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A festive night turns tragic

By May 28, 2005June 4th, 2021No Comments

Six teens en route to a school dance crash on an Orange County toll road. Three are ejected from vehicle, two die.
The Los Angeles Times | May 28, 2005

By Mai Tran and Sara Lin

It was to have been a festive, end-of-school dinner dance aboard a yacht in Newport Harbor for students of a high school still too young to have a senior class.

But the evening turned somber when classmates and parents learned that two popular students — one who’d just been elected the school’s first student body president — were killed and four injured en route to the dance.
Police said three of the students, including the two who died, were not wearing seat belts when the driver took her eyes off the road to grab a pack of gum. The SUV they were riding in spun out of control and rolled several times.
“It’s not an easy situation,” said Tim O’Hara, dean of students at Junipero Serra High School, the 2-year-old Roman Catholic school in San Juan Capistrano that played host to the dance. “You pray to God it doesn’t happen. But when you deal with kids, you try to educate them that these things can happen. It’s just something you never imagine.”
Killed were Gillian Sabet, 17, of San Clemente, and her boyfriend, Jonathan M. Schulte, 16, of Orange, a student at Servite High School in Anaheim, where he was voted the most inspirational player on the varsity volleyball team.
Schulte was the son of Thomas H. Schulte, a family law commissioner in Orange County Superior Court. Sabet, a junior at JSerra, was the daughter of a prominent Orange County physician.
The two were thrown from an Isuzu Rodeo as it flipped over on the San Joaquin Hills toll road just south of Newport Coast Drive in Irvine about 7:20 p.m. Thursday.
Students who boarded the chartered boat apparently were unaware of the accident, but news of what happened quickly spread during the dinner dance as cellphones started to buzz. Some parents said they learned of the accident while watching television and called their children’s cellphones to make sure they were safe.
By midnight, parents and family gathered for Mass at Servite. A similar service was held Friday morning at JSerra.
Friends and school administrators mourned the loss of two students who seemed to have so much going for them.
“[He] was a great all-around kid, a good athlete,” said Don Hunsberger of Mission Viejo, a longtime friend of the Schultes. “He was at ease with anyone, whether it was at a party with older people or at a party for 8-year-olds. People just liked being around him.”
Sabet had been elected JSerra’s first student body president Thursday morning and also was to be crowned queen at the dinner dance, a fact that the car’s driver — her best friend — had disclosed to her that day.
Authorities said Madeline Moore, 15, of San Juan Capistrano, and Ryan Massey, 15, of Laguna Niguel, suffered serious injuries in the crash and were taken to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. On Friday, Massey was listed in critical condition; Moore in good condition.
The driver, Ashley Melbourne, 16, of Aliso Viejo, and John Buehler, 17, of Anaheim Hills, suffered moderate injuries. They were admitted to Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. Buehler, who was not wearing his seat belt, was ejected from the vehicle.
Melbourne and Moore attend JSerra. Melbourne was the daughter of the school’s vice principal of academic affairs and student activities. Buehler attended Servite, and Massey attended Dana Hills High School in Dana Point.
After the crash, several hundred Servite students went to the school’s chapel to pray for Schulte, Sabet and the other victims.
At JSerra, a makeshift shrine of flowers and cards was placed on Sabet’s desk in the corner of her religion class.
“She was able to make friends across cliques and reach out to people and build consensus,” said the Rev. Vincent Gilmore, who was Sabet’s religion teacher. “She was an exceptional kid.”
“It’s a great tragedy,” said Margie Meyers, who was among the 300 people who attended the Mass at JSerra. “The service was a good starting healer. For a lot of these kids, they’ve never had to go through anything like this. … Everybody is going to miss her.”
Schulte, who had been dating Sabet for about seven months, was finishing his junior year at Servite, an all-boys Catholic school, where he was active in athletics.
“He was a team member,” Hunsberger said. “He wasn’t the best or the tallest on the team, but he could just inspire others to do better. Instead of criticizing a fellow player, he would just pat them on the back and say, ‘Hey, get the next one.’ ”
Late Thursday, Servite officials joined the Buehler family at Western Medical Center, where their son was being treated.
“They are good Servite men,” said Frank Talarico, the school’s vice president. “That means that they operate with integrity and know who they are. They know how to do the right thing and operate on principle and are firmly rooted in their faith. That means something here.”
The accident happened as the group headed to the Spring Fling Dance, a semiformal event sponsored by JSerra High aboard the Hornblower, a charter yacht in Newport Harbor. There were about 150 students at the dance, many dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns.
For the young school, which has an enrollment of 300, the dance was to be the equivalent of a prom.
Authorities said Melbourne was driving about 70 mph in the northbound lanes of the San Joaquin Hills toll road when she took her eyes off the road while searching for gum.
The mid-size SUV drifted off the road and toward the center divider. It flipped over after a passenger grabbed the steering wheel and tried to direct the car back into the traffic lanes near the Newport Coast Drive exit.
Officer Chris Johnson of the California Highway Patrol said the SUV spun out of control and rolled over several times, ejecting Sabet, Schulte and Buehler, who were in the back seat.
The freeway was littered with schoolbooks, notebooks, binders, clothes and broken glass.
“The car was very, very mangled,” Johnson said. “You couldn’t even tell it was an SUV. It was so bent up.”
Sabet died of her injuries at Mission Hospital. Schulte was pronounced dead at the scene.
Johnson said seat belts kept the other three passengers from being ejected from the vehicle and probably saved their lives.
Times staff writers Dan Weikel and David Reyes contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times