Crime - Sacto 911

Alleged drunken driver kills 2 high school students on spring break

Students and community members gather at the high school's football field Sunday night to remember Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner.
Students and community members gather at the high school's football field Sunday night to remember Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner.

Two Nevada Union High School students died and one was injured Sunday morning when their car was struck by an alleged drunken driver.

Senior Tyler Nielson and sophomore Justin Gardner were beginning a road trip to Pismo Beach for spring break, according to an email to parents from principal Kelly Rhoden, when an alleged drunken driver crossed over the center median in Merced County and struck their car head-on.

Nielson died at the scene. Gardner was transported to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto before succumbing to his injuries. A third Nevada Union student, junior Dawson Fay, also in the vehicle, suffered a broken hip among other major injuries, but is expected to recover.

Nielson, Gardner and Fay were teammates on Nevada Union's varsity football team, according to MaxPreps, and Nielson had committed to play for Sierra College next season. Gardner and Fay also played basketball for Nevada Union, while Nielson played baseball.

Fay's mother and older brother were part of a caravan driving to Pismo Beach with the car that was hit, said Franca Nielson, Tyler's mother. The Fays were like a second family to Tyler, who had played football with Gardner since he was 7 years old, she said.

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Tyler Nielson Courtesy Nielson family

"He was just a young soul. Just happy, always smiling. He was an athlete, knew everybody at Nevada Union," Franca Nielson said.

San Jose resident Sabrina Distura, 21, was driving the 2015 Honda that hit the boys' car, according to the California Highway Patrol. Distura was transported to an area hospital in CHP custody after complaining of leg and lower back pain, then arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and vehicular manslaughter.

All involved parties were wearing seat belts.

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Justin Gardner Courtesy NU football program

"I’m distraught, but I’m also angry just because of the fact that our children know better than to drink and get behind the wheel of a car," Franca Nielson said. "But (Distura) decided to drink at noon and killed two people."

Nevada Union classes resume April 2, at which time grief counselors will be available for students. Students and community members gathered at the high school's football field Sunday night to remember Nielson and Gardner, and plan to meet on campus again Monday, Rhoden said.

The high school has kept its gymnasium open for those who want company or to reflect.

"It's beyond tragic," Nevada Union athletic director Jeff Dellis said. "Two beautiful kids, gone. Family, friends, teammates, classmates, the community, everyone is just reeling right now."

Dellis added, "People are in the gym since (Monday) morning to help, to allow people to grieve. It's comforting to know our community embraces all of our youth."

A GoFundMe account has been established to aid the families of Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner, at https://www.gofundme.com/w74dz-memorial-fundraiser.

Benjy Egel: 916-321-1052, begel@sacbee.com

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