Community grieves for teen, prepares for public memorial
Published: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 8:57 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 8:57 a.m.
Amid the hum of television news vans, more than 400 Petaluma residents stood stoically last Friday night in the student parking lot of Casa Grande High School to honor the memory of Alyssa Byrne — the 19-year-old Petaluma woman who died tragically after attending the Snowglobe Music Festival in South Lake Tahoe.
For more than an hour on that chilly January night, residents stood, young and old, huddled together in grief, their silence broken only by the occasional sob. Some carried flowers and laid them along the chain-link fence adorned with pink and black balloons and homemade signs that created a shrine to Byrne's memory.
“Alyssa was quite a woman,” said Elece Hempel, through tears, as she clutched her 19-year-old son's arm. Adam, who stood silently next to his mother, staring towards the shrine, had grown up with Alyssa and remembered playing little league baseball with her when they were children.
After receiving news Friday morning that Byrne, who was last seen leaving the three-day music festival alone at approximately 11:45 p.m. on Dec. 31, had been discovered dead in a snow bank not far from the Lake Tahoe Community College campus where the concert had been held, friends organized the candlelight vigil. Within hours, news spread throughout the city and hundreds showed up to support those who had known her.
Byrne, who graduated from Casa Grande High School in 2011 and was studying to be a firefighter and paramedic at Santa Rosa Junior College, had driven to Lake Tahoe on Dec. 29 with three friends and was sharing a room with them at the Horizon Casino Resort in nearby Stateline. But after the concert ended on New Year's Eve, she left her friends in the crowd and disappeared around 11 p.m. Approximately 30 minutes later, she told a friend over the phone that she was taking a shuttle bus back to the hotel. That was the last time anyone heard from Byrne.
After her friends in Stateline were unable to locate Byrne, they contacted her father, Kevin Byrne, in Petaluma. Friends and family joined Lake Tahoe authorities in a frantic search. Kevin Byrne, accompanied by several family friends, traveled to Lake Tahoe to aid authorities, while Alyssa's mother, Kim and her older brother, Gregory, stayed in Petaluma in case Alyssa tried to contact them.
After three days, a public utility worker discovered Byrne's body on Jan. 4 at approximately 8:30 a.m. She was behind a 4-foot snow bank about 10 feet off the Pioneer Trail, not far from a major road leading to the college campus. The El Dorado County Sheriff's Department said that long shuttle bus lines may have led Alyssa to join other concert attendees who elected to walk the four miles from the concert back to Stateline. Her bootprints were visible for approximately 100 yards along the backside of the snow bank, and indicated a disoriented and confused path of travel.
Investigators in South Lake Tahoe confirmed that a number of Alyssa's friends reported she was consuming alcohol during and after the concert. They added that advanced hypothermia can also cause confusion and disorientation and noted that temperatures in the area had been below zero during the festival. Investigators declined to speculate whether alcohol was a factor that led to Byrne's apparent disorientation. They are awaiting the results from an autopsy and toxicology report that is expected to be released next month, which could shed more light on the factors that led to Byrne's death.
After hearing the devastating news, Alyssa's older brother, Gregory, who works at Beyond the Glory, attended the Friday night vigil with friends. He stood at the front of the crowd and thanked everyone for attending.
“We are so grateful and appreciate everything this community has done,” said Gregory as he smiled through tears. “Now, we need to remember her spirit and move forward.”
Kevin Byrne said this week that each day without Alyssa is more difficult. “It's the moments where everyone leaves and I'm sitting in a quiet house, waiting to hear that sound of her coming home,” he said through tears.
But even through his sadness, Byrne said he wants to build positivity from this tragedy. The Byrne family is working with The Polly Klaas Foundation and The Center for Missing and Exploited Children to set up a fund specifically for Petaluma residents whose children have gone missing.
“I don't want anyone else to go through this,” he said. “While it's still very raw for our family, down the line we will figure out a way to help other families who go through similar situations.”
(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at Janelle.firstname.lastname@example.org)
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