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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
California Highway Patrol officer Dave LaGroue, left, shakes hands with Jeff Cooley, the former CHP officer who saved Sondra Jones' life in 1952, at Cooley's family reunion in Chester, Calif., on Saturday. In the background are CHP Lt. Commander Erik Liband and Cooley's wife, Euphemia Starr Guess Cooley.

CHESTER, Calif. — Sondra Young sat on the front seat of her father's big Chrysler sedan, straining to see over the dashboard. It was the middle of the afternoon in October 1952, and her two older sisters and a neighborhood boy giggled in the back seat as they rode with her dad to the bank.

As her father sped down the winding mountain road near Chester, Calif., shadows of towering ponderosa pines flickered across Sondra's face. She did not want to miss a minute of this trip with her adoring dad and sisters. The chill of the crisp autumn air was already cutting into the warmth of the afternoon.

For all but one of them, this was their last day to live.

Almost 17 hours later, a California Highway Patrol officer found the sea-green Chrysler shoved into a bush about 400 yards from the road. The car was abandoned, but when the officer popped the trunk, he saw something so awful it would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Sondra's sisters — Jean, 7 and Judy, 6 — were dead, as was 4-year-old Michael Saile, a neighbor boy who had come along for the ride. Sondra's father, Guard Young, had been bludgeoned and stuffed in the trunk on top of them.

And yet, from the back of the compartment, two tiny, blood-streaked hands reached out to the officer. Little 3-year-old Sondra, wearing a sundress her mother had picked out that morning, had been beaten so severely her skull was cracked. She had survived 17 hours through a cold October night, most of it crammed into a trunk with her dying father, sisters, and neighborhood friend. But she was still alive. Barely.

As the now-grown Sondra Jones tells the story from her Provo home, 56 years later, you can almost see the images of that day flash before her eyes.

"I thought I was unconscious," Jones says, surrounded by piles of faded newspaper clippings that tell about the murders, the aftermath and her mother's strength through it all.

As painful as those memories are, Sondra is able to share them because hers is a story not of tragedy, but of triumph, and a testament to the power of forgiveness.

Instead of being consumed by rage and bitterness, her mother picked up, moved to Utah, and started over, determined to rebuild a life that would honor the loved ones she lost. Today, as a result of that decision, her children and grandchildren include successful doctors, a surgeon, two Olympians and a marine biologist. Sondra herself is a published author with 10 children and a master's degree, and she is working on a Ph.D.

On Saturday Sondra returned to Chester, Calif., to see former California Highway Patrol officer Jeff Cooley — the man who saved her that morning — for the first time after all these years.

She came to tell the unsung hero of her childhood history one simple message: Thank you.

Chester sits on the banks of Lake Almanor, on the north fork of the Feather River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Historically a logging town, it is the kind of natural wonderland where people flock to hunt or fish. The last time anyone officially counted, less than 3,000 people lived there.

Guard and Christal Young, Sondra's parents, moved to Chester in 1946 to build the area's first supermarket. Born in Huntington, Utah, Guard was a tall, good-looking man whose broad shoulders almost made him look burly. His mother, a midwife, raised her seven children alone, and he dreamed of becoming the stable and loving father he never had.

Guard and Christal tried to have children for seven years before they finally adopted Jean Christal Young late in 1945. Soon after, on the first day their market opened its doors for business, the Youngs adopted another baby girl, Judith Ann, who was six months younger than Jean.

Nearly two years later, Christal finally got pregnant and the couple was ecstatic. But the baby, a boy, was born with birth defects and died two days later.

"It came as such a blow to Guard," Christal's sister, Geraldine Walters, said, paraphrasing a letter Christal wrote to her. "Guard sobbed and sobbed, and said 'If only I could trade places with the baby!' "

Guard took his family to Provo for a year so he, Christal, and his mother could take classes at BYU and the family could cope with their loss. When they came back to Chester, Christal gave birth to Sondra, then another son, Wayne.

The girls were growing so fast. Jean had a laugh that warmed her mother's heart, and Judy's one ambition in life was to learn to cook and sew. Sondra set the record in precociousness. The Youngs' little kingdom was finally under way, and Guard made it a priority to give his children the fatherly attention he never had. He read the girls stories and tucked them in almost every night.

Chester was so isolated that other than Young's Market, there was only one grocery store in town: Frank Locatell's place, which was two doors down. When payday rolled around every two weeks, the shop owners made the 13-mile one-way trip to the nearest bank in Westwood to withdraw money to have on hand when the local lumberjacks came to cash their checks.

The money runs made Guard nervous. He told Christal that whenever she came back with money in the car she should "drive like a banshee" so no one could stop her. Guard did the same, and he had been pulled over by police going 90 mph more than once on his way back from the bank.

Still, it was 1952, and he didn't think anyone would try to rob the car while children were in it. At the worst, he'd lose some money, but he couldn't imagine anyone would be hurt. He didn't know that earlier in the day on Oct. 10, 1952, two men who rode into town pretending to be hunters had tried to catch Locatell on his way back from the bank. Locatell had gotten away. The men went to plan B, waiting for the next shopkeeper from Chester to show up at the bank to make a withdrawal.

At 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 10, 1952, Jean, Judy and Michael, a neighbor boy Guard regarded as a son, clambered into the roomy backseat of the Chrysler while Sondra, Guard's pride and joy, sat next to her father in the front. They withdrew $7,128 from the bank and stopped for ice cream on the way back.

The Chrysler was several miles outside of Westwood, heading back to Chester, when a dark Oldsmobile appeared in Guard's rearview mirror. A balding man wearing a mask and his accomplice, who had a pencil-thin mustache, pulled up beside Guard as the two cars raced down the winding mountain road. When one of the men pulled a gun on Guard, he pulled over.

