PALM DESERT, Calif. - Hundreds gathered at Palm Desert high school to celebrate the life of Jill Thomas Grant. Students, friends and family members all came to pay tribute to the beloved math teacher. "She's been a light in my life," said Tara Huffman, Grant's best friend. "I'm blessed to have known her."
Grant spent 20 years in the Desert Sands unified school district, the majority of them at her alma mater, Palm Desert. Grant's family sat in the front row during the service, while colleagues and friends told stories about her joyful personality, love for math and passion for teaching. "I'm best friends with my sister and I couldn't have comprehended," said her brother Michael Thomas. "There's no way I knew all of this."
Several of Grant's former and current students sat in the bleachers, wiping away tears. For many of them, she was much more than just a teacher. "She truly touched so many lives," said Huffman. "She was actually one of those teachers that made a difference and that kids loved."
"She was just so nice and caring and always had a positive impact on the class," said Brooke Kato, a junior at the school.
The service gave friends a chance to hug and grieve. But, it did not change the sad circumstances of her death. Her body was found two days before Christmas in a dirt lot at Golf Center Parkway and Avenue 42 in Indio. Her boyfriend, Michael John Franco, was arrested the following morning. He pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, use of a deadly weapon and felon in possession of a firearm.
Franco is being held on $5 million bail. He is due in court for a felony settlement conference on Monday morning. "I will be following this every step of the way," said Thomas. "My family and I are committed to making sure he gets what he deserves."
In the wake of her death, students set up a memorial on the campus, made up of flowers and several candles. The flickering light carrying special meaning, because Grant had a passion for wax and candles. "Candles being lit in her honor is a major tribute," said Huffman. "I'm sure she's smiling down."
Students say they want to keep the flame going, but even if it goes out, her memory will always burn bright.