Pattie Hansen took comfort in the five crosses that marked the spot on a Petaluma road where her only daughter died in a crash last year.
Then one day this summer, the crosses were gone.
"I sat in the car and cried," she said.
Roadside memorials are disappearing across Sonoma County, including at the spot on Industrial Avenue in Petaluma where 43-year-old Tami Wilson was killed in October when she lost control of her pickup.
At least four memorials have been hauled away since June, including three in and near Petaluma, and a fourth in Forestville.
The removals rekindle a debate over whether the personal items left behind by loved ones are appropriate expressions of grief, or maudlin -- perhaps even dangerous -- eyesores.
Even some victims' families are torn over the issue.
Hansen said her husband has begged her not to go to the spot where the couple's daughter died, because doing so always unhinges her.
She goes anyway.
"I told my husband that's where she died. That's where her soul left her body," Hansen said.
After discovering the crosses gone in June, Hansen said she drove to city offices and the Police Department to see if anyone might know what happened to them. The crosses were on city property, but Hansen said she was told nobody knew who took them.
Officials with Caltrans and the CHP said their employees were not responsible for the removal of memorials on state property, even though the items violate state law.
"They're technically forbidden, but we try to work with families and let those be maintained by families as long as it's not imposing on anyone else's safety," said Michelle Squyer of Caltrans.
The removals have spawned any number of theories as to why someone would want to see them gone. Was someone weary of these visible displays of grief? Were they offended by the religious iconography? Was it a teenage prank?
Some have argued the memorials can be dangerous distractions for motorists -- an irony because many families say they are motivated to erect the markers in part to encourage others to be safer on the roads.
"I hope the memorials say to other people: 'Slow down. This could be you or another child,' " Patty Julius said of the two steel crosses on Valley Ford Road west of Petaluma where her 20-year-old daughter, Jessica Liparini, and a teen were killed in a 2004 car crash.
So far, Liparini's memorial has not been targeted. But four crosses on Adobe Road and East Washington Street near Petaluma that were erected shortly after a crash killed four teens in December 2005 have disappeared.
Those crosses were highly visible to motorists who have to pause at the intersection because stop signs and flashing lights were installed there in the wake of the deadly crash.
Around the time the crosses were removed, men wearing bright orange shirts were spotted working in the area. But even if they were Caltrans employees, Squyer said, they would not have simply carted the memorial away.
"Our maintenance folks are often the very first to arrive at a crash, and they are often the last to be cleaning up after it. It hits these guys in the heart," she said.