Another tragedy struck the Achilli family this week when the widow of slain Los Gatos bar owner Mark Achilli was killed in a fiery car crash off Highway 9 in Saratoga.
Michele Achilli, 54, of Santa Cruz was a constant fixture in the courtroom during the 2010 murder-for-hire trial of Paul Garcia that ended in his conviction and life sentence in prison.
The double tragedy has devastated Michele Achilli's three grown children, including a son and daughter who often sat beside her in the courtroom, and a daughter in Wisconsin.
"She loved her family, her grandkids. There was always a lot of joy in life for her, even in the hard times," friend Michelle Rees said Wednesday. "She found the good. At the end of the day, we would always find something to laugh about."
Early Tuesday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded to a brush fire in the Saratoga hills near Heather Heights and discovered Michele Achilli's body just outside a badly burned Volkswagen Beetle, according to the California Highway Patrol. The coroner's office confirmed her identity Wednesday.
The car appears to have gone off the roadway about 12:20 a.m. near a curve and down an embankment, crashing and sparking a fire. The CHP's preliminary findings suggest the driver lost control and that speed was a factor. Officer John Darling said the collision remains under investigation and no additional details are being disclosed.
"I feel sorry for the family,'' said Chuck Cucco, an old family friend. "As if it wasn't hard enough losing their dad, now they lost their mom. She was a good mother and a good wife while they were together.''
He admired her persistence to be in the courtroom every day "to see Mark's killers put in prison.''
Mark Achilli's murder was one of the most sensational crimes ever in the tony community of Los Gatos, where Achilli was well known and beloved especially among the tight-knit group of bartenders and business owners.
News of Michele's death trickled Wednesday afternoon to the town establishments best known to the Achilli family. At Mountain Charley's, the staff was visibly reeling and declined to comment. The same went for Carry Nation's, a pub across the street that served as a gathering place for memorial toasts in memory of Mark Achilli.
In March 2008, seven months after Mark Achilli sold the landmark Mountain Charley's Saloon to Garcia, he was shot eight times in broad daylight in the driveway of his Los Gatos town house.
District Attorney Jeff Rosen convinced a jury that Garcia, who was in his late 20s, ordered the hit because he was jealous that a beautiful bartender he dated was in love with Achilli, 53, instead.
In a written statement Wednesday, Rosen spoke of Michele Achilli's determination to seek justice for Mark "and the preservation of his memory. She was kind and compassionate to everyone she met.''
Michele Achilli opposed the death penalty for her husband's killers -- and none was sought -- but she wished she had seen some sense of remorse in the courtroom, Rees said.
"She was an innocent soul in a way," Rees said. "She trusted everyone and had a hard time understanding how anyone could do this."
At Garcia's long-delayed sentencing in May, Michele Achilli -- usually soft-spoken -- raised her voice in an anguished plea for justice. Those bullets "didn't just hit Mark," she told the judge, "we all have pieces of them in us."
Staff writers Mark Gomez and Tracey Kaplan contributed to this story.