BROWNSVILLE -- Photos of Jaime Gonzalez Jr. may well tell the story.
One appears to be a darkly moody Jaime with a crucifix behind him, hands twisted in a manner that appears to be a possible gang signal.
Another shows a sweetly smiling Jaime dressed in his band uniform, flanked by Cummings Middle School administrators.
Such is the duality of the 15-year-old boy who brought a gun to school on Jan. 4. The weapon later was discovered to be a pellet gun. By then, though, Jaime was dead, shot by Brownsville Police,who were called to the scene by a terrified school administrator.
The circumstances surrounding Jaime’s death have made for a media event with worldwide reach. It is a story that has divided the Brownsville community and fueled a flurry of rumors about Jaime, his life and the circumstances of his violent death.
Some believe police acted appropriately and in the interests of other students, firing on a menacing target with a weapon that, in the heat of the moment, was indistinguishable from a real gun.
Others, especially Jaime’s family and friends, believe the police used excessive force, and the police department has confirmed they have received death threats targeting officers.
Virginia Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, cites a sociological aspect to the harsh judgments on both sides of a divided community. Finger-pointing may be a way to cope, she said, and in situations like this one, the involved parties may not want to take responsibility for the tragedy.
"When people don’t understand things, then they lash out against everyone," she said. "They lash out against easy targets. They definitely don’t want to assume any responsibility. ... How do we explain the unexplainable? We invent other things."
Wood and other local experts agree that adolescence is a time when teens start to keep secrets, holding back some of what they may be doing from the watchful, critical eyes of parents.
The grieving Gonzalez family and Jaime’s close friends are adamant that he was a good friend and a kind person. They say he was a football player, a basketball player, a drum major. He went to church in Matamoros on Sundays with his grandfather. They say the Jaime they know was a good boy and a good student.
So, how to reconcile the good boy with the darker image created by social media reports widely circulated now – posts that show Jaime talking about organized crime and bragging about being wanted by the police in Brownsville and Matamoros?
The photos, the social media posts, and the fact that he randomly assaulted another boy at school and then produced a weapon to threaten police, all beg the question: Did anyone really know who Jaime Gonzalez Jr. was?
It is clear that he was a boy in distress, and a tragedy of this magnitude longs for answers as a potential salve to the wounds his death has created on both sides of the tragedy.
A SECRET LIFE?
McAllen-based attorney Dale Kasofsky this week confirmed that the family has retained him and said legal action has not been ruled out. Also this week, Jaime’s father, Jaime Gonzalez Sr., said the family no longer will speak to the media, as per the advice of their lawyer.
But, in the days immediately following the boy’s death, the family spoke out publicly, saying they want justice for Jaime and answers about his death. They did not elaborate on what answers they seek, other than saying justice means finding out why their son was shot in such a manner.
His distraught stepmother, Noralva Gonzalez, has told the media Jaime was "assassinated," as did his godmother, Norma Navarro. His father, in an interview with The Brownsville Herald, questioned why his son was shot three times, and why in the back of the head (though the preliminary autopsy report says he was shot twice to the torso and had a laceration to the head consistent with falling).
Jaime was buried in his band uniform. In the photo of Jaime wearing that uniform – provided to The Herald by his family – he is standing with Cummings Middle School Assistant Principal Elizabeth Brito-Hatcher, Assistant Principal Felix Garcia and Principal Edward Ude. It is chilling that, not long after that photo was taken, Brito-Hatcher would be the frantic 911 caller telling authorities a student had a gun on campus.
Even for those who knew the good son and friend, the signs of a troubled youth already were emerging.
In a photo widely circulated on the Internet and across social media, Jaime can be seen with his arm around a longtime friend. The girl is holding a black weapon that appears to be the pellet gun Jaime brought to school the morning he died.
The girl, whose name is being withheld because she is a minor, confirmed to The Herald at Jaime’s public memorial service on Jan. 7 that she is the girl in the photo. It was taken at a social event in late December with other friends, she said, and the gun is Jaime’s pellet gun.
