Lidia Ruiz had made a promise to her older son, Junior Villarreal, before he was killed last March. When he turned 18, she would throw him a big pizza party. Not the frozen pizzas she'd buy at the grocery store, but