Corona, CA: Family Remembers Shooting Victim

Sam Vanettes, 36, who was shot and killed Dec. 21—allegedly by an off-duty sheriff's deputy—is remembered for his kind heart.

When the family of Sam Vanettes gathered around the kitchen table on New Year's Day in French Valley, laughter and coffee flowed—just as they said he would have wanted it.

But tears flowed, too, for the life that ended unexpectedly Dec. 21 when an off-duty Riverside County sheriff's deputy allegedly fired his gun and took it.

"Of all the people in that bar that night that should not have been shot, it should not have been Sam," they said.

They described him as funny, outgoing and generous to every person he met.

"He just brightened up the room when he walked in," his sister, April, said.

At 36, Sam had yet to marry or have children. Things were looking up for him, as he was close to getting his private pilot's license. He worked part-time at Chevron on Benton Road in French Valley, and did accident investigations for attorneys. He was also planning to go to work with his father, Ron Vanettes, who is vice president of sales for a major freight company.

As a teenager, Sam played football at Centennial High School in Corona until the family moved to Temecula. He graduated from Temecula Valley High School in 1993, and went on to study at University of La Verne, where he became interested in law.

He was a whiz at computers, he loved the History Channel and Fox News, and had a deep respect for the Military, often times stopping to thank service members he came across, they said.

He was a brother

Sam and his older sister, April, were two years apart in age. April described a close bound with her brother, as she held up aging photographs of the two of them as children.

"I talked to him every day, not a single day went by that I didn’t talk to him," April said. "He was my best friend."

Just two weeks prior, Sam had brought $200 worth of groceries to her house.

"Every time he came over, he always came bearing gifts," she said.

The two were together the evening Sam was killed. They'd went out for a snack and drink at Spelly's Bar and Grille, and had planned to barbecue carne asada back at April's Murrieta home. Sam had also made plans to take her daughter ice skating in Temecula the next day.

If there was one thing April would say to her brother given another chance, it would be: "To make sure that he knew that I admired him and respected him."

He was a son

Sam's mother, Barbara Tolton, still has the unwrapped gifts she was to present to him on Christmas. But she has already given many of his belongings, such as his clothes and shoes, to someone in need.

"He would have wanted that," Barbara said. "If there was one thing he taught me, it was to be nice to someone who you wouldn’t think to be nice to."

She'd talked to her son on the phone at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21, within a half an hour of his life ending. The evening before, they'd shared a nice dinner at Mama Colletti's.

"I got a message from him the day after (he died)," Barbara said. "He said, 'I'm OK.' And a feeling just came over me, and I knew he was."

Sam grew up in a blended family. His mother remarried to Dennis Tolton when Sam and April were young, and his father eventually remarried to Sharon Hong.

"Who ever thought we’d be sitting here, going to a court, thinking up funeral arrangements," Dennis said. "Who would ever think that in your lifetime you'd be burying your kid before is not right."

Dennis and Sam had just wrapped of five months of working on a 45-minute family movie that was to be shown on Christmas Eve.

Traditionally during the holidays, Sam would spend Christmas Eve at his mother and stepfather's, and Christmas Day at his father and stepmother's. Hong is Korean and had been planning to make Korean barbecue for Christmas at Sam's request. She recalled how she'd always joke with him that he needed to date a "nice Korean girl."

Ron, a pilot, spent countless hours flying with his son, including cross-country trips. The two would take off from and land at French Valley Airport.

"I'd always tell him, 'that was the worst damn landing I ever saw,'" Ron said. "'This is another fine mess you've gotten us into,' I'd say."

The two religiously went to the Reno Air Show every year, and were at the show Sept. 17 when 11 people died as a fighter plane crashed into the crowd. Ironically, they said they cheated death that day. Sam and his father had been sitting in one of the box seats that was hit but had left their seats when Sam won a flight just prior to the crash, they explained.

And when Ron had brain surgery seven years ago, it was Sam who stepped up to help care for him during recovery.

"He wanted a celebration"

The family is planning a celebration of life open house for Vanettes from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 15 at Monteleone Meadows, 35245 Briggs Road, Murrieta. They encourage anyone who knew him to attend.

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