She said she does not know who gave him the pellet gun, only that he told her it was a Christmas present to him.
Asked why the weapon had been brought to the social event, she declined to elaborate.
The girl said she is aware that photos of the event have been widely circulated on the Internet. Shortly after Jaime’s funeral on Jan. 7, the girl told The Herald that police already had questioned her about the photo.
In a previous interview with The Herald, the night Jaime died, the girl said she found out Jaime had been shot and killed through Facebook postings.
"I didn’t know what to do," she said. "He was my best friend. He was like my brother."
She paused, at a loss, eventually explaining that what she liked most about Jaime was that they had fun and that he was there when you needed him.
He liked to "use a bike, say jokes and make people happy," she said.
The girl steadfastly maintains that her good friend was not in gangs and that he did not do drugs.
Authorities have not yet released the toxicology report from the autopsy, leaving unanswered lingering questions about drug use and whether the middle-schooler was under the influence of a substance when he turned violent at school.
The girl last saw her friend before New Year’s Day.
The Internet photos of the social event are dated Dec. 29, 2011. Two days later, a posting alleged to be from Jaime’s Facebook profile shows the same photo, of Jaime and the girl holding the weapon, as his profile picture.
The screenshot shows an alleged posting by Jaime in Spanglish made on New Year’s Day:
"Pedo me esta buskando (sic) la policia en Matamoros y n Brownsville (sic)," the post reads. "JAJAJAJA They will never kachme (sic)." (Translation: Sucks that the police in Matamoros and Brownsville are looking for me … Hahahaha They will never catch me.)
Brownsville police said they were not searching for the boy in the days prior to his death.
Matamoros authorities said they were unaware of the claims and did not respond to requests for further comment.
Just three days after that alleged post, Jaime brought the pellet gun to school and lost his life. It was the third day that school had been back in session after the Christmas holidays.
Jaime’s Facebook profile is believed to have been removed in the days following his death.
PARENTAL GRIEF, BEWILDERMENT
At a Mass the day after Jaime’s death, his stepmother, who had raised Jaime almost from birth, handed the presiding priest a note. The priest said it was written by the boy, who had given it to her before he left for school the day he died.
She wanted it to be read aloud.
In a small way, the note hints at some strife between mother and son over the fact that Jaime had done something to his eyebrows, possibly notching or shaving them; the note refers to getting rid of them. In the note, Jaime promises to behave better, to do his work and not lie.
Some friends of the family said Irma Cuellar, Jaime’s biological mother, was not a part of his life, but she was at her son’s funeral on Jan 7. A family member said she returned to Matamoros right after the ceremony.
Gonzalez Sr., standing in the family’s driveway the night following Jaime’s death, struggled to make sense of the events of the past few hours.
"He was great kid," the father said, still maintaining the seemingly stoic demeanor he has displayed throughout the tragedy. "He was a normal teenager. Like every teenager, he would get in trouble and pay up for his wrongs. If he would do something wrong, he would make up for it."
"He’s been OK," Gonzalez Sr. said. "Last week, the principals told us he was doing excellent, no problems in school. I don’t know. ... There’s so many stories."
That same night, he said he still knew only what he had heard from the media. He told The Herald he had seen detectives only once up to that point, when he went to see his son’s body at the hospital.
He only found out there was bad trouble through Jaime Jr.’s godmother, who called to tell him the student who had been shot earlier in the day may have been Jaime, he said.
From the beginning, the family has maintained that police used excessive force in handling the situation.
"A 15-year-old will go down quick," Gonzalez Sr. said. "Why go all the way to excess force? ... I know they’re trained that, when you see a gun, defend yourself. But I mean, defending yourself for a BB gun? The thing is, here they don’t have Tasers. If they would have tased him, this wouldn’t have happened. I’ve never seen an officer here with a Taser gun."
Gonzalez Sr. said he wasn’t sure what happened, and he had no answers as to why the incident occurred.
"I don’t even know where he got that gun, that BB gun or pellet gun or whatever it was," Gonzalez Sr. told The Herald.
Jaime grew up on East Harrison Street. It is a neighborhood that, much like the rest of Brownsville, lives with the challenges of low incomes. The Gonzalez family’s home is humble, with a worn linoleum floor that reveals the wooden floorboards beneath. It is not unlike many of the other homes in the area.
The neighborhood was tightly knit in the wake of the tragedy, as hundreds of people came to mourn. The same neighbors and friends appeared time and again during the three days of Masses and vigils held for Jaime, and returned for his burial services on Saturday. The family’s church solicited donations for the funeral, a goal a generous community helped reach, said Father Jorge Gomez, a priest at Holy Family Church, where the service was held.
Students who live in the neighborhood and attend Cummings Middle School recall Jaime as an average boy.
As a group of students filed out of Cummings their first day back after the shooting, some agreed to talk about Jaime, though many refused to give their names.
He seemed happy, the group agreed, and he got along with his girlfriend.
Not so, according to Jaime’s childhood friend, the girl pictured in the Dec. 29 photo.
"They fought a lot," she said.
One boy, whose name has been withheld because he is a minor, said he was in band with Jaime. He described him as very friendly and smart, and also said Jaime had a girlfriend in the school band.
Another Cummings eighth-grader said Jaime was in a science enrichment class, a course that offers extra help from a teacher in a given subject.
"He always tried to make a good life at school," the boy said.
The average eighth-grader is 12 or 13 years old; Jaime was 15. The Herald has filed an Open Records request with the Brownsville school district for Jaime’s school records, including any disciplinary action. The request is pending.
The classmate corroborated that all was not going well between Jaime and his girlfriend, and that she sometimes got into fights at school.
Navarro, Jaime’s godmother, confirmed the problems with the girlfriend. Noralva, Jaime’s stepmother, disliked the girlfriend so much it created tension at home between mother and son, Navarro said.
She added that Noralva was strict with Jaime, disciplining him when needed and sometimes not letting him leave the house.
Gonzalez Sr. said that, the day before Jaime died, another girl had said hello to Jaime, and Jaime’s girlfriend got aggressive with the other girl while at school.
"They had an incident. His so-called girlfriend didn’t like it," Gonzalez Sr. said. "They called the police, they took a report and sent her to juvenile (detention)."
The next day, according to police, Jaime allegedly punched another student at Cummings, a seemingly random act.
Another Cummings eighth-grader who was close to Jaime said they used to hang out at the recreation center across from Linear Park, just a few blocks from the middle school. He said he knows the identity of the boy Jaime punched, and that the two boys "did not talk" and didn’t really know each other.
"I don’t know what that (punch) was about," the boy said.
TOUGH GUYS, AND THE ‘INVINCIBLE FABLE’
So, how to reconcile the normal teenager, the average kid, the drum major and athlete, with the angry, rebellious and ultimately violent young man who brought a gun to school, assaulted another student, and lost his life in a fatal burst of police gunfire?
Could it have been drugs? Or, could it have been a gang initiation or affiliation?
All the voices and photos in Jaime Gonzalez Jr.’s life paint a picture of a potentially troubled boy with different personas, which many experts say is just a part of adolescence.
It is not clear whether Jaime was ever involved in a gang. But Susan Ritter, a professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College who specializes in gangs and gang activity, stresses that gang membership cannot be determined from a few photos posted on the Internet.
Photographs of Jaime circulating on the Internet that appear to send a gang message could be simple posturing, she said, with Jaime hoping to look and act tough.
"If that’s all you have, you can’t make the assumption he’s in the gang," she said of photos in which Jaime’s hands appear to be making gestures of some sort.
In the Rio Grande Valley, young people grow up around street gangs but they usually grow out of them, Ritter said. They fuel their "partying" with petty shoplifting and might do some tagging, but they are significantly different from organized crime gangs.
Ritter, a former correctional supervisor at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said that in a photo of Jaime with his shirt off, gesturing, he appears to be using the pose to project a certain hard-edged persona and that she cannot identify it as a gang sign.
"It’s a tough-guy stance," she said. "This other one, if that’s a gang sign, it’s the most simple gang sign I’ve ever seen. ... It looks like he’s trying to look big and bad."
Such photos reveal nothing conclusive, Ritter said, though they do not jibe with the "normal teen" and "good student" Jaime’s family knew.
"It sort of takes away from the idea that this is just a mild-mannered, sweet kid," Ritter said. "Anybody can stand like that. Is it smart? No."
On the record, Jaime’s family and friends have not discussed what caused him to bring the weapon to school, and they continue to maintain that they have no idea why he did it.
Wood, the psychology professor at UTB-TSC who teaches a range of subjects from child development to adult psychology, said that when it comes to adolescents, science exists that can, in part, explain the thought process that could have led to Jaime’s death.
In fact, for teens, that process is affected by their development, Wood said. A concept called the "invincible fable" alters the way youths think while tremendous changes are taking place in their brains from ages 14 through 16.
"They are trying to think as fast as the neurons are growing, and they can’t keep up with it. So, it influences the logical conclusions that adolescents draw," Wood said.
"Adolescents think that they are invincible: ‘It happens to other people. It doesn’t happen to me.’ ... They don’t draw the end result of what can happen. It just doesn’t quite compute in their mind."
That thought process explains the risks that young people often take, even though they may know the rules, she said. In a teen’s brain, it is possible they have not thought their actions through to their consequences. The fact that teens are at the peak of their physical abilities further plays into the "invincible fable," Wood said.
INFLUENCES IN THE CONFUSING YEARS
On the 911 tape that recorded some of the events of the Cummings tragedy, a male voice can be heard saying, "He’s saying that he’s willing to die." Shortly after that, police shot and killed the 15-year-old who was brandishing a gun.
Taken to the extreme, it is unlikely that teenagers understand what it means to say that they’re willing to die, Wood said.
"He really doesn’t understand death. He doesn’t understand life. He doesn’t understand what a statement like that may mean."
Too, that statement likely fueled the fear administrators and police were experiencing during the relatively brief standoff, she said.
"(Teens) don’t always have the ability to think through what the end product is," she said. "They get caught up with the immediacy of what is happening now, rather than the logic of thinking things through."
Peers also start to become a more significant influence, as teens veer from their parents as a primary influence.
"That period of time, usually between 13 and 17, is such a volatile time for the adolescent to be influenced by individuals outside of the family," Wood said. "The family doesn’t always see what other influences are going on."
Vejoya Viren, another UTB-TSC psychology professor and an expert in child development, said the teen years can be tumultuous. Youths must face peer pressure, yet still try to figure out who they want to be, even as they try to maintain their individuality.
"The teenage years are the most confusing," she said. "There are personas; all of us wear different ones. Children start experimenting with that early on. Their teenage years is the time when it’s crucial."
Considering all the conflicting information about Jaime Gonzalez Jr., what he was thinking when he took the weapon to school may never be known.
"This is the time when a child starts having a lot of secrets from the parents," Viren said.
Experts agree that continued vigilance by parents and teachers is critical.
Wood cited the April 1999 shootings at a Columbine, Colo., high school, where 13 people were killed by two students.
"We, as a nation and in particular within that community, lost total control over what was really happening with these teenagers," she said.
"Based on that, it’s a fear that I think spread throughout our whole country – that maybe we’re not paying enough attention to what’s really going on in the mind of a teenager."
Years later, in 2007, the shootings at Virginia Tech would again shake the nation with their death toll of more than 30.
Viren called the Cummings Middle School shooting another wake-up call for every parent, and warned that adults should look within their own organizations and families to see what changes need to be made to prevent such tragedies.
"We created this mess," she said.