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Remembering Leah

On 's birthday, there was a balloon at the spot where she died. On graduation day 2006, there was a bouquet of flowers. Soon, there will be a sign in her memory warning motorists not to drink and drive.

Lauren Schaffer, a French teacher at Ashland High School, worked for 14 months to implement a sign reading "Don't Drink and Drive. In Memory of ." She taught Castillo, and attended her memorial. Now she wants to make her remembrance a warning to motorists not to drunken drive.

Castillo died on June 3, 2005 &

her graduation night. She was on her way to the Senior All Night Party when Jonathan Guevarra, an Eagle Point man, hit her car with his SUV, killing her instantly. Guevarra was evading Ashland police when he swerved into oncoming traffic heading toward Talent on North Main Street.

Castillo's death shocked the community. She was a top student who won the National Hispanic Scholarship to Arizona State University.

More than a year after the accident, on April 6, 2006, a Jackson County Circuit Judge sentenced Guevarra to eight years in prison for manslaughter and driving under the influence of intoxicants. He was drunk at the time of the accident, and his urine contained evidence of marijuana and cocaine use, a district attorney said after the ruling. Guevarra also admitted to violating a diversion agreement for a 2004 DUII.

Castillo's former teacher was waiting for this conviction to work on putting up a sign through the Oregon Department of Transportation Memorial Signing Program. The program requires a manslaughter and DUII conviction before the department can put up a sign.

"This is sort of a victory to get a sign put up in her memory," Schaffer said.

Schaffer taught Castillo French and became close with her through class. She said Castillo was the sort of person who worked hard and sincerely cared about people. During her senior year, she worked 30 hours a week and earned a 4.0 grade point average.

"This girl was going to leave the planet a better place than she saw it," Schaffer said. "She had big plans."

Castillo's former teacher lives on Ashland Mine Road. Nearly every day, she drives by the site of the accident and the fire hydrant where a makeshift memorial for Castillo appeared a week after her death.

The site still haunts her.

"It took a year when I didn't cry just about every time I went past it," Schaffer said.

After a memorial service at Ashland High School, Schaffer decided to work toward the creation of some sort of permanent memorial. She said the bureaucracy of getting a sign put up was too trying for Leah's grieving family.

Schaffer went to the City of Ashland, then Jackson County, then the regional Oregon Department of Transportation office in Roseburg. Finally, she contacted ODOT traffic investigator Janet Lundeen, who is in charge of the memorial signing program. Schaffer learned the requirements for the ODOT "Don't Drink and Drive" signs. Noticing a newspaper article about Guevarra's conviction, Schaffer got to work. She contacted Janet Lundeen, and a few weeks ago got the sign approved.

The program puts up signs at places where fatal crashes occurred where an intoxicated driver killed someone. Jane Biehl, a Portland woman, helped initiate the program.

When she would drive between Tacoma, Wash., and Bremerton, Biehl would see a sign in memory of a Washington man who was killed by a drunk driver. She tried to get a bill passed in the Oregon Legislature because her state didn't have a program. When that proved too lengthy, Biehl went to ODOT.

"I think they were beating the legislators to the punch," Lundeen said of the transportation department.

— — Lauren Schaffer, Ashland High School French teacher, stops at the site (above) that will soon be a memorial sign for warning of the dangers of drunken driving. Top: on graduation night, June 3, 2005.

Orville Hector | Daily Tidings

In 1995, after some convincing by Biehl, ODOT initiated the program with the first sign outside Tillamook. There are 37 signs installed in Oregon, with four more in the process. "Everyone knows you shouldn't drink and drive," Biehl said. "For some you need that reinforcement that there's a really bad consequence."

For now, Schaffer is trying to raise money through the high school to raise $600 for the sign. Any additional funds she raises will go into the Memorial Scholarship fund. Schaffer said the process of remembering her former student's death on a daily basis is trying, but she thinks it is necessary to create some sort of permanent memorial for Castillo.

"I just felt like this was a death we couldn't forget and a life that needed to be remembered," Schaffer said.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 x 227 or .