Outside of the Pine Valley Store, “the center of the universe” in this small, bucolic East County town, the fragrance of lilac is just perceptible in the breeze. The trees are in bloom, and all is tranquil now in Pine Valley, which last week mourned the death of two of its own.

The donation cans placed at the general store, and at Major’s Diner, have been collected, their contents turned over to the family left behind. The memorial oak is adjusting to its new home beside the chain link fence at Pine Valley Elementary School, where it was planted a week ago. Two blocks away on the other side of town, past the Pine Valley Inn, Pine Valley Java, and the Pine Valley Fire Station, the community park where more than 200 gathered for a solemn service last week again rings with the laughter of a playing child.

But that doesn’t diminish the hurt still felt in a little guest house tucked among the trees on Oak Lane, where on April 16 the knocks of a Highway Patrol officer and a county medical examiner portended the unthinkable news Zach Foster was about to receive. He had lived there with his wife Jennifer, 38, and their 7-year-old son, Braeden, for just a year and a half, seeking refuge and a new start with the help, of course, of this small community that had embraced them. Since the death of his wife and son, the community has embraced Zach Foster closer still.

Pine Valley – Images by Sam Hodgson

The Fosters were making strides. Zach had found a job working for a nearby vineyard and was saving money. Jennifer, who dreamed of working with children, had become a fixture volunteer at Braeden’s school.

Then, on April 16, tragedy. At 4:30 in the afternoon, Foster loaded Braeden into her family’s Land Rover and headed west on Interstate 8 toward Escondido, where she hoped an evening with family would lift her spirits. That morning, she had put down her 16-year-old black labrador, Kesha.

And so she hoped an evening at a family birthday party would put her emotions at ease. But Foster and Braeden never made it. At 5:02, a mile east of Tavern Road, her car, inexplicably still, lost control. When paramedics arrived, both Jennifer and Braeden were dead.

“We still don’t really know what happened,” said Alison Gang, Foster’s sister.

Within hours, officials delivered the news to Zach at the guest house behind the home of his uncle, Mert Thomas, who had taken the family in. A nearby tenant, first to hear the news, called Thomas just as the sun was setting over his Campo vineyard where he was working. He raced home. Then the tenant called Stanley Peterson, pastor of the 50-member Guatay Christian Fellowship in the town of Guatay, population 600 or so, three miles down the road. He dropped everything and drove to the family’s house.

And slowly at first, then more steadily, phones began to ring across Pine Valley, where 1,500 people live — if you ask Al Atallah, who owns the general store where he sells wine from Thomas’ vineyard.

Or 1,100 if you ask Matt McClendon, the deputy sheriff who knows to be suspicious when someone is using the phone booth outside the Frosty Burger in the middle of the night.

Or 1,800 if you ask Marjorie Wilson, who tends the espresso machine at the Pine Valley Java (and Elder Care, she jokes, because of her aged clientèle). It doesn’t matter. In this well-kept secret of a town full of good, hearty folks, McClendon said, they all know each other. By Saturday, most had heard of the tragedy on Interstate 8.

Joan Baumann, principal of Pine Valley Elementary, and Descanso Elementary a few miles away, heard of the deaths from Peggy Freed, the school secretary, who heard from a parent.

And the town mourned. They streamed to Foster’s uncle’s house with food and condolences. They prayed with Zach Foster, still in shock. They offered anything they had, his uncle said.

Though the Fosters had lived there just a year and a half, Braeden, who loved spiders and dancing, had already stolen the heart of his first grade teacher, Mrs. Heiden. She loved his crooked, closed mouthed grin and the way he told his classmates he’d missed them if they had missed a day of school. And because Jennifer, the only parent who checked every box on the school’s volunteer interest form, had very quickly made friends in Pine Valley, among them Mrs. Heiden.

“I couldn’t wait for her to walk through the classroom door every day,” Lisa Heiden said. Foster marveled over Heiden’s latest ultrasound images of her pregnancy. Heiden marveled over the closeness of Foster’s relationship with Braeden, who was always in tow and whom she loved to hug.

In the days that followed, Principal Baumann took charge of a memorial fund for the family, which has raised $1,500 to cover funeral expenses. The little league for which Braeden pitched on the Pee-Wee Marlins held a barbecue on the ball field in Campo, and raised $1,800.

The children of Pine Valley Elementary’s Room 5 made a paper quilt. It has found a home at Foster’s mother’s house in Escondido.

The children remember Braeden every day, one mother said in a letter to the family. As does the community newspaper, Valley Views, which is really more of a newsletter. In the April edition, which hit newsstands before the accident, a picture of Braeden wearing a Dr. Seuss hat and grinning crookedly accompanies Principal Baumann’s monthly column.

Baumann told Foster of her plans to include the picture.

“Jennifer was so excited that his picture was going to be in the paper,” Baumann said.

A week ago, on a barren patch next to Room 8, each of Braeden’s classmates shoveled a little dirt over the roots of a Coastal Live Oak. The school planned to pay for the tree, but Grandpa’s Mountain Nursery in nearby Descanso donated it instead.

Its young limbs, still supported by stakes in the ground, sway in the mountain wind. But George Brady, one of Braeden’s classmates, thinks a frog will soon take up residence at the base of its trunk.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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