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Rancho Mirage seniors try to make sense of loss

The Marywood-Palm Valley students mourn, then celebrate the lives of their three friends who died in a car crash.

September 27, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

RANCHO MIRAGE -- Their friends were gone, yet they spoke of them as if they were just down the hall or perhaps running late for class.

Maybe it was out of habit or maybe they just didn't want to let go.

"I have been at this school since I was in kindergarten, so losing three people who were the life of the school is like losing a part of yourself," said 17-year-old Rachel Gottlieb.

On Monday, Tabitha Loftis, Stephano Mazzotti and Stefano Basha Snyder-Plati left the private Marywood-Palm Valley School about 3:30 p.m. and headed to a nearby diner. While driving south on Morningside Drive, Loftis lost control of her Volkswagen Jetta and crashed into an olive tree in the median strip. All three students were killed.

Police are investigating the crash but said there was no evidence alcohol was involved. All three were 17.

The accident not only took three young lives, it devastated the close-knit senior class.

On Wednesday, the remaining 16 seniors gathered at the school office to remember their friends. Many cried, but the more they talked, the more they laughed and soon they were celebrating life rather than mourning death.

Loftis was remembered as a free-spirited dancer, Mazzotti as a budding musician and Snyder-Plati, known as "Basha," was the eccentric dreamer always devising schemes to make money or dispensing odd bits of wisdom no one quite understood.

"He said life was like a watermelon once," recalled Geoffrey Ketchum, 17. "He went on about it for 20 minutes, but I didn't really get it."

Another classmate tried to help.

"I think he said our problems were like the seeds we had to spit out or something like that," she explained.

Basha was born in Poland and was described by classmates as "unique."

"Basha wanted to go to Poland. Then he wanted to be a doctor. He really loved cooking for us," said 17-year-old Jonathan Lighthill. "He had invested in some stocks, which he was very proud of."

He took classes at UCLA and also started a nonprofit organization that was approved the day he died. No one knows what the organization did or why he created it. His friends said they may dedicate it to some goal on his behalf -- as soon as they figure out what it is.

Loftis had moved from Beaverton, Ore., to live with her grandmother.

She played on the basketball team and hoped to attend San Diego State University. Friends said she was vivacious and carefree, a person known to break into song at any moment.

"I was really close to Tabs and Stephano and talked to them every day after school," said Danielle Portney, 17. "They really changed my life and taught me so much. They were always laughing and dancing around."

Mazzotti, of Palm Springs, hoped to move to Orange County and start a band. He was perpetually short of money and couldn't afford a guitar, so he hung out at Best Buy and strummed the ones on display. After that he could be found at the IHOP on Monterey Avenue or Starbucks.

The day before Mazzotti died, Jillian Dobbins, 16, was distraught over having to put her dog to sleep.

"I told him and he said, 'Try and think about all the good times you had together,' " she said.

The accident brought home the fragility of life to the school of 500.

"Every day I leave for school, I sometimes say goodbye to my parents and sometimes I don't," said Bobby Gardner, 17. "I realize now that I need to communicate to people how much I love them because I may never see them again."

Outside the school, bouquets of flowers were laid on each of the students' parking spots. A small memorial with flowers, stuffed animals and CDs was set up at the accident site.

The students have put up a website dedicated to their friends at

Associate Head of School Vince Downey walked through the parking lot looking at the memorials. He and Headmaster Graham Hookey were at the accident scene 20 minutes after it happened Monday.

"I'm still in shock," Downey said. "All three were killed instantly. It was just like that. How do you get through anything that makes no sense and is so tragic? Family, friends and faith, that's all you can do."

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