In an early valentine to her love, Sandra Isbell wrote, "Life is too short not to do or say the things that show how special someone is to you."
Just days later, Isbell, 48, of Atwater, was killed when a 19-year-old man driving the wrong way on Highway 99 struck her car head-on, police said.
Khushdeep Gill, of Atwater, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, two related driving-under-the-influence charges and a special enhancement of driving with a blood alcohol level of .15 or greater. The state legal limit is .08.
Police said Gill was driving southbound in the northbound lane of the highway when the accident happened. Gill was on probation from a previous DUI conviction that occurred when he was under 18 years old, his attorney John Garcia said.
Now, all Isbell's family can ask is, "Why?"
"She was a loving mother who didn't deserve to die, and her kids and the community will always remember her," said Danielle Young, Isbell's 25-year-old daughter.
Isbell had closed the Atwater dollar store where she worked as an assistant manager and headed to Lodi to see her love, George Timmons, early Thursday morning.
Then came the collision.
Timmons and Isbell had been dating for 11 months, but had been friends much longer. Young recalls how happy Isbell was that Timmons had made plans for the couple to go on a weekend getaway to Napa for Valentine's Day.
Timmons can barely stand to read the valentine Isbell made him open early. She had bought a special bottle of wine from his favorite winery and noted that the vintner had said it was best if they let it age for seven to 10 years. She told him it was up to him what to do with the bottle, but suggested they put it away and open it 10 Valentine's Days from now.
"I don't know what I am going to do with the rest of my life now. I kind of had it set on being with her," he said.
Timmons and her children remember a loving mother who wasn't happy unless everyone else had all they needed or wanted.
"She was a bright, beautiful woman with a kind heart and gentle soul," her daughter said. "She gave freely and took back lightly."
Young said her family went to the accident site on Highway 99 near Bradbury Road to place a cross and flowers.
While they were doing that, they found her mother's shoes.
"I had to pick up my mom's shoes. That was the hardest thing I had to do, ever," said Young, upset that the shoes were left on the side of the road. "It's like she's just another person, another statistic -- and my mom's not."
Attorney Garcia said Gill's family is distraught over the accident.
"They feel deeply for the victim. To them, it's a double tragedy," Garcia said.
Isbell's funeral will take place at 2 p.m. Monday at Yosemite Church, 2230 E. Yosemite Ave., Merced, with a viewing from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Wilson Family Funeral Chapel, 1290 N. Winton Way in Atwater.
The family will hold a car wash from 9 a.m. until an undetermined time Saturday at Casablanca Restaurant, 2811 Shaffer Road, in Atwater to raise money for the funeral expenses. The family also has created a Web memorial to their mother at http:/sandraisbellmemoral.weebly.com.
Gill is scheduled for another court hearing March 4.
Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209)385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.