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Who they had been: The victims of the Montecito mudslide

Santa Barbara County officials have identified 17 people who were killed in the mudslides that swept through Montecito on Tuesday morning.

The oldest victim was 89. Four victims were children. The youngest was 3 years old.

These are their names and stories.

This story will be updated.

Josie Gower
Josie Gower Family photo

Josephine Gower, 69

Around 3 a.m. Tuesday, Gower woke up to the sound of rain thundering on the roof of her home on East Valley Road. She walked downstairs, where her boyfriend had been keeping an eye on the storm.

Together, they opened the front door and looked outside. A wall of mud, debris and boulders as big as pickup trucks suddenly struck the house, sweeping the couple out the front door.

Gower clung to the door frame. Her boyfriend reached for her hand. Neither could hold on.

He was thrown against a fence and pinned there, buried in mud up to his neck. She was swept away.

“He was in the mud calling her name for hours,” said Alastair Haigh, 37, Gower’s son-in-law.

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, Haigh said.

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.

Peter Fleurat, 73

Fleurat loved the outdoors — and he loved an audience. He frequently invited friends to his home on Hot Springs Road for dinner and a dose of comic relief.

Fleurat was a devoted member of the Ventura County Koi Society, and kept his friends laughing, said society president Mary Oxman of Thousand Oaks.

He showed up to meetings wearing bright colors or silly sunglasses, or a name tag so far askew that people would tilt their heads to read it. He sometimes hired musicians to play when the club met at his house.

“He liked to do silly, off-the-wall things just to see how people would react,” Oxman said.

An avid naturalist, Fleurat spent hours outside tending to his bees, his koi fish and a big garden. The tall trees, flowers and the miniature creek running through the sprawling property made the home feel like a forest, they said.

His longtime partner, Lalo Barajas, ran a restaurant in Santa Barbara and turned their homegrown produce into delicious salads.

Fleurat was generous, Oxman said, helping club members when they needed to catch a wriggling fish or fix their ponds. He shared his plants willingly, and once arrived to a meeting in a truck, the flatbed stacked with greenery. “Help yourself!” he told his friends.

Fleurat and Barajas were at home together Tuesday when the storm swept through the area. Barajas, his partner of 20 years, survived with a sprained neck and cuts and bruises.

Fleurat and Barajas spent every Thanksgiving with their niece Angelique Barajas, 33, at her home in Santa Barbara. All the kids loved him, she said, in part because his energy made him feel like a kid himself.

“The community was absolutely amazing in trying to find him,” Angelique Barajas said. “So many people loved him. Despite what’s happened, we feel kind of at peace knowing how much everyone cares.”

Fleurat loved to hike and ride his bicycle, particularly when the monarch butterflies migrated through the area.

One nephew who often rode bicycles with Fleurat took a solo ride Thursday to honor his uncle.

Mark Montgomery, 54

Caroline Montgomery, 22

When physician Mark Montgomery wasn’t seeing patients, he loved to chat and joke with the nurses and scrub technicians at Associated Hand Surgeons, a small practice in Santa Barbara.

The office had just three doctors, and the atmosphere was friendly and intimate, said Robert Ruth, a surgeon 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, Ruth said, 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.” Montgomery was also a member of the Santa Barbara College Hospital staff.

Montgomery and his daughter Caroline were killed at home during Tuesday’s storm, Ruth said. Montgomery’s son, who was upstairs, sustained only minor injuries. His wife and eldest daughter were traveling.

The family took an international trip together every year and had recently returned from Brazil, Ruth said. They had also visited Sri Lanka and Morocco.

Caroline Montgomery, 22, graduated from the Cate School in Carpinteria and was attending Barnard College, where she was pursuing a career in fashion.

This January 2017, photo provided by Kelly Weimer, shows Jim Mitchell, 89, with his wife, Alice Mitc
Jim and Alice Mitchell with their dog, Gigi Kelly Weimer / Associated Press

Alice Mitchell, 78

James Mitchell, 89

Retiring to Montecito had always been a dream for Jim and Alice Mitchell.

Jim worked in labor relations and Alice was a teacher. After raising their two children in Orange County, the couple retired and moved to Montecito in 1995, the Associated Press reported.

They bought a three-bedroom, Spanish-style house on Hot Springs Road. The home was filled with Alice’s artwork, with the phrase “Casa de Contenta” — the house of contentment — painted on the outside, their granddaughter Megan Mitchell told NBC News.

When officials issued a voluntary evacuation order Monday, the couple chose to stay at home to celebrate James’ 89th birthday with a quiet dinner, their daughter Kelly Weimer told the AP.

“They’re an adorable couple, and they were in love with their house,” Weimer said. “That’s their forever home.”

Roy Rohter
Mudslide victim Roy Rohter and his wife Theresa Rohter. Family photo

Roy Rohter, 84

Rohter, a retired real estate broker, 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 that “animate the ideals of the Catholic intellectual tradition,” said Michael Van Hecke, the St. Augustine headmaster and a longtime friend.

In a statement, Van Hecke said he would miss Rohter’s “infectious love of the faith and of life, and for all things true, good and beautiful.”

Rebecca Riskin
Rebecca Riskin Family photo

Rebecca Riskin, 61

As a girl in Los Angeles, Riskin dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina. She landed a role dancing with the American Ballet Theater in New York in the 1970s, but an injury cut her career short.

She moved back to Los Angeles in 1979 and turned her sights to real estate, selling high-end homes on the Westside. A decade later, she moved to Montecito.

“I remember when I first moved here, people would say, ‘You should work for the Chamber of Commerce,’” Riskin said in a video produced by her company, Riskin Partners. “And I’m like, ‘I love it here so much. I’m just telling you what it’s like living here.’”

During nearly three decades in the beachside town, 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.”

“We intend to carry out her life’s work with the same strength, grace and elegance that wholly defined Rebecca,” said Dina Landi, the firm’s managing partner.

Riskin is survived by her husband Ken Grand, children Robert and Julia and a grandson.

David Cantin, 49

Cantin was vice president of sales for NDS Surgical Imaging, a company that develops and sells operating room technology.

He was scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 33 in Santa Barbara. After leading his troop on a January hike and campout in the hills above Montecito, he wrote in a post on the Noozhawk website: “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.”

Kailly Benitez, 3

Martin Cabrera-Munoz, 48

Sawyer Corey, 12

John McManigal, 61

Marilyn Ramos, 27

Peerawat Sutthithepn, 6

Richard Taylor, 67


1:40 p.m.: This article was updated to include the accounts of Jonathan Benitez and Peter Fleurat.

This article was originally published at 11:15 a.m.

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