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'Person of interest' in custody as Golden Valley High School continues to mourn popular wrestler

SUN-STAR FILE PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK
Golden Valley's DeAngelo Smith wrestles Buhach Colony's Edgard Curiel in their 140 pound match in Merced, Calif. Wed. Dec. 16, 2009.
SUN-STAR FILE PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK Golden Valley's DeAngelo Smith wrestles Buhach Colony's Edgard Curiel in their 140 pound match in Merced, Calif. Wed. Dec. 16, 2009. Merced Sun-Star

He was D-Lo to his friends.

He was the first wrestler in the weight room during workouts, and the last to leave.

He was a good guy who always said hi and always shared a smile with everyone.

DeAngelo Smith's friends on the Golden Valley High School wrestling team remembered the 17-year-old junior wrestler Tuesday afternoon during their team's regular workout time. Smith was shot to death Friday night at his apartment complex on D Street by unknown assailants.

Merced police have arrested one person in connection with the shooting, 19-year-old Manuel Mendez Gallegos. Police spokesman Lt. Andre Matthews said Gallegos was identified as a person of interest early on during the investigation. He was taken into custody by a Merced County sheriff's deputy around 4 a.m. during a vehicle stop.

Matthews said a "be on the lookout" bulletin had been issued by Merced police, and the deputy was able to identify Gallegos. He was turned over to Merced police detectives and later booked into the Merced County Jail on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder. "The police department has other people of interest we are seeking; however we are not releasing those names at this time," Matthews said.

Meanwhile, Smith's teammates said Tuesday he'll be missed dearly. "He was a person everyone wanted to be like," said Daniel Gonzalez, a junior on the team. "He was always humble and he made us laugh."

Smith's teammates gathered at 2 p.m. in the hallway of their wrestling room to sign a big picture of the team, and then sat down, their shoes off, in the practice room.

Above the team, a pair of black wrestling shoes were hanging from the ceiling.

"Shoes are significant to wrestlers," said Smith's coach, Chopper Mello. "They are the only equipment a wrestler has. When you take them off, you're done for the day. In this case, it's more than a day. It's for life."

Blaze Fidler, a junior on the team, said he had Smith in his history class. "This week the two of us were supposed to work on a movie about civil rights," Fidler said. "We talked about it ... now it's on hold for a long time."

Fidler said Smith was always studying, even when other classmates were goofing around. "He worked hard, he never smart-mouthed anyone," he said.

Kevin Hernandez, 17, remembered when he, Smith and Julian Terry, another team member, went to Carson City, Nev., for a match. They went to a Mexican restaurant before the match and just talked.

"He told us what he wanted to do after high school," Hernandez said. "He wanted to go to college, and then be a sponsored body-builder."

Other team members remembered Smith being the hardest worker in the weight room. And how hard he wanted to improve.

"He told me how badly he wanted to move on, be on varsity," Terry said. "He was going to make it."

Austin Bondi, 18, said Smith's shoes hanging from the ceiling mean a lot to the team. "He's not here physically, but we know he's going to be here every practice."

Cristian Vasquez, a 15-year-old freshman on the team, said Smith was his inspiration. "I'd see him in the workout room and tell him that someday I'd be as strong as him. He said, 'Yeah you will -- if you work hard.'"

Joey Allen, a senior, remembered last Friday, the last time he talked to Allen. They were playing dodgeball, and Allen teased Smith.

"I told him if he threw the ball any harder, it would start on fire," Allen said.

William Easton, a junior, said he first met Smith at the apartment complex where Smith lived. They played basketball and just talked.

"He always wanted to lift weights," Easton said. "He was the first one in, the last one out."

Easton said Smith was one of the nicest guys he had ever met, and he was someone Easton could talk to. "We talked about what next year was going to be about," Easton said quietly. "I met his grandma and his aunts and uncles. He was just one of the nicest people you could ever meet."

Ben Weber, 17, often gave Smith a ride home because Smith rarely had transportation. He remembered Smith talking about how much he loved his grandmother, whom he lived with, and how strict she was.

"She made him come in early all the time because of the bad guys," Weber said. He paused, then said quietly. "Her fears came true."

Merced police are asking anyone with information about the shooting to call Detective Chris Russell at (209) 385-4707 or the department's automated tip line at (209) 385-4725. Callers can remain anonymous.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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