His laughter was contagious, but will never be heard again.
Blanca Yadira Herrera’s only remaining connection to her son is through memories, cellphone videos from happier times and through visits to an orchard in rural Mission where a white cross stands vigil over where investigators found 22-year-old Fernando Garza Jr.’s body this summer.
He had been kidnapped and brought to the orchard, where investigators say he was shot in the face.
His death, however, began as a missing persons investigation initiated on July 25. Two days later, investigators discovered his body and arrested two suspects. On July 31, a third man was arrested. All of them are charged with capital murder.
On a recent windy afternoon, Herrera and Fernando’s former girlfriend, Dellanira Gutierrez, went out to that cross by an orchard south of 13 Mile Line on Iowa Road to leave some Christmas decorations.
Fernando loved Christmas, Dellanira said recently.
But this Christmas, he was gone.
“He’s not here and on Christmas Eve we all got together and it was quite difficult for everybody just because he was always the light of basically the entire household,” Dellanira said. “So on Christmas Eve it was very bittersweet.”
There were times the family felt joyous, Dellanira said, but those moments were fleeting.
“It’s heartbreaking because the reality sinks in because the reason why there is this particular unity is because he’s no longer here,” Dellanira said.
Both Blanca and Dellarina described Fernando as a young man who loved his hair and just loved life and making people happy. They said he was quick to make friends and lend a helping hand to someone in need.
Before his life ended, he had taken in a job in an oilfield and was just weeks away from the gig before he was murdered and left to rot in the summer heat in an oilfield in rural Mission — a place Blanca and Dellarina visit often.
“I mean, one of the reasons why we do go out there is we feel that there is a part of him,” Dellanira said.
For Blanca, who began looking for her son on July 25, knowing the place where Fernando took his last breath is important.
“To know that this is the last place he saw, it’s huge,” Dellanira said. “The amount of, you know, space, that’s just out there … I often see (Blanca) just try and look and she’ll go through every single aisle. She’ll go to the very end and come back and walk around.”
Blanca is still searching for where Fernando spent his last moment on earth.
“She wants to find him and, mind you, any of us didn’t really get to say goodbye and them as parents, they didn’t get to see him one last time,” Dellanira said.
The family has been attending the court hearings for the two men and one women accused of orchestrating Fernando’s death.
The suspects include 20-year-old Alfredo Huerta, 26-year-old Julio Cesar Deleon and 28-year-old Edna Rivera. All three have entered not guilty pleas to the capital murder charges and to the disdain of Fernando’s family, the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office is not seeking the death penalty.
“In a way they are paying for what they’ve done. There still won’t be justice because after they are sentenced to whatever they are sentenced to, our loved ones are never coming back,” Dellanira said. “They’re never going to show up again and the ones who are left behind have to live with that.”
Blanca also has another message: be careful who you surround yourself with and who you let in your home.
Fernando and Huerta were friends from high school and against her will, Fernando invited Huerta to live with them in their home because he was down on his luck.
The young man met Deleon and Rivera through Huerta and had only known them for a few weeks, Blanca said.
In fact, during the search for Fernando, Huerta had come back to the house and played a video game with one of Fernando’s younger siblings and even helped in the search for the man, Blanca said.
The probable cause affidavit for Huerta’s arrest mentions how the man encountered Fernando Garza Sr., the victim’s father, and claimed to have been kidnapped along with his son.
“In other words, (Blanca) just wants to say that, yeah, be careful who you surround yourself with, who your kids are friends with, who you welcome into your life and your home,” Dellanira said.
Now, Blanca, Fernando’s family and Dellanira have become part of a tragic circle of the many people whose loved one has died at the hands of another.
“There’s a new crime every day. There’s a new murder and you’re so stuck on that person when you go through something like this and you feel that pain and that new family that’s being left behind because of all these murders,” Dellanira said. “You want to help, but even though you are going through the situation, you don’t know what to say.”
The family has created a Facebook page called Justice for Fernando Garza Jr.
“If anybody needs to talk or going through something similar, they’re more than welcome to share their stories,” Dellanira said. “We just want to welcome anyone to let them know it’s OK to cry, to feel, to miss them all the time. They were here one second and then they were not.”