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Couple found happiness before tragedy

December 13, 2006|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Childhood friends Betty Jean Deyo and Joel Ridley lost touch after going their separate ways. Yet the two spied each other across the room at their 60th Pomona High School reunion two years ago and quickly fell in love.

They tied the knot in an impromptu Las Vegas ceremony last week. On Dec. 6, they were driving to their Montclair home after visiting a friend who was helping plan their honeymoon when they slammed into a power pole that was dangling from a crane.

Ridley, 81, who was driving, died at the scene. Deyo-Ridley, 80, suffered serious head injuries and was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where she remains in critical condition.

The crane operator, Joseph Dimaano, 31, a contractor for Southern California Edison, was arrested on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter and released. Upland police said workers failed to take proper safety precautions to avoid the accident, but the San Bernardino County district attorney's office has not decided whether to file charges.

Deyo-Ridley's relatives, who have been at her bedside since the incident, said Tuesday they were distraught by the tragedy but thankful that the couple had such a joyful romance.

"They were just such a cute couple. He was good to her, and they were always laughing," said Deyo-Ridley's son, Stephen Deyo, 57, of Palm Springs. "They were new soul mates."

Dr. Dev Gnanadev, the hospital's medical director, said Deyo-Ridley suffered skull fractures and inter-cranial bleeding in the accident.

After undergoing surgery, Deyo-Ridley had almost no brain function, Gnanadev said, but she has since made slight improvements. Her prognosis is still uncertain.

"She's a tough cookie," Gnanadev said. "These are tremendous injuries, even for a 30-year-old."

On Tuesday, Deyo-Ridley's family gathered on the hospital's lawn to talk about the couple.

The two had known each other as children, and Deyo-Ridley's father taught a young Ridley to fish. The fascination stuck, and Ridley grew to become an avid deep-sea fisherman. His freezer was filled with Alaskan halibut and salmon. Ridley married and after a career with the U.S. Postal Service, owned a jewelry shop for a time before retiring in San Dimas.

A young Deyo-Ridley married and worked as a nursing assistant while raising a son and a daughter in Montclair.

Both their spouses had died by the time they reconnected at their class reunion. Family members say it was like love at first sight.

"[Ridley] always said, 'I saw her across the room, latched on and never let go,' " said Lennea Deyo, Stephen Deyo's wife.

Deyo-Ridley was shy at first about her new boyfriend and even sought her son's approval to date again.

"I said, 'Of course.' All I wanted was for her to be happy," Stephen Deyo said. "I hadn't seen her so happy since my dad passed away six years ago."

The octogenarians became globe-trotters, traveling at least four or five times a year -- New Mexico for a hot-air balloon festival, Amsterdam to see the tulips in bloom and Africa to see the wildlife.

"She was just her own little Irish fireball -- 5 foot 1, 95 pounds of just 'go-go-go,' " said Stephen Deyo.

Many of their trips were impromptu, so Deyo wasn't surprised when the couple called to announce they were driving to Las Vegas to get married the next day. After a yearlong engagement, they wanted to marry before officially moving in together.

The power pole had been hanging 4 feet above a traffic lane on Benson Avenue near 11th Street when the couple hit it shortly before 10 p.m., police said. The impact of the collision sheared off the roof of their car.

A utility worker who was hit by the pole also died.

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sara.lin@latimes.com

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