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