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Student: Teen’s death may mean fewer orchard parties

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POSTED May 10, 2014 1:43 a.m.

The death of a Manteca teen that was struck by a vehicle while walking home from an orchard party may mean fewer high school students engaging in the after-hours tradition.

At least for the time being.

Zachariah Gomez and three others were struck by Mia Aguiar’s Saturn on April 19 at approximately 1:15 a.m. along Highway 120, near Comconex Road. They were walking home from an orchard party.

Gomez was pronounced dead at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto shortly after the accident, while the others teens received major and moderate injuries.

Aguiar has been charged with vehicular manslaughter. The 19-year-old Stockton native was reaching for her cell phone on the floor when her car veered off the road. California Highway Patrol officers determined she had been drinking.

The accident cast a gloom over the Manteca High campus and preceded the annual drunk driving presentation, Every 15 Minutes.

Seniors from Manteca, East Union, Sierra and Calla high schools took part and attended the dramatization at Guss Schmiedt Field.

Every 15 Minutes re-creates the horrors of a crash scene involving teens who have been drinking and driving – from the emergency medical service to the funeral.

The message has resonated with the students at Manteca High.

“People are more aware now,” said one Manteca High senior, who spoke candidly to the Bulletin about orchard parties, their place in the high school lifestyle, and the unfortunate death of a classmate. The student requested anonymity. 

The student, who has been to multiple orchard parties over the course of four years and was among the last to see Gomez alive, believes there will be few – if any – orchard parties this graduation season and summer.

He said students at Manteca High are still coming to terms with the death of a classmate, managing feelings of shock, confusion, grief and regret.

As the school year draws to a close, he believes students will point their parties back toward town. Though house parties are easily broken up by cops, they are far less dangerous.

“I think there will be more house parties. After that happened, I don’t think anyone wants to go into the orchards,” he said. “It was shocking. Nobody could really believe that that had happened to someone at our school.

“You know Manteca. Nothing special happens too often, and when it does, everyone hears about it.”

Orchard parties have long been a popular after-hours tradition among Central Valley high school students.

While law enforcement officials and local farmers say they’re breaking up fewer orchard parties these days, it doesn’t mean they’re not happening.

The students have adapted, becoming sneaky in their planning and stealthy in their execution.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, students would rally up at a designated location and then caravan to a remote location in the middle of an almond orchard.

A popular rallying point for all three Manteca city high schools was the Jack in the Box on the corner of Main Street and Louise Avenue.

Times have changed.

Technology has changed.

Nowadays, students are given an address or coordinates and then use GPS or a mapping system to locate the party. Social media platforms help spread the party plans to the masses. Invitations can be sent out to hundreds of students with a few clicks on Facebook or through a group text message on their cell.

“If they want it to be big and they want everyone there,” usually they will send out the invite on Facebook, the anonymous student said. “If it’s going to be a small party with a certain number of people, you can text people really quick.”

The allure of the orchard party is equal parts danger and privacy, freedom and un-policed fun.

Students are typically looking for a location well off the main road, protected and disguised by almond trees and nightfall. There, they build a bonfire, enjoy the company of their friends and classmates, and partake in illegal activity – drinking and drug use. 

If given a choice, most high school students prefer a party in an orchard over one at a house.

“People have orchard parties because police shut down house parties before 12 o’clock,” the anonymous student said. “House parties are more convenient, but in the orchard you don’t have to worry about too much.

“When you go to a house party, you try to wear nice clothes and impress people. At an orchard party, you’re in jeans and old shoes ... You just enjoy the night.”

But where do they go?

In a word: Everywhere. 

“In my years, I’ve been to a bunch of different orchards. Manteca is full of them. You can basically go anywhere.”

He won’t be going to one anytime soon, though. He suspects orchard parties may be a fading pastime, at least among his peers.

He recalls seeing Gomez and the other teens that morning as he left the party. They were seated in the orchard, preparing for their pilgrimage home. He even offered one of the teens a seat in his car. The teen declined, choosing to accompany his friends on the walk home. 

“I was one of the last to leave. I saw them. They were sitting there, about to start walking,” he said. “I had only one seat left. I asked if he wanted a ride and he said he would walk.

“At the time, I thought it was no big deal. I thought they’d walk home really quick. I’ve walked home from plenty of parties.”

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