Sitting in her living room, Ms. Vela reflected on her son’s brief life. She turned to a large photo of Juan wearing a white T-shirt and matching headphones.

At a young age, he found it difficult to concentrate and was later diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she said.

Medication helped at first, but she terminated his treatment after he turned 11 because he complained of severe stomach aches. Ms. Vela had hoped that having him play football might keep his busy mind occupied. “He would get bored easily, but sports wasn’t for him,” she said.

His grades and behavior took a turn for the worse, and he was assigned to an alternative program for troubled youth, Ms. Vela and family members said. “It is there when he fell into the wrong crowd,” his mother said.

Ms. Vela said Juan ran away after what seemed like a routine argument between mother and son. Later, she learned he was living with a group of teenagers in another part of town. She eventually tracked some of their TikTok accounts that showed him sitting on the floor, looking distant and distraught, as seemingly older teenagers taunted him.

“Maybe he did not know how to get out of there,” she said. “Maybe he was afraid.”

With very little communication between her and the authorities, Ms. Vela and other relatives like Melanie Melendez, Juan’s aunt, have gathered bits of information talking to people on the streets and viewing social media.

On the early hours of March 3, they learned, Juan and four other friends had gone to the Sandstone Ridge Apartments, an upscale complex with a pool and a tanning deck, to do “car hopping,” in which young people commit thefts as opportunities arise and then speed away in a car, Ms. Vela said. That’s where the shooting took place, the police statement said.

It is unclear if the teenagers were armed or if the deputy was wearing a body camera.


Two weeks after his death, Juan’s body was mourned at a funeral home in Midland surrounded by heartbroken relatives.

Grief did not stop Ms. Vela from looking for clues about her son’s last moments. She wasn’t told where on his body he was shot or by how many bullets. But during a rosary prayer service, Ms. Vela stood over Juan’s open brown wooden coffin and noticed heavy layers of makeup on the top part of his face and that his hair was combed downward, as if to obscure an injury. A black rosary was placed on his folded hands.

In the background, the song “Un Dia a La Vez” — “One Day at a Time” — by Los Tigres del Norte, a norteño band, played as a photo slide showed Juan as a newborn staring curiously at the camera. Later slides showed him smiling next to his three sisters and goofing around with friends at school.

A day later, a small group of relatives attended his funeral at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish and Shrine. The Rev. Timothy Hayter pointed at a statue of a crucified Jesus at the altar and tried to console them.

He asked the somber crowd to remember Juan as a shy teenager who loved music and drawing and who had said a prayer before riding a roller coaster.

“He was legitimately really afraid, and what did he do? He asked God to help him,” Father Hayter said. “And I have no doubt that in those darkest moments for him, that he did exactly what his mother taught him, to reach out to God.”

Some in the pews gasped loudly and others held one another tightly.

“Hang on to those moments,” the priest told them.

After the funeral, Ms. Vela and her oldest daughter, Esmeralda Herrera, 18, who moved back home from Arizona after her brother died, held on to remnants of his life. Ms. Herrera remembered that Juan had sent her a song he had recorded recently and pressed play on her phone. Mother and daughter took in every word.

“All by myself, I did it all by myself, in the streets all by myself” Juan sang. “You couldn’t tell, going through all of this hell.”

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