What happened next comes to Sondra Young today in bits and flashes. She can remember the gun, and she has read newspaper stories about the lead pipe the two men used to smash in her father's head and kill her sisters.

"I remember them hitting the other kids," Sondra says, though she has tried to forget. "I remember it as them being spanked, but they were being hit. (A newspaper) article said my dad was killed first, but he wasn't. He watched, and he struggled to get free."

The men came at Sondra last, beckoning her to climb over the seat into their reach. They left her for dead in the back of the trunk.

California Highway patrolman Jeff Cooley was a stickler for enforcing the law.

At 9 years old, he and his dad lived as hobos in railroad cars after his mother abandoned them in the height of the Great Depression. He watched his dad kill a man, in Cooley's defense, on the train, and he later served in World War II.

After he returned, he started his career as a hard-nosed cop who was just as willing to ticket his sister-in-law for a broken taillight as he was to turn his daughter-in-law in for abusing drugs. During his 27 years in the field, Cooley was at one point in the California Highway Patrol's top 10 for most felony arrests, but he "never struck a human being in uniform," Cooley proudly points out. "I did strike a few out of uniform, but that was necessary sometimes."

Cooley had just lain down to go to sleep at 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 11, 1952, when a hunter from the town burst into his house and shouted he had found the Youngs' missing car. The 27-year-old was a highway patrol officer, but the sheriff wasn't around, so he sped out to the scene.

Nothing could have prepared Cooley for what he saw, and nothing has changed the emotion he felt the moment he lifted the trunk lid. On one hand, Sondra had a chance to live — if he could get her to the doctor fast enough. On the other hand, everyone else was gone.

He cradled the 3-year-old in his arms and rushed to the doctor's office in Chester. When the doctor said he couldn't help him, he had to backtrack to Westwood.

Sondra's mother, Christal, arrived at the hospital not knowing if Sondra would make it through the night. She kept herself busy at the hospital by mending the children's clothes, until she realized the children were dead and the mending wasn't needed.

"Believe me, when I learned that this wonderful kingdom of ours had broken and crumbled at my feet, it took all the faith within my grasp to withstand the terrible shock," Christal wrote in an essay for the Sacramento Bee as she dealt with her tragedy and tried to explain the power of her faith. "I had to dig deep into all of my past understanding and faith to understand why? Why? Why? Couldn't he have heard their prayers and protected them? Then as I looked down on Sondra in the clean, white hospital bed and knew she would live I knew there was a God. That he did hear and answer prayers."

Sondra was in hiding for about six weeks because police worried the killers, Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins, would try again to kill her. That winter Christal picked up her daughter and son and moved to Provo. She was 39.

Christal struggled with the pain of missing Guard and the girls even after she remarried in 1954 and had another daughter, but she forgave the murderers, who ultimately died in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

"To be bitter, how can I be bitter when so much has been given?" Christal wrote in the Sacramento Bee essay. "It all can be summed up in the words of Shakespeare, who had a way of saying things, 'And they, sweet love remembered, doth such wealth bring. I would scorn to change my place with kings.' "

Sondra often thought about officer Cooley, the man she called "Mr. Kool-aid" over the years, but her desire to see him again didn't become a possibility until an unexpected letter arrived at her brother Wayne's office one day.

It was from John Guess, a Grammy-award winner who worked in Nashville and was related to Cooley. Guess had heard the story from his Uncle Jeff and had begun work on a screenplay. He decided that to get the story right he needed to find Sondra, but he didn't know where she was or what she was doing.

It was 2004, and the men's Olympic gymnastics team — which included a man from Utah named Guard Young — had just won a silver medal in Greece. There had to be a connection, Guess thought. And so he wrote a letter to Olympian Guard Young's father, Orem doctor Wayne Young, requesting a meeting with Sondra.

When Sondra and Guess talked over the phone, she told him how much she wanted to meet Cooley. Guess thought the annual Fourth of July reunion at his uncle's cabin in Chester would be the perfect place. And so this week, Sondra traveled to Chester to meet and thank her rescuer.

Cooley and his wife, Euphemia, now in their late 80s, woke up early Saturday to make their way to meet Sondra. Cooley had been lifting weights and exercising for weeks to be strong enough to make the trip. He even debated what shirt to wear.

On Saturday morning, Sondra arrived at Jeff Cooley's family cabin on the shores of Lake Almanor. Cooley stood below the deck in front of the glistening lake with a backdrop of velvety pines and striking blue sky. Sondra hesitantly approached her childhood hero and they hugged for a while without saying much.

"This is Jeff Cooley," Guess said.

"Yes, yes," Sondra replied from her embrace.

Then the years of questions and missing details came flowing between them and Cooley's eyes watered whenever he spoke of opening her father's trunk.

"Would you rather we didn't talk about this?" he stopped and asked Sondra at one point. But she had been waiting for this moment for so long, and she wanted to hear it all. There are still so many pieces missing from what she knows happened.

After hours of reminiscing, four California Highway Patrol officers walked into the family gathering place. Lt. Erik Liband dropped to one knee and shook Cooley's hand.

It was the first official recognition anyone ever gave Cooley for rescuing Sondra, according to his family, and the sight made many of them weep.

"It's just beautiful," Mike Guess, Cooley's nephew, said through tears.

Cooley's wife, Euphemia, was flabbergasted when Sondra presented her and her husband with handmade matching pillows and a hunting quilt as a token of her appreciation.

He still says he didn't do much that day.

"All I did was …" Cooley started to say.

"Save my life," Sondra finished his sentence. "Thank you. Thank you."

E-mail: achoate@desnews.com