Among mudslide victims were children and retirees, longtime residents and immigrants
Peter Fleurat and his partner, Lalo Barajas, wanted to ride out the storm together.
Their house on Hot Springs Road in Montecito was in a voluntary evacuation zone. The couple decided to stay home, keeping an eye on their sprawling property — especially their beloved garden and koi pond.
Early Tuesday morning, the floor began to roll underneath their bed. Then a wave of mud and debris punched through their wall. The force of the debris flow sucked them both out of the house, Barajas told CBS News.
“Grab onto some wood, and don’t let go,” Fleurat yelled as he was swept away.
Barajas survived with cuts, bruises and a sprained neck. Fleurat was killed.
The 18 victims identified in the Montecito mudslides were children and retirees, immigrants and longtime residents, united by the mud and debris that crashed through their neighborhood Tuesday.
Santa Barbara officials have cautioned that the death toll could still rise. Five people remained missing as of Friday afternoon.
Here are the stories of some of the victims.
Peter Fleurat, 73
Fleurat loved the outdoors — and he loved an audience.
An avid naturalist, Fleurat spent hours hiking, biking and gardening on the couple’s property. The tall trees, garden and miniature creek made the home feel like a forest.
He was a devoted member of the Ventura County Koi Society and frequently invited the society over for dinner and a dose of comic relief, said president Mary Oxman. Sometimes, he hired musicians.
“He liked to do silly, off-the-wall things just to see how people would react,” Oxman said.
Fleurat and his partner spent every Thanksgiving in Santa Barbara with their niece Angelique Barajas, 33. The family’s kids loved Fleurat because he felt like a kid himself, she said.
“So many people loved him,” Angelique Barajas said. “Despite what’s happened, we feel kind of at peace knowing how much everyone cares.”
Alice Mitchell, 78, and James Mitchell, 89
Retiring to Montecito had always been their dream.
Jim worked in labor relations and Alice was a teacher. After raising their two children in Orange County, the couple retired and moved north in 1995.
They bought a three-bedroom, Spanish-style house on Hot Springs Road and filled it with Alice’s artwork. The phrase “Casa de Contenta” — the house of contentment — was painted on the outside, their granddaughter Megan Mitchell told NBC News.
The couple knew about the voluntary evacuation order but chose to stay at home to celebrate James’ 89th birthday with a quiet dinner, their daughter Kelly Weimer told the Associated Press.
“They’re an adorable couple, and they were in love with their house,” Weimer said. “That’s their forever home.”
Mark Montgomery, 54, and Caroline Montgomery, 22
When orthopedic surgeon Mark Montgomery wasn’t seeing patients, he loved to chat and joke with the nurses and scrub technicians at Associated Hand Surgeons in Santa Barbara. The office had three doctors, and the atmosphere was intimate, said Robert Ruth, who had worked with Montgomery since 2003.
“He was good at teasing the staff just a little bit, talking about the funny things that happened that day,” Ruth said. “We’re a small family, and everybody was very connected to him.”
Montgomery cheered for the New York Yankees, and Ruth cheered for the Dodgers. “Come October, we’d have our little rivalries,” Ruth said.
Montgomery lived for his three children, going to their water polo games and cheering the loudest from the stands, “even though he was a busy surgeon who was always on call,” Ruth said.
Montgomery and his daughter Caroline were killed at home during Tuesday’s storm. Montgomery’s son, who was upstairs, sustained only minor injuries. His wife and eldest daughter were traveling.
Caroline Montgomery, 22, graduated from the Cate School in Carpinteria. She was a senior at Barnard College in New York, studying psychology.
In a letter to students, Barnard’s dean said Montgomery played on the Columbia University women’s water polo club team, had held internships in the fashion industry and contributed to the college’s fashion magazine.
The Montgomery family took an international trip together every year and had recently returned from Brazil. They had also visited Sri Lanka and Morocco.
Peerawat Sutthithepa, 6, and Richard Taylor, 79
Peerawat, a boy with big brown eyes and a toothy grin, was known to his family as Pasta. One family friend remembered that he adored trains.
