saw and didn’t know, the outside influences that may have set up his daughter and may have taken money from her.

“She may not have been happy with her life,” Alvin Clardy said. “But I know my daughter. I know she loved us, know she cared. She didn’t want to die.”

A popular kid

Clardy, the third of four children, grew up in St. Paul’s Como neighborhood in a house with a big yard near Marydale Park. Friends and neighbors say that Alvin and Marquita Clardy seemed dedicated to their kids. Alvin Clardy is often seen playing ball with his youngest son.

Neighbor Mary Ksiazek said Brittany always seemed to have lots of friends.

“If she was on a road to destruction, people would have noticed,” Ksiazek said.

As a juvenile, Clardy had some minor scrapes with the law. She twice was issued citations for breaking curfew, in 2008 and 2010, according to St. Paul police. When St. Paul police asked to see identification after a car accident in 2011, she gave a false identity, police said. Had she been 18 and given false information to an officer, she could have been charged with a gross misdemeanor.

Brittany had been in an honors program in grade school, one of her former teachers said at her memorial service. At Highland Park High School in St. Paul, she was enrolled in the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, aimed at increasing college admissions among students of color and low-income students.

Teachers said she was well liked, social and had a sense of humor, said schools spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey.

But Clardy left Highland Park High in January of 2012. That same month, she enrolled at Gordon Parks High School, an alternative school in St. Paul, but didn’t graduate.

Bowman, who often talked to Clardy at the North Dale Recreation Center, said her son was under the impression that Clardy had graduated and stopped working at the rec center because she went off to college. Employees at the rec center, where Clardy worked for three-plus years, declined to be interviewed. She worked there as recently as last summer.

Clardy turned 18 last June. Her driver’s license was suspended in December, for failing to pay fines or appear in court. On Jan. 19, a Deephaven police officer stopped her in midafternoon for driving erratically, suspecting that she was texting while behind the wheel. There were four other young people in the car, and the officer detected a strong odor of marijuana from within the vehicle.

When asked to identify herself, Clardy gave her sister’s name and told the officer she couldn’t produce her license or insurance card, according to the police report. Moments later, Clardy approached the officer, gave her real identity and said she lied because she was scared after having been caught driving with a suspended license. The car, she told the officer, belonged to her cousin.

Clardy was jailed for giving false information to an officer and driving with a suspended license, Deephaven Police Chief Cory Johnson said. According to the criminal complaint, several baggies containing marijuana were found on the rear floor and under the car’s rear seat. Clardy was released from jail that same day and was scheduled to appear in court March 11. The citation, mailed to her parents’ home, likely arrived after her death.

Police declined to discuss the murder case, citing the ongoing investigation.

Alvin Clardy said there were no hints that Brittany had extra money or was earning it in any manner other than her job at the rec center. She was still driving her parents’ 2000 silver Chrysler Concorde at the time of her death.

“I can’t imagine how she got in this situation,” Alvin Clardy said of his daughter’s alleged involvement with prostitution. “It was so sudden. We didn’t have the opportunity to get her the help she needed.”

Called into question

Sometimes “stories of juveniles who are involved in crime start out with the ‘nice quiet kid from good family cliché,’ ” said Temple University Prof. Laurence Steinberg, a national expert on the development of the adolescent brain and a former president of the Society for Research on Adolescence. “And then, after the dust settles, more information comes out that calls the profile into question.”

“That said, the family is not the only influence on adolescents’ behavior,” Steinberg said.

Besides her main Facebook page in which she liked Target and Coach, she had a second page, one listed under Brittany Coldblooded Monroe (Brit Brat G). The main photo is of Marilyn Monroe — whom Brittany adored, said a family friend. Superimposed over the black and white image are the words: “We shall all start to live before we get too old. Fear is stupid. So are regrets.”

Her accused killer remains in Anoka County jail, his bail set at $2 million. Palmer is scheduled to appear in Anoka County court on April 10.

Palmer lived in the Chicago area and served prison time in Cook County, Ill., in 2009 for stealing a car. He moved to Chamblee, 15 miles northeast of Atlanta, in August to help run a chicken and waffle restaurant. Between September and December, Palmer allegedly assaulted three women he met through Sgt. Ernesto Ford of the Chamblee Police Department said authorities missed arresting Palmer several times by just minutes.

“There may be other victims; we’re still investigating,” Ford said.

Cellphone records reveal that the final calls made to one of Clardy’s cellphones were made by Palmer on Feb. 11. He called five times in a 12-minute span. Clardy’s mother reported her daughter missing on Feb. 12.

On Feb. 21, Marquita Clardy received word from an auto garage service that her car had been towed to a Columbia Heights impound lot. When officers opened the back door of the Chrysler, they found Brittany Clardy’s body.

She was buried on March 4. Alvin Clardy, trying to make sense of every parent’s worst nightmare, knows he may never get an answer to the question that haunts him still: What would make Brittany turn to the life police says she was living?

Clardy hopes there’s a lesson for others in his daughter’s death. “Tragedies like this sometimes are the best vehicles to show people, to make them see what could happen,” Alvin Clardy said. “I hope this helps others. It’s not going to bring Brittany back.”