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Emotions run high at funeral for Every 15 Minutes victims
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East Union senior Nagalie Heihn reads her “good bye” letter to her mother as if she had died in a DUI crash and had told her how much she loved her. A friend came from the seniors on stage to comfort her as she found her delivery difficult. - photo by GLENN KAHL
Friday’s memorial service for the dead in this year’s “Every 15 minutes” dramatization was heavy with emotion.

This year there were some 2,300 students, parents and first responders crowded into the Christian Worship Center on Button Avenue.  

Students filled the stage as three caskets were placed near the speaker’s podium.  Flowers draped over the coffins, a framed picture, and a cheer leading uniform offered memories.  The “Walking Dead” had entered the hall in a procession with the caskets.  An eerie pall filled the darkened room – you could almost hear a pin drop.

You might think that it isn’t real – it’s all make believe.  The parents and students reacted differently – it was real to them.  Tears flowed from the rolling of the Hollywood level studio video production of Thursday’s traumatic crash scenario on three gigantic screens to listening to the letters written by parents to students.  Other letters were written by students to parents – all from the “Walking Dead.”

The theme of those letters was to tell each other what you would want to say if you had actually died in the crash – what should had been said earlier, but never uttered.  Two parents and two students read their personal letters in front of the audience.  They all had great difficulty in keeping their composure.  For them it was obviously all too real – unable to keep fiction from fact.

It was emotional and heart rending where family members took time to say they loved each other adding how their appreciated their parents for what they did for them – parents telling kids how they would be missed in the family circle – and why.

A real life tragedy shared by driver
Summer Bowler, 18, walked up to the microphone with her best friend’s mom Amy Ashe at her side,  free on a one-day pass from Solano County Jail where she is being held on a manslaughter conviction.  It was her best friend she had killed in a drinking and driving accident April 5 of last year.

Summer and Maria Gonzales, 16, had gone out to party with friends for Bowler’s 18th birthday. They were headed home on Interstate 680 in a friend’s 2000 Dodge.  She hit the center divider near parish Road in Solano County and spun out of control.  

According to CHP reports an oncoming vehicle crashed into the passenger side of the car pinning Gonzales who had not been wearing a seat belt.  She had to be cut out by firefighters with the Jaws of Life.  Blower said she didn’t remember the accident as she and another friend climbed out of the car.  Maria didn’t follow – she was unconscious.  She remembers screaming medics to help her friend.  Officers asked her if she had been drinking – she said she had.

A Solano Superior Court Judge sentenced Bowler to 19 years in state prison for manslaughter until Gonzalez’ mother pleaded with the judge to be lenient.  He reduced the sentence to a year in county jail which she started serving in December.  The judge added an order that she make presentations to other high school seniors telling of her first-hand experience with drinking and driving which she has been doing since her incarceration.

Her friend’s mother stood alongside Bowler as she cried through her presentation to the Manteca seniors and their parents.

The mother then took the microphone and told of hearing the knock at the door and finding a police officer facing her asking if Maria Gonzales lived there.  He asked to come inside and asked her to sit down – he had something very serious to tell her.
It was her worst nightmare, she said, hearing that her daughter had been in a major accident and was in the hospital.

Ashe shared memories of seeing Maria in a critical state in the intensive care unit as doctors worked to keep her alive.

Bowler spent 15 hours in jail before she was bailed out.  She remembers going to the hospital to see her friend the next afternoon – a friend who was badly swollen and had countless tubes attached to her body.

Maria’s mother said doctors told her that her daughter had massive brain damage and would never be able to function if she lived.  Maria Gonzales died May 1 of last year at the Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley.

Gonzales’ dad had been killed in an automobile accident two years before and her mother said she had never gotten over that loss.  Ashe said she hoped that their story may keep some other family from going through misery like they have suffered.

Other speakers included Superior Court Judge Franklin Stephenson, Sheriff’s Lieutenant Chris Stephens and civil attorney “Mirko” Kozina.  All were frank in their presentations and spoke directly to the seriousness of drinking and driving and the accidents an irreversible heartache they cause.

The aftermath of drunken driving
Lt. Stephens told seniors to be good friends – friends who care enough to watch out for each other – not to let friends who have been drinking drive.

Judge Stephenson took them through the court process where students might have to face years behind bars – something that would ruin their lives and the lives of their families.  He told of his first-hand experiences in having to mete out stiff sentences.

“Mirko” Kozina added that once the criminal proceedings are over he enters the scene.  The Stockton attorney explained that loss of a loved one represents not only the loss of a son, brother, sister, father or mother – it represents lost earning power.

It is his job to attempt to regain much of that earning power to keep a family going.  He said it is his job to do that, telling students that he will also go after any property or other holdings that their parents have in their possession.

The ceremonies ended with high school seniors acting as pall bearers carrying the caskets out of the assembly hall ending two days of Every 15 Minutes that few seniors and parents will soon forget.