Decades working for Pacific Bell brought Steve Stelter and Janet Costanzo into each other’s lives, and led them to the piece of solitude they shared in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley, where they lived in retirement.
“I know my dad was really happy up there,” said Reeah Winkle, Stelter’s daughter. “They were living their lives exactly how they wanted to, on their own terms and not answering to anybody. They were doing what they wanted to.”
On an 18-acre plot off West Road, the couple of 27 years had picturesque views each morning of nearby vineyards and the northern Ukiah Valley. Their spread offered everything they desired — a pasture to exercise the dogs, a makeshift shooting range for occasional target practice and entertaining guests, and secluded woods for getting out and exploring the outdoors.
Stelter, 56, who for years drove a PacBell big rig, spent downtime using the shop, open-air barn and an adjacent storage building to tinker on cars and household gadgets. He also enjoyed animated television shows, including “Beavis and Butt-Head,” “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”
Costanzo, 71, had been one of the San Francisco-based telephone company’s first service linewomen. She could often be found tending to the couple’s beloved Hovawart dogs that she trained and entered into shows throughout the state.
The two were easy-going and inseparable, according to family, and their age gap was never a factor. They maintained a similar sense of humor that could help bring a smile to anyone’s face even in the most difficult times.
“They just shared so much good energy,” said Holly Hollinger, one of Costanzo’s nieces, recalling their consistent attendance at the annual family Christmas party. “He had an old soul but a young spirit. She just loved being around him.”
A recent breast cancer survivor, Costanzo was known for her grit and passion for cross-country equestrian contests and instruction in her younger years. She also previously bred Abyssinian cats for professional competitions.
The Redwood Valley fire overtook the two early in the morning on Oct. 9 as they attempted to flee. They were among the nine people from the area to succumb to the fast-moving blaze that arrived without warning. Stelter’s older brother, Doug, who frequently stayed with the couple, was burned but managed to escape with his life.
The next day, Stelter’s body was found on the driveway next to the couple’s van with the body of his dog, Trouble, beside him. Costanzo was found inside the home and later identified by the Mendocino County Coroner’s Office. One of her two dogs, Carrie, survived with severe burns after returning to the home following the firestorm and waiting near Costanzo’s remains.
Both grew up in Oakland, where they met, and were also one of five children in their respective families. Stelter was the youngest, with Doug his last living sibling, while Costanzo was the oldest and kept especially close ties to sister Joyce Ramsey and brother Joel Ramsey.
“She was incredibly wise, being the older sister,” said Hollinger, one of Joyce’s daughters. “If she took the time to get together with you, she meant it, and really wanted genuine relationships with people. They loved her dearly, and they were totally devastated by this.”