Published: Granite Bay Today, Jan. 14, 2015.
Reason for publication: When three former GBHS students were killed in a drunk driving accident, I volunteered to work three other members of the staff to post the story in two days. We collected interviews from friends and classmates and received a generally positive review after the story posted. The story can be viewed here.
The Granite Bay High School community has been grieving the deaths this week of three GBHS graduates who were killed early Saturday morning when the car they were traveling in on Highway 80 near Madison Avenue was struck by a wrong-way driver.
The three former GBHS students who died included Matt Azar, 19, who graduated in 2013 and was the driver, and 2014 graduates Kendra Langham, 18, and Mathew Beard-Witt, 18.
“They were some of the first people to make me feel welcome when I came to Granite Bay,” said Anastasia Chiles, a current GBHS senior who was a good friend of Beard-Witt’s. “I would say I haven’t been as affected (by their deaths) as people closer to them or their families, but it did come down on me pretty hard. … It still doesn’t feel real.”
Chiles described Langham, Beard-Witt and Azar as all being big believers of expressing who you are and were good at making anyone feel welcome.
“I know anyone who knows them knows each of them lived by the rules of Peace Love Unity and Respect, or PLUR. They were really great people that were taken way too soon, but I know they would have wanted us to celebrate their lives, not mourn their deaths,” Chiles said.
The GBHS administration responded quickly when they learned of the accident. Assistant principal Brian McNulty said the administration got word from the police department on Sunday, and administrators immediately called a meeting about how they should treat the situation and how to offer support for students on campus.
“We have emergency protocols for these kinds of things,” McNulty said. “In the event of a tragic loss, counselors are called into play. We start planning on how we are supposed to play apart in whatever situation it is.”
This particular situation was different because the victims were all GBHS graduates.
“In this case (the students) are alumni … they are adults,” said McNulty, who noted that law enforcement and the school’s administrators work together closely. “So the police are the ones who have to take the lead in notifying the families. … Once we get clearance the families are notified, then we offer our services – counseling, bereavement, even county chaplains.”
McNulty said the deaths of recent grads is hard on administrators, too.
“First of all it hits you as person,” McNulty said. “As an adult, as a parent, as a leader at the school, it reminds you of how fragile life is.”
Sophomore Danielle Yabut knew all three, but she was was closest to Beard-Witt. Yabut said she accompanied them to raves.
“All three of them … deserve to be remembered as the most beautiful radiating souls anyone has ever met,” Yabut said. “They lived their life to the fullest (and) weren’t afraid to show anyone what they were made of. They didn’t care to be different, because that’s what made them more of themselves, which is way more than enough.”
Yabut said the loss of all three is a devastating experience not just for her, but for everyone in the community.
“It was definitely an eye opener for everyone in the community who took their loved ones (and) friends for granted,” Yabut said. “After the incident I, personally, decided to carry myself the way they did, which was to spread love every chance you get.”
Cameron Oates, a friend of all three victims, has created a gofundme.org account to assist the families with the funeral service. His fundraiser, titled “Kendra, Matt, and Mathew Funeral,” has raised more than $6,500 as of Wednesday afternoon, with a goal of $15,000.
Oates remembered Kendra not just as a friend, but as family.
“When she started going to Granite Bay High School, she made sure I was not bullied by anyone around town,” Oates said.
Oates not only knew Kendra, but also her dad and twin sister, Cobie. He became friends with Azar and Beard-Witt through rave parties and mutual friends.
“I took over the funding because they are all family to me, not just my friends,” Oates said. “They are the generation to my heart.”
Rj Marshall, a 2013 GBHS graduate and friend of both Azar and Beard-Witt, describes both as “angels.” Marshall was planning to share a house with both Azar and Beard-Witt as well as a fellow friend, George Duval.
“Mat, Matt, George Duval (and myself) were all going to move into a house together up … in Reno,” Marshall said. “I was really excited because then I could get to know Mat Beard-Witt more, and I felt like we would be really good friends.”
While Marshall knew both Azar and Beard-Witt, he described Azar as one of his best friends.
“Matt Azar was truly one of my best friends,” Marshall said. “(He) has made me a happier person, more spiritual and more confident in the fact that the world always rewards those with good hearts. Matt was … part of my family. And it’s hard now that he’s gone … but I’m sure he’s in a better place.”
