Mission Beach residents are angry after a beloved woman – considered by many to be the “heart and soul” of the community – was killed in what police believe was a road rage-fueled, hit-and-run crash involving a suspected drunken driver.
“She’s been part of the heart and soul of this community,” Mike Hornung told NBC 7, referring to friend and neighbor, Maruta Gardner, 69. “She’s a go-to person. She really is. She’s given a lot to the community.”
“She’s been a pillar of the community for a long, long, long time,” another neighbor added.
Gardner suffered critical head injuries Friday after she was hit by a 23-year-old DUI suspect at around 5:45 p.m. at the entrance to the Jetty at 800 San Diego Place.
Officers with the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) said the victim was in the process of cleaning up some graffiti on Jetty Road and Mission Boulevard when she was struck by a black Toyota Corolla.
Gardner was standing on a curb when the driver of the Corolla was involved in what investigators believe was a road rage incident with an unknown driver behind the wheel of a white Ford Mustang.
The driver in the Toyota Corolla sped to the right of the Mustang, drove onto the shoulder and hit Gardner. He then fled the scene of the crash, turning into a nearby parking lot before speeding away.
Moments later, officers stopped the hit-and-run suspect a short distance away from the hit-and-run crash scene. The driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, police confirmed. His name was not immediately released.
Friends told NBC 7 that at the time of the crash, Gardner was volunteering doing something she often did: painting over graffiti in the Mission Beach community.
For the past 20 years, Gardner – riding her signature three-wheeled bicycle – was a neighborhood fixture. On her bike, she hauled supplies and paint as she rode around to different spots to paint over graffiti in an effort to improve her beloved community.
Friends said her efforts to eradicate the graffiti problem in the community had been recognized by the San Diego City Council. Gardner had also been actively trying to secure improvements to the playground at Bonita Cove.
“Maruta is a wonderful person,” said neighbor Karen Mitchell, who had known Gardner for 30 years. “She’s been active in the community. She’s out on her three-wheeler every day.”
Friends said Gardner is irreplaceable.
Without her, Hornung said a huge hole will be left behind in the Mission Beach community.
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“You don’t replace someone like Maruta. There’s nobody that can step up,” he lamented.
Beneath the pain and sadness left behind by Gardner’s sudden death, her friends are also outraged by how she was killed – something that could have been prevented.
“This is somebody the community needs. She did not deserve to be hit by a drunk driver in a road rage accident,” Hornung said. “We need her down here. We love her when she’s here. She’s done so much. It’s just a needless accident.”
“We’re all very sad. We’re upset that something like this happened on a small street that’s not very busy,” Mitchell added. “It makes you angry. You hate to be angry, but you are.”
“We’re devastated – absolutely devastated,” added friend Stevie Wheeler.
Mitchell said she will forever fondly remember Gardner and her smile.
“She smiles all the time. She laughs all the time. She’s just a real nice person,” she said.
“She’s always got a smile on her face. If a neighbor needs a hug, she’s there for a hug. If a neighbor needs help with something, she’ll organize,” Hornung added.
“It’s a terrible, destructive loss for our community,” added friend Michiel Kuhlken. “She was a superstar. There was no job too big or too small for her. Whatever she touched turned to gold.”
“Everyone, I think, is in shock,” Kuhlken added. “It’s just so hard to understand what happened.”
The investigation is ongoing.