Palo Alto coping with tragic death of Jewish 6-year-old

Debbie Melmon swears she isn't angry. She hasn't got room for that.

"Anger takes up so much energy, it takes up so much emotional space, and I just don't have that right now," she said.

Melmon's 6-year-old daughter, Amy Malzbender, was struck and killed the morning of Jan. 28 by a driver who continued on to school and attended classes. Eighteen-year-old Palo Alto High senior Megan Coughran was later arrested and charged with two counts of felony hit-and-run driving. She is currently free on $15,000 bail.

Though not affiliated, Melmon is Jewish and, along with husband Thomas Malzbender, brought up Amy and their 8-year-old son, Joey, in a Jewish home. Melmon said Amy's favorite holiday was Chanukah, because she loved to light the candles.

Along with Amy, 10-year-old neighbor Chloe McAusland was also struck by Coughran, and suffered multiple leg fractures. Riding their bicycles down Miranda Avenue, en route to Lucille Nixon Elementary School, the girls had stopped on the shoulder of the road to wait for Joey and Thomas Malzbender, who had stepped off their bikes briefly to adjust Joey's backpack. Both girls were wearing cycling helmets.

The father and son watched helplessly as the car plowed into the girls. Joey remained level-headed enough that the 8-year-old's description of the brown, Buick station wagon allowed police to track it to a Palo Alto High parking lot.

Amy died in her father's arms as he attempted to revive her. She was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital due to massive head trauma.

Family and friends are now mourning the loss of "a child everyone loved."

"She was just so full of life, so funny, a strikingly beautiful child who was always smiling and giggling," said family friend Carol Kraft.

"She was a joy to be around. She could either be all muddy and dirty or all beautiful and dressed up. And she just loved her brother. They were the most incredible brother-sister team you could ever imagine."

Her family nicknamed Amy "Skipper" because she preferred skipping to walking.

"She was just a real sparkly, little gem. Her nicknames described her well," said Melmon. "We [also] used to call her 'Butterfly' because it was as though she was walking on air."

"I was just saying to my husband that she had a real ethereal quality to her. She was so light and free."

An unnamed source within the Palo Alto Police Department told the San Jose Mercury News that Coughran said she did not notice striking the two children and their bicycles — a claim police believe the amount of damage on the car belies.

Detective Jim Coffman said the department has a policy of not disclosing "what defendants say or don't say" and would not talk about the amount of damage to Coughran's car.

"I think it is a given fact that she hit these two girls and kept going. I am confident in telling you that," he said.

Coffman said a team of specialists would re-create the collision. The police have until Feb. 11 to submit the case to the district attorney.

Melmon, for her part, has no doubt that Coughran knew she hit the girls, and believes she "continued on with her routine" like "an ostrich sticking its head in the sand."

"There's no way she could not have known," Melmon said. "When she hit the girls, their bodies were 60 feet from where they had been hit. So you don't run into two children with bicycles and not realize what you've done. If she had looked into the rearview mirror, the scene was quite graphic. And Amy's bike was dragged for quite some distance.

"She continued driving to school. She was going about her daily life. I think she was practicing an extreme form of denial. I don't think you practice that kind of denial unless you know you've done something horrific."

For someone to hit the children and keep driving left Melmon with many unanswered questions.

"I have a great curiosity to know what this kid's story is. I'm hoping she can begin to be honest with herself about herself," said Melmon. "If she's going to live a meaningful life, she's got a lot of work to do. Perhaps this can be the vehicle for her to pay more attention to herself."

Coughran could not be reached for comment.

Pastors at the Peninsula Bible Church, of which Coughran is a member, described her as intelligent, responsible, friendly and religious. The 18-year-old was recently accepted into the University of San Francisco and worked with the church's youth group and youth choir. During the church's last youth trip, she spent time in Mexico building homes for the poor.

"She's not the type of person…She is responsible, dependable and committed to what she agrees to do. She's a very enthusiastic person and the kids really love her. She really enjoys to be with them. She's not a flighty type of person," said the Rev. Kathy Means.

"She does not come across as a self-focused or self-centered person. She was excited about the future and heading off to college and seeing what God might have for her next. This will be a life-changing thing for her as it has been for Amy's family, who lost her life as a process of this."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.