The home belonging to the family of Thai immigrants on East Valley Road was destroyed by mud, boulders, debris and rushing water, Mike Caldwell, who managed Peerawat’s father at Toyota of Santa Barbara, said on a GoFundMe page. “Literally nothing is left.”
Peerawat’s father, Pinit Sutthithepa, and his 2-year-old sister, Lydia, are still missing. Taylor, Sutthithepa’s stepfather, was killed. Peerawat’s mother and grandmother were working when the mudslide hit and are safe, Caldwell said.
In a photo posted on social media in November, the boy has his arm wrapped around his younger sister as they smile and pose on the beach. In another, they are cuddled together in their father’s arms.
Anneliese Place, 50, worked with Sutthithepa at the Toyota dealership. He often talked about his family and his beautiful wife, she said.
“That was always the phrase he used: my beautiful wife, my beautiful wife,” Place said. Sometimes, his wife would join Sutthithepa at work, bringing their two children. Peerawat would run around Place’s desk and giggle, she said.
Rebecca Riskin, 61
As a girl in Los Angeles, Riskin dreamed of ballet. She landed a role dancing with American Ballet Theatre in New York in the 1970s, but an injury cut her career short.
She turned her sights to real estate, selling high-end homes on L.A.’s Westside before moving to Montecito.
During nearly three decades in Montecito, Riskin brokered more than $2 billion in real estate deals for high-profile clients, her co-workers said. Her colleagues called her “the first lady of luxury real estate.”
“I love it here so much,” she often told her clients, according to a video produced by her company.
Riskin is survived by her husband, Ken Grand, children Robert and Julia, and a grandson.
Josephine Gower, 69
Gower, who went by Josie, was born in Santa Barbara and had lived in Montecito for more than 20 years. She was a familiar sight, zipping around in her red Mazda Miata convertible, and knew almost everyone in town — especially the other longtime residents who had embraced the area’s laid-back lifestyle, said her son-in-law Alastair Haigh.
While the Thomas fire burned in the hills near her home, Gower and her boyfriend sat at an Italian restaurant and watched the flames, sharing a pizza with the firefighters.
“She was like the life of the party,” Haigh said. “Very funny, very charismatic, just radiated energy.”
Gower’s father had worked as a gardener at the Lotusland Botanical Garden, he said, and had purchased several small houses decades ago. Gower continued to work as a landlady after her father’s death. Her tenants were used to seeing her show up with supplies from Home Depot, ready to fix anything around the house.
“She was a very hands-on, independent woman,” Haigh said.
Gower is survived by two children and two grandchildren.
Roy Rohter, 84
Rohter was a retired real estate broker who founded St. Augustine Academy, a Catholic school in Ventura, in 1994. He lived in Montecito with his wife, Theresa.
Rohter supported education programs and anti-abortion causes, said Michael Van Hecke, the St. Augustine headmaster and a longtime friend.
Van Hecke said he would miss Rohter’s “infectious love of the faith and of life, and for all things true, good and beautiful.”
David Cantin, 49
Cantin was vice president of sales for NDS Surgical Imaging, a company that develops and sells operating room technology.
He also served as the scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 33 in Santa Barbara. After leading his troop on a January hike and camping trip in the hills above Montecito, he wrote in an online post, “The splendor of our backcountry is right out the back door.”
His daughter Lauren, 14, was pulled from the wreckage of the family home early Wednesday. The family’s teenage son Jack is still missing, relatives confirmed.
“I’m so worried,” Cantin’s mother, Kathleen, said by phone, her voice breaking.
Jonathan Benitez, 10
Jonathan was a fourth-grade student at Cleveland Elementary School in Santa Barbara.
He loved sports and played on the school’s flag football, soccer and basketball teams, said Angelique Barajas, 33, who used to work as an aide at his after-school program.
“He was a really sweet kid,” Barajas said. “He was always willing to help, and was a friend to everyone.”
His aunt Marilyn Ramos, 27, and his cousin Kailly Benitez, 3, were also killed.
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