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Grad who fell from cliff mourned at Santa Rosa High School

Published: Monday, April 8, 2013 at 10:25 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 9:27 a.m.

Nearly 300 people gathered late Monday at Santa Rosa High School for a candlelight vigil to mourn the death of a recent graduate known for her contagious optimism.

Giselle Ayala, an 18-year-old freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, died over the weekend after falling from a cliff near Santa Barbara during an annual spring break party, her family said.

On Monday, friends gathered on the "senior steps" at the high school campus where Ayala last year was a senior ArtQuest student to share memories at a microphone.

For nearly two hours, former classmates holding candles told stories about Ayala's knack for making people feel welcome and cared for.

"She would be blown away by all the love and support," said her sister, Nastassia Ayala, a student at Cal State Chico, to the group. "Just know that she loved each and every one of you."

Ayala's mother Cat Ayala said she was moved to know people gathered in her daughter's honor and she felt the support even though she and her husband were too grief-stricken to attend. Ayala's father is Emiliano Ayala, associate dean at Humboldt State, who until last fall worked at Sonoma State University.

"She was just an amazing kid," said Cat Ayala, a speech pathologist for Santa Rosa City Schools. "I just do not understand how she could be gone."

Ayala had headed down the coast from San Luis Obispo to Isla Vista with university friends.

The bluff and beachside community of nearly 20,000 had exploded with an additional 15,000 to 18,000 people for an annual spring break party known as "Deltopia."

At about 11 p.m. Friday, Ayala left a party to use a bathroom as officers began to break it up, her mother said she has learned from detectives investigating her daughter's death.

The environment apparently became chaotic as the party disbanded and authorities suspect that as everyone quickly scattered in the dark, Ayala fell from a cliff.

Her friends could not find her.

The next morning, a jogger found Ayala's body floating in the surf line off a small peninsula called Campus Point, Santa Barbara County sheriff's officials said.

Sheriff's officials would not say more about their investigation until forensic and toxicology tests are finalized, which could take a month or longer.

This year's gathering -- named for Del Playa Drive where it's held on the bluffs above the ocean -- was far larger than previous years, said sheriff's spokeswoman Kelly Hoover. Hoover estimated 8,000 were at last year's spring break weekend party.

Visitors to the annual events typically describe them as a huge party mixing thousands of college students and alcohol.

Ayala's death, as well as other injuries and incidents from the weekend, has caused Santa Barbara County officials to take another look at how they can control such unpermitted parties, said Supervisor Doreen Farr, whose district includes Isla Vista.

"When you have very large numbers, thousands of young people coming from all over, an incredible amount of intoxication going on and behavior gets out of control quickly," Farr said.

Ayala grew up in Santa Rosa playing soccer and was a devoted student at the Dance Center on Sixth Street, traveling to South Korea with her troupe in 2007 and 2009, her mother said.

Ayala spent a semester during her junior year living with her grandparents in Córdoba, Argentina. She arrived with only some Spanish language skills and entered a college prepatory school, studying economics, accounting, French and physics.

She came back fluent in Spanish, her mother said.

"She had such a curiosity and she loved people, she was studying sociology because she loved cultures," her mother said.

Ayala earned earned a 4.4 GPA at Santa Rosa High and was accepted early to Cal Poly, her mother said.

She returned home over her university's spring break holiday the week before she died. Ayala told her mother that she woke up each day excited for her future, Cat Ayala said.

"She said, 'Mom, every morning I wake up and every decision is mine," Cat Ayala said. "I had never seen her happier."

Among the stories told at Monday's vigil, a girl recounted how Ayala coached her through an airplane ride when she was terrified, a boy described how Ayala's friendship helped him conquer thoughts of suicide and another student told the group about how Ayala was the one who stopped in the hallway to pick up his books after he tripped.

"This is a huge testament to her," said Stephanie Roza, 19, who graduated with Ayala last year. "When you are in a choir, all the voices are together as one. That is what this feels like right now."

Staff Writer Melody Karpinski contributed to this report.

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