An undelivered thank you note sits on Javier Chavez's desk. It's addressed to Jason Alanis Marquez, one of the three teenagers killed in a car accident on Highway 1 early Sunday morning.
A few weeks ago, Jason volunteered to help a local women's group with a fundraising dinner. The organizers were so impressed with his work, they sent him a handwritten card. Chavez, who is the family coordinator for Action Network, a community resource center based in Gualala, received the card a couple weeks ago.
"I wasn't able to give it to him before …" said Chavez, his voice fades off to almost a whisper. "This is a tremendous, tremendous loss for our community. It's almost impossible to comprehend."
The deaths of Jason, who turned 18 on June 25, and his cousins Jhovani Gonzalez-Marquez, 18, and Aron Gonzalez-Marquez, 14, both brothers, has stunned the tiny communities of Sea Ranch and Gualala, where they grew up and were well-liked, and Point Arena, where the three attended high school and played together on the soccer team.
"Our hearts are just broken," said Johana Gutierrez, 19, who grew up with the boys. "I keep thinking this is all a bad dream."
Within hours of the accident, as word spread up and down the coast, fundraisers sprouted up online, and hats were passed at impromptu vigils held at the family's home, at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Gualala, at the barbecue place where the brothers' father worked and even in Boonville, where friends raised several hundred dollars. A call went out to start a fundraiser online, and a woman who didn't even know the boys volunteered to set it up. By late Tuesday, it had surpassed a goal of raising $10,000 to offset the families' funeral expenses.
Nobody in the quaint seaside Highway 1 towns known for barbecued oysters and spectacular views that make them chic retirement spots for the well-heeled, was surprised by the outpouring of support for one of their own. "It's one of the wonderful things about living in a small community, that we rally around each other," said Steve May, who owns Surf Market in Gualala. "We're isolated on all sides, far away from services so we have to stick together. And it doesn't matter who you are or where you're from or how much money you make. You're family." All three were well-known around The Sea Ranch and Gualala, at quincea?ras, which are traditional birthday celebrations for young girls on their 15th birthday, where they were so popular many girls asked them to be their chambelan, a kind of escort or dance partner.
The three had attended a quincea?ra Saturday night at the Gualala Community Center. It was a party for a girl they knew well and they wanted to make a good impression. But Jhovani's friends said his car was being worked on, so he had to borrow a buddy's 1996 Acura, which he may have been driving for the first time that night.
"They were tuners; they loved to work on their cars and show them off," said Michael "Bone Daddy" Thomas, the owner of the Bones Roadhouse, a barbecue restaurant where Jhovani worked as a busboy and his father was a chef. "They were normal American kids just like we were. They were freebirds. The nicest kids you've ever meet."
It's not clear when the boys left the quincea?ra, which ended at midnight, but they managed to make the 30-minute drive to Annapolis, which includes six miles on Annapolis Road. Locals say the road is poorly lit and treacherous. But it was on the trip back along Highway 1, when they ran into trouble. Sometime around 4 a.m. near Pebble Beach on a dark, winding stretch of road Jhovani lost control of the car, which spun off the road and smashed into a tree on Navigator's Reach Road. The two brothers — the only children of Antonio and Arcelia Marquez of The Sea Ranch — were killed instantly. Their cousin Jason, son of Gricelda and Ubaldo of Gualala, was airlifted to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital where he died late Sunday.