Azar, Beard-Witt and Langham were all part of the rave community, and Marshall said they upheld the ideas of PLUR.
Langham was known on the Granite Bay High School campus for reaching out to others and being a friend to someone who needed one.
“What I will remember most about Ken was the way she opened up her heart to anyone,” said 2014 graduate Destiny Butcher. “She was such a beautiful human being. I would have to say her best quality was she loved everyone for who they were (and) … was so accepting.”
Butcher said Langham was one of her first friends she made at school after she transferred to GBHS her sophomore year, and they’ve been friends ever since.
“Kendra was an amazing person,” Butcher said. “And an even better friend. She loved you no matter what.”
Azar will also be remembered as a good person and friend by his good friend, and former girlfriend, Sierra Alejandrez, a 2014 GBHS graduate.
“(Matt) was the happiest person I knew,” Alejandrez said. “It was a rare sight to see him not smiling. He could light up the room with his passion for people and positive vibes about life.”
Alejandrez said Azar always strived to do the right thing and had a special skill in using just the right words when people were upset to help them feel better.
“He was a light in everyone’s life,” Alejandrez said. “He told me a few weeks ago, ‘If there ever comes a day we can’t be together, keep me in your heart – I’ll stay there forever.’ ”
Alejandrez also said there are lessons to be learned from the actions of the wrong-way driver, who was identified in early media reports as Aaron Jordon Caudillo, 24, of Roseville; according to a KCRA Ch. 3 website report, law enforcement officials believe either drugs or alcohol were involved in the accident, and a bottle of rum was found in Caudillo’s vehicle after the crash.
“Everything happens for a reason, and I hope that everyone can see the huge message this sends,” Alejandrez said “That driving while under the influence of ANY kind is NEVER worth the risk. Every time you go behind the wheel intoxicated, you are risking someone in the world a barrel of pain, grief and despair.”
Melina Sneesby, a current GBHS junior, was a teammate and friend of Langham.
“Kendra was always true to herself and never let anyone change that. She could always make you smile too,” Sneesby said. “I liked best how she went with the flow and was always there for you if you needed anything. I’ll remember how strong willed and different she was, and she always did what she wanted.”
Sneesby said a memory she will never forget is from one of their first soccer games together, and Langham and her twin, Cobie, said the same thing over and over again and no one could stop laughing.
“Her life impacted me in the way of showing me how full of life you can be if you choose to make it that way,” Sneesby said. “Her death affected not only me, but the community, tremendously. I think that everyone knew she was an amazing, beautiful girl with a kind heart, and will be greatly missed.
“The whole thing is really unfortunate and sad that such innocent lives were taken. Kendra would want everyone to live their lives to the fullest.”
Carli Cusano, former GBHS student, said she was really good friends with Beard-Witt her freshman and sophomore year, and they remained friends throughout her junior and senior years.
“Every single time I saw him, whether if I saw him a month ago or a day ago, he would hug me so happily and radiate so much happiness and be so genuine – it was amazing,” Cusano said.
Cusano said there was never just one thing she liked most about Beard-Witt. She loved that he was such a free-spirited soul, and he always made everyone around him smile.
“There were so many good qualities about Mat,” Cusano said. “There was never just one thing I liked most about him. He was just an amazing, great person inside and out. His friendship taught me so much, and he seemed to live the life he wanted to live and did what made him happy.
“I never really saw him without a smile on his face, and just being around him made me, as well as many other people, genuinely happy. He always seemed to be at peace whenever I saw him, and I admired that immensely.”
There are many memories shared with Beard-Witt, Cusano said, that she will never forget.
“I have so many memories – memories of just hanging out with our friends, going on little adventures and hanging out during school. I saw him on Halloween at a rave, and when he saw me he yelled my name, ran up to me and hugged me so tight. and since I hadn’t seen him for a while before that, we just exchanged, ‘You’re amazing!’ and ‘God I love you and miss you so much!’” Cusano said.
While Cusano and others in the community are deeply mourning the deaths of the three, there is a comfort in remembering the joy they brought and the lives they touched.
“I think his death impacted the community in a kind of wake up call that life is precious and valuable,” Cusano said. “What he taught me was to live the way I want to and be a genuine, loving person.”
GraniteBayToday reporters Natalie Erickson, Amanda Nist, Alex Baldonado, Hannah Xu and Hannah Holzer contributed to this report.