Hector Hernandez-Valdez was loved.
It shows in the dozens of heartfelt messages penned above the spot where the 15-year-old was found dead last week. It shows in the creased forehead of his mother and the pained smiles of his friends.
It shows in a high school’s vow to raise money for the slain boy’s family.
He was stabbed to death June 1 inside a neighbor’s home in the 800 block of East 52nd Street.
Prosecutors allege a classmate at Lincoln High School invited the teen
over to smoke marijuana. Shortly after he arrived, Hector was repeatedly stabbed and slashed, and his body put in a recycling container and taken outside the house.
Prosecutors have charged two brothers, 16-year-old Luis Arroyo and 14-year-old Cristobal Ivan Arroyo, with first-degree murder. The elder Arroyo also was charged with first-degree robbery after allegedly taking nine bags of marijuana and $166 cash from Hector.
The teen’s face stares back from dozens of black T-shirts and jackets on Tacoma’s East Side, wishing him eternal peace and lamenting that R.I.P. doesn’t mean “Return if possible.”
Those who knew him swear he would come back to them if he could, to spare them the agony of loss. He was that kind of boy.
But they’ve accepted that Hector now lives only in their memories, so they clutch them extra tight.
“So many things I remember about him,” said his father, Mario Hernandez-Valdez.
He recalls his son working long hours with a landscaping company to save enough money for a Honda. Teaching his son how to work on cars. The pranks Hector played on his brothers and cousins. How the teen so prized his collection of tennis shoes that he would wear old ones and carry the new ones until he arrived at his destination to make sure the surface was clean enough.
The thing Mario Hernandez-Valdez most cherished about his eldest child, however, was how he would come to him by day’s end if he had done something wrong and ask for forgiveness.
Family members said respect was paramount to Hector.
It had to be, since the teen was planning to join the U.S. Marine Corps when he graduated from Lincoln High School.
Getting involved with the JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) changed his life, friends and family said.
The once-chubby boy began lifting weights in the backyard and running with his uncle. He started cooking for himself so he could monitor his calories. He gave up his beloved mohawks and cropped his black hair close to his head.
He would smile at his mother’s threat to take him to Mexico so he couldn’t enlist, and then gently tell her he loved his country and wanted to serve.
“I used him as an example,” said his ROTC instructor, Sgt. 1st Class Donna Rayford. “His tie was always straight, his shirt was always ironed, his shoes were always clean. He was immaculate.”
Hector struggled from time to time, like most teenagers. He could be a follower, letting himself be distracted by classmates uninterested in the course work. He had not run afoul of police, though.
It just took a nudge, Rayford said, a reminder he could accomplish his goals and set a good example for his siblings, to get him back on track.
“He would’ve gone far,” she said.
Hector will be buried Sunday in his green ROTC uniform.
Since the teen’s death, friends have taken over the area where he was killed with a sprawling memorial.
Someone spray-painted “R.I.P. Hector” in huge white letters on the garage. Dozens of others have used markers and paint to write personal messages to the teen, tagging the building and surrounding fences.
Hundreds of candles, flowers, empty beer bottles and other mementos lie in front of a trio of recycling bins, including an orange – Hector’s daily snack.
On a recent afternoon, 17-year-old Jose Martinez stopped by the memorial to pay his respects.
“He was a good friend,” Martinez said of Hector. “He was an honest guy. You could tell him a secret and he’d help you keep it. He was always there for somebody.”
Marleny Sobrio, 14, stood beside the memorial holding a white shoebox with pictures of Hector plastered across the front and sides. Inside were a few crumpled bills that passers-by had donated to the slain teen’s family fund.
She remembered Hector as a jokester with a quick wit who liked to ride around the neighborhood on his bike, pretending it was a Honda.
“He was really sweet,” Marleny said. “He could always make you laugh and smile.”
Most of the memories his friends and family share involve Hector joking around. Painting a mustache on his sleeping cousin’s face and holding a pillow over his mouth to muffle the laughter. Teasing family members that they are fat and pushing them out of the kitchen after 8 p.m. Showing off a four-pack of abs and mockingly flexing his biceps.
It was the tender side that his mother loved most though.
On Mother’s Day, he swept her into his arms and squeezed her so tight she worried her bones would break.
“He always tried to demonstrate love for me,” Vera Hernandez-Valdez said. “He never wanted me to feel lonely or sad.”
She gazed longingly at a stack of photographs of her son on a nearby table and then reached for them, drawing them firstname.lastname@example.org