By Joe Johnson
The holiday season might be upon us, but there is no joy in the home of Carolyn Adams.
On Monday, it will be one year since a hit-and-run driver took the life of her son, 25-year-old Sanchez Mandez Elder on an east Athens roadway.
Called “Cheese” by his friends because of his ever-present smile, Elder bravely fought a lifelong battle with Achondroplasia, a disorder of bone growth that is characterized by dwarfism and such medical issues as difficulty breathing and eating.
After enduring years of hospitalizations, surgical procedures and therapy, Elder was eventually able to get around without the assistance of braces and a walker, though his legs were bowed. And as a child that was born prematurely at less than two pounds, Elder grew to be four-feet, one-inch tall by the time he was killed Nov. 23, 2019 on Cherokee Road.
The motorist drove away, leaving Elder to die in a ditch.
Life for his family has never been the same.
“It’d been a sad and lonely year without Sanchez because he had always been with me every day” Adams said. “He always would be making me laugh and checking on me every day to make sure I was okay. And he told me he loved me every night and we’d be saying said our prayers together every night.”
Elder's absense is also deeply felt by friends.
"Sanchez smiled extra hard no matter if he was feeling down or what. Everybody loved Sanchez around Athens," said Jarvis Durham, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Elder. "Cheese could turn your day from a bad day to a good day with that big Cheese on his face and jokes that would have you forgetting you was going through anything even if he was feeling down.”
Sanchez spent his last moments alive at a friend’s house on Cherokee Road where he and others gathered to watch the Georgia-Texas A&M football game on TV.
According to police, he was standing outside the house shortly after 8 p.m. when a southbound vehicle left the roadway and struck him before speeding away south on Cherokee Road.
“After hitting Sanchez, the driver briefly exited the (car) and quickly returned to the vehicle before fleeing the scene,” a police spokesman said. Sanchez was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police said that officers collected pieces of evidence from the suspect’s vehicle, including a black grille from a Nissan.
Witnesses described the vehicle as a silver 2004-06 Nissan Altima that was being driven by a white male, according to police.
Investigators unsuccessfully looked for the car by checking with area body repair shops, and no information has come in to lead them to the vehicle or driver.
“We do not have any new leads in this investigation,” said Sgt. John Q. Williams, acting public information officer for the Athens-Clarke County police Department.
“We have exhausted many different methods of locating the vehicle and identifying the driver,” he said. “We request that anyone with information in this investigation contact us, and we will continue to follow up on any new leads. The suspect and vehicle descriptions have not changed since the last reports.”
Sanchez overcame his disabilities to the point he landed his first job, at Pilgrim’s Pride, just two weeks before he was killed.
If he were still alive, Adams said her son “would have him a little car, just driving himself back and forth to work and going anywhere he want to go. Just making me worry about him more.”
The woman made a direct appeal to the driver of the car that took her son’s life.
“How could you hit and kill someone and just drive off and not stop to help. How can you live with a clear conscience and not come forward?” Adams said “Do you have a conscience? I forgive you. I am not your judge. The man up above is.”
Adams on Monday is hosting a celebration of Sanchez’s life which is open to anyone who wants to remember and pay tribute to the life of “Cheese.”
The gathering is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. at Adam’s house, located at 299 Washington Drive.
Police asked that anyone with information about the fatal collision to contact Lt. Jon McIlvaine at (762) 400-7089.
Crime Stoppers is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information that leads to an arrest.
Anonymous calls can be made to the Crime Stoppers confidential tip line at (706) 705-4775.