A rare week in Sonoma County: six people die in fatal crashes

The crash victims ranged from a software engineer who loved her dogs to an organic farmer with a career at Amy’s Kitchen in Petaluma.|

Patricia Harris, a senior engineer at a San Rafael software company, told friends she was not feeling well when she left a canine agility competition in Elk Grove Sunday morning.

She loaded the back of her van with crates carrying two of her dogs, one a multi-colored Australian shepherd awarded a coveted agility prize at the contest two nights before, and headed to her countryside home west of Petaluma.

John Thomas “Tom” Mello, an organic farming pioneer, got into his pickup about 10:20 a.m. Sunday, and headed for downtown Petaluma to pick up his favorite olive bread at Della Fattoria bakery to share with family. The trip was supposed to take no more than an hour, allowing for visits with friends, his family said.

Authorities said their paths collided when Harris drove her van into Mello's lane on Bodega Avenue, hitting his truck head-on and killing both of them just west of Petaluma.

It was the third deadly collision in Sonoma County in a week. Six people died in the crashes, a rare and unfortunate situation in that short period, authorities said. Sadie, Harris' Australian shepherd, also died in the crash. Her other dog, a border collie, was not hurt. Family and friends helped fill in details about the lives lost in the crashes.

“It's a big shock,” Nora Perry, Harris' older sister, said Thursday. “She was having one of the best days of her life in accomplishing a goal for her and her dog. Having it end so tragically, it's hard to understand.”

Harris, who went by Patti, was described as an accomplished canine agility exhibitor with a friendly smile, said Susan Rappillus, co-owner of Elk Grove's Western Agility Group, which hosted last weekend's competition.

Harris, 61, worked as a senior engineer for the architecture, construction and manufacturing software company Autodesk. After 34 years with the company, she was the most tenured employee, company spokeswoman Alexandra Constantine said.

In her spare time, Harris trained her dogs in agility competitions, where she and her pets were regulars. She also cared for other animals, housing chickens, ducks, cats and other dogs.

“My sister was one who, if she saw some pet or animal that needed some help, she would do it,” said Perry, of Redding.

She also was known for her love of traveling and hiking, once climbing to the top of Africa's highest mountain, Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, Perry said. She's survived by her older sister, Joan Neururer, of Minnesota, as well as Perry. Harris also had an older brother, Bill Harris, from Colorado. The family grew up in Riverside and nearby Hemet.

Mello, 64, was remembered as an intelligent man who easily struck up friendships and turned his passion for farming into a successful career with Amy's Kitchen in Petaluma. He grew up in Marin County, with family roots going back two generations to grandparents in the grocery business in Santa Rosa, said Peter Mello, his younger brother.

His voice breaking, Peter Mello, who lives in Petaluma, told of daily phone calls, frequent visits and a brother who'd long been his best friend.

Some 25 years ago, Tom Mello worked at Back to Basics organic food store in Petaluma. That's where he met Andy and Rachel Berliner, who started a business in 1987 that was growing into a leader in organic and vegetarian prepared foods. The couple asked Mello for food ideas and hired him in 1996.

His role was organic agricultural manager, which took him to far-flung farms throughout California and Mexico.

“He really built the network of organic farmers Amy's grew with,” Andy Berliner said.

He's survived by his wife of 27 years, Liz Mello, daughter Emily, 21, and Luke, 23.

“He was just the most beloved person,” Berliner said of Tom Mello.

Last week's string of deadly crashes began on Monday morning, when window washers Carl Levine and James “Jim” Wheelock were in Levine's pickup, headed west on Valley Ford Road just northwest of Petaluma to a job.

They died in a head-on crash with a Lexus SUV driven by Barbara Thalacker, 72, of Sacramento, who authorities said turned into their path. Ladders spilled onto the roadway and the truck flipped, landing on its side up against the SUV.

That morning, Levine, 66, of Santa Rosa did what he always did on Oct. 1 - he contacted a friend in Santa Barbara to wish him and his wife a happy anniversary. Levine, a longtime family friend, had performed the couple's wedding ceremony on Oct. 1, 2011.

“We'd talk throughout the year but always on the first of October he would text or call ‘happy anniversary guys,' wondering how things are going,” said Daniel Locatelli, who got the anticipated text that Monday.

“I replied that things were great and hoped all was well with him. And at 11:20 he was killed in that head-on car crash,” Locatelli said. “He was just a stellar guy.”

Attempts to Levine's family were unsuccessful.

Wheelock, 57, hadn't worked with Levine long. He'd been back in Sonoma County for a few years after living in Southern California where he'd had a career in visual effects for movies and TV, said his son, Joe Wheelock, 23, of Bass Lake.

On Wednesday, he described his dad as a quirky guy with an irreverent sense of humor who turned mundane events into adventures and passed on a love of road trips to his two kids, Joe and his sister, Jennifer Wheelock, 18, a UC Santa Cruz student.

A day before the crash, Jim Wheelock went to Napa for brunch with his mother and two sisters, followed by a family walk.

“He was doing so well and in such good spirits,” said Kate Wheelock, his sister. “And Monday morning he was gone.”

Thalacker was released Friday from Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a hospital spokeswoman said.

On Oct. 2, a day after the Valley Ford Road collision, Judith Shane, 79, of Vallejo, lost control of her 2005 Volvo and crashed off D Street southwest of Petaluma, CHP said. Her car rolled down an embankment before hitting a eucalyptus tree. Both she and her passenger, who CHP identified as her brother, Samuel Singer, 84, of Tucson, Arizona, were rushed to the Santa Rosa Memorial. Shane died the day after, while her brother died two days after the crash. Attempts to reach their family and friends were unsuccessful.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport. You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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