When 16-year-old Eliazar Hernandez was killed by gunfire last week on Lombardo Avenue in south Modesto, he was an innocent bystander caught in the middle of a neighborhood dispute, according to the boy's family and neighbors.
Eliazar's mother, Esther Zavala, said he was a fun-loving 10th-grader at Johansen High School who always made people smile. She said her son was born with Down syndrome.
"He was always excited to see me," she said. "He had a big heart."
The shooting occurred about 5:40 p.m. Oct. 20. Zavala said her son was with her in their van that evening as the vehicle was hit with gunshots near Lombardo, just east of South Ninth Street.
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She declined to say why the shots were fired at the van or what led to the attack. She said investigators told her not to discuss details about the shooting.
Sheriff's detectives also have declined to release specific details about how the shooting occurred, fearing it could harm the investigation.
Zavala said her teenage son never got out of the van and was not involved in the incident that also injured his 29-year-old brother, who suffered a gunshot wound that didn't threaten his life.
She said she drove Eliazar to the hospital while the adult brother remained at the scene. The injured man was treated at a Modesto hospital and released. Sheriff's officials did not release his name to protect his safety.
Deputies cordoned off a two-block area around the crime scene and remained there until about midnight, neighbors said. Sheriff's detectives worked through the night collecting evidence and conducting interviews until they identified a teenage suspect in the shooting.
About 5 a.m. Oct. 21, detectives arrested a 16-year-old boy on suspicion of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. The boy was taken into custody at his home in the 800 block of Aeron Street, said sheriff's deputy Andrew Winter.
Sheriff's officials did not release the boy's name because he is a minor.
The suspect and the victims live within blocks of one another in an unincorporated neighborhood between the Tuolumne River and Ceres.
Neighbors said a fight around the corner from the crime scene spilled onto Lombardo and ended with gunfire.
Antonette Valdez, 52, lives on Lombardo and said she saw a teenage boy pull a handgun from underneath his waistband and fire shots east down the street. Valdez said she couldn't see who or what the boy was shooting at, but that he was the only one firing a gun.
Another longtime neighbor, Jennifer Sanchez, 29, said the shooting was the result of a feud that went too far.
Sanchez said she has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and knows people on both sides of the dispute. While sheriff's officials said the shooting appeared to be gang-related, Sanchez said a fistfight involving Eliazar's older brother led to the shooting.
"It wasn't gang-related," Sanchez said. "They're all supposed to be friends."
She said it was a couple of sucker-punches that resulted in bruised egos and eventually escalated to deadly violence. The incident ended tragically, Sanchez said, when it didn't have to.
When asked what involvement her adult son had in the dispute, Zavala said, "I can't discuss that, because they're still investigating."
Family and friends organized a car wash last week along Crows Landing Road in south Modesto to raise money for Eliazar's funeral.
Zavala said her son loved listening to all kinds of music and jumped at the chance to entertain family and friends by showing off his dance moves.
He enjoyed dressing nicely, always looking for an opportunity to put on formal attire.
"He liked to wear nice button-up shirts and nice pants, and sometimes a vest," Zavala said. "He even wanted to wear a tie to school once, but I didn't let him."
Margy Sawyer of Escalon said she met Eliazar while he attended Garrison Elementary in Modesto. The boy was a loving child who touched everyone he met with his joy for life, Sawyer wrote in a letter to The Bee.
"Life is fragile and when someone so special is easily lost because of violence and carelessness, it is a tragedy!" Sawyer said in the letter. "All of us who knew and loved Eliazar Hernandez will greatly miss him."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.