Candlelight vigil held for North Bay man killed by alleged drunk driver

A candlelight vigil Friday night drew dozens of people honoring a popular family man and chef killed by an alleged drunk driver.

Mario Gongaro Castaneda, 53, died Tuesday evening about 7 pm, as he brought his garbage cans to the curb in front of his Petaluma home.

"He was killed instantly is what we've heard from the mortuary," said Gongora's oldest child, Jhordy, 26, who came from his home in Santa Cruz when he heard his father had been hurt.

En route, he was told his dad didn't make it.

Gongora has two other children, Viara, 21 and Gehovany, 12.

Their mother, Addie, was home at the time of the crash.

"The whole accident, they heard the noise, and my mom ran out," said son Jhordy. "And she was hoping it wasn't my dad because he was out taking the trash but she saw his body on the roundabout."

Gongora had been hit by a Prius at high speed, and then thrown or dragged across an intersection into a traffic-calming roundabout.

The Prius ended up wrecked there too, and officers arrested driver James Watson, 41, of Cotati for felony DUI and vehicular manslaughter.

Friday night's vigil was held at the roundabout on S. McDowell Avenue, where candles and flowers form a memorial to Gongora.

And he is being mourned in two communities where he had a 20 year history: Petaluma, where he lived and Novato, where he worked.

"It meant everything to my uncle because his dream was always to own a restaurant," said Gongora's niece Naomi Tep Gongora, who rushed from Portland when she heard about the tragedy.

Friday afternoon, Naomi and other relatives were helping in Gongora's restaurant, J.J.'s Burger Joint on South Novato Boulevard.

After decades working in restaurants as a chef, Gongora and his siblings managed to open J.J's last year.

Resuming business after his death was difficult but necessary, said his brothers and sister, because it's what their brother would have wanted. 

"It's very hard for us to be here," said Gina Gongora Castaneda, "but it's because we know many people love him." 

Customers have come by, leaving cards and floral arrangements, expressing condolences.

"We have to do this for him and that's why we are here to thank all the people who support us," said Gina.

Support is pouring in.

A GoFundMe page is packed with donations and tributes to a man all remember as church and community-oriented, hard-working, grounded and grateful. 

Gongora's loved ones they will honor him by not dwelling on how he died, so needlessly. 

"My uncle was a loving person, he wouldn't want us to have any hatred in our hearts for the person who did this to him," said Naomi.

But they do want justice, to spare anyone else this pain.

"If he did this to our family, we don't want him to be out on the streets to do this to anybody else."

As hobbies, Gongora grew a lush garden, and enjoyed the dance of his native Yucatan, often participating in festivals.

But family came first, and he was proud that his two eldest children are college-educated.

"He always envisioned a future and he was always building," said son Jhordy.

"He really cared about the lives of things, and cared about what was important."

The driver who hit Gongora already has a court case pending for a DUI collision in 2018.

Watkins bailed out of the Sonoma County Jail the day after Gongora died.