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Drive to dance ends in tragedy

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

Teenagers remembered in speeches and at Masses
The Orange County Register | May 28, 2005
By Greg Hardesty, Susan Gill Vardon, and John McDonald

He was outgoing and outspoken, a punter on the varsity football team at Servite High School in Anaheim, a B+ student eight days short of his 17th birthday.

She was wholesome and caring, with a winning character that had just gotten her re-elected student body president at JSerra High School in San Juan Capistrano.

The couple were side-by-side in the back seat of an SUV on Thursday night when a quick tug on the steering wheel ended it all.

The deaths of Jonathan Schulte, 16, of Orange and Gillian “Jill” Sabet, 17, of San Clemente plunged two Catholic high schools into mourning Friday.

Both teens were heading to a “Spring Fling” school dance when they were killed. Four other teens in the car were injured, two seriously.

At Friday morning memorial Masses, priests comforted the grieving as crisis counselors combed the campuses.

“Be with each other,” Servite Principal Raymond R. Dunne told an auditorium overflowing with students at an 80-minute Mass for Schulte, a junior who didn’t let his diabetes keep him from playing sports.

“Console each other,” Dunne told the stunned students, who quietly cried and hugged. More than 200 of them showed up at the school’s chapel as early as 1 a.m. to pray.

“You need to remember Jonathan’s life and the way he touched you – and if you knew Jill, the way she touched your life.”

While Dunne spoke, a parking lot across the county at JSerra High School filled up even though school wasn’t in session.

About 250 students and their parents, many in suits and dresses, gathered for a Mass for Gillian, a junior at the private school that opened less than two years ago.

“Something like this tests your faith – you need faith to get through it,” said Tim O’Hara, dean of students at JSerra. Gillian’s junior class of about 45 students was especially tight-knit, O’Hara said.

The six friends were primed for a good time when they packed into the SUV on Thursday night, decked out in dresses and tuxes.

Gillian’s best friend, Ashley Melbourne, 16, of Aliso Viejo and also a JSerra student, was driving the 2000 Isuzu Rodeo she recently got as an early 17th birthday present.

It was about 7:10 p.m., according to an account of the crash by Officer Chris Johnson of the California Highway Patrol.

Cruising at about 70 mph west on the San Joaquin Hills (73) Corridor toll road, Ashley had steered the SUV about two miles down an incline and was near Newport Coast Drive in Irvine when a fatal chain of events began.

Ashley reached into the side door for a pack of gum. The SUV started to veer into the center divider, a grassy hill.

Ryan Massey, 15, of Laguna Niguel and a freshman at Dana Hills High School, was sitting in the passenger seat.

He grabbed the steering wheel, Johnson said. It is unclear if he was told to do so by a distracted Ashleyor if he acted on his own.

Ryan apparently jerked the wheel too hard, Johnson said. The car spun and rolled over twice.

While young lives were being lost and broken under light, clear skies, about 15 minutes away, in Newport Harbor, about 150 excited JSerra students and their guests were boarding a Hornblower cruise boat for dinner and dancing.

Gillian was to be named “Queen of the Spring Fling Court.”

Nobody knew about the tragedy unfolding a short drive away.

Gillian and Jonathan were not wearing seat belts. Both were ejected.

Jonathan died at the scene.

Gillian was pronounced dead at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo.

Also ejected was John Buehler, 17, of Anaheim Hills, a close friend of Jonathan and a fellow Servite student who played on the Friars football team with him. John was sitting in the cargo bay where seat belts are not available, and suffered moderate injuries.

Ashley and Ryan were wearing seat belts. She suffered moderate injuries; Ryan major injuries.

The third teen in the back seat, Madeline Moore, 15, of San Juan Capistrano and a JSerra student, was wearing a seat belt. She suffered major injuries.

The teens are being treated at Mission Hospital and at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana.

The crash scene is scorched in the memory of one witness.

“I saw a boy in the middle of the freeway curled up in a fetal position, and I saw this girl I can’t get out of my head,” said Corinne Martinez, 47, of San Clemente, who pulled up to the wreckage.

“She was wearing a black dress and had brown hair. She just appeared sitting up. And off to the side of the road, a boy was praying. And there was a girl in a pink dress walking around.

“It was just a horrific scene – it was scattered glass and debris. My heart aches. They were probably so excited: laughing and having fun, anticipating the dance. It’s just a sheer tragedy.”

Relatives of the teens declined to speak to reporters Friday.

Fog shrouded Gillian’s home in her Harbor View neighborhood of 219 homes with views of the shimmering Pacific.

All day long, teens and adults solemnly and slowly walked into Gillian’s two-story, Spanish-style home. Some carried large flower displays; others, food.

Adron Brown, a friend and patient of Gillian’s father, podiatrist David Sabet, spoke in admiration of the family. He heard the news on the golf course and visited the home immediately.

“They’re just wonderful people,” Brown said. “I became very saddened when I heard the news. They’re gentle, kind and friendly.”

Leaving the Dock

The boat that Gillian, Jonathan and their friends never reached left the dock about 8:20 p.m.

Ashley’s mother, Nancy Melbourne, a vice principal at JSerra, didn’t get on it. She stayed behind when her daughter and friends failed to show.

Some students got a queasy feeling.

Stephanie Disano, 16, recalled some teens talking about an accident they’d seen on the San Joaquin toll road. They hoped it hadn’t been their friends’.

It wasn’t until the boat returned at about 11 p.m. that they learned the horrible truth.

Serra Principal Tom Waszak was waiting on the dock with the news.

“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” Waszak said. “Students were grief-stricken.”

At Jonathan’s memorial Mass, even the musicians and choir-members performing on stage fought to keep composed.

The service was supposed to be held in the chapel of the 790-student campus, but was moved to an auditorium to accommodate the large crowd.

On the stage, a small, black-and-white portrait of Jonathan – the shot used for this year’s football program – was framed against a jet-black cloth.

Many students cried when a vocalist dedicated a song to him.

Remember me when the color of the sunset fills the sky, the woman sang, breaking down on the last line. I remember you. Remember me.

The Rev. Michael Ponterelli, who presided over the Mass, told the students to take time grieving.

“Gentlemen, it’s going to continue for an awful long time,” he said.

Ponterelli urged them to be safe over the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

“Please do not find yourself alone,” he said. “Please do not do anything to have this scene repeat itself Tuesday morning. Please do not abandon one another.”

Dunne, the principal, then took the stage. He dismissed the seniors first. Then sophomores. Then freshmen.

“It’s important, gentlemen, that you lean on each other,” he told Jonathan’s junior class. “Don’t be alone. Be with God. God is with you. And be with each other.”

Hailey Smith, 17, was a close friend of Jonathan. She met him her freshman year when she was a student at Rosary High School, an all-girls sister school of Servite in Anaheim.

“It doesn’t seem real,” she said.

The Rev. Vincent Gilmore, chaplain and religious teacher at JSerra, presided over Gillian’s Mass. Parents and teens declined to talk about her death.

Later, Gilmore recounted the campaign speech Gillian gave the day she died, asking students to re-elect her as ASB president.

She put on a skit. She stood behind a screen while performers, including Ashley, acted out in pantomime.

The topic was, “What Would School Be Like Without Me?”

The performers pretended to cry.

Gillian came out from behind the screen.

Everyone was happy.

Orange County Register staff writers Amanda Strindberg, Lois Evezich, Jennifer Muir, Jit Fong Chin, Amanda Beck, Eleeza Agopian, Sam Miller and Erika I. Ritchie, and news researchers Michael Doss and Colleen Robledo contributed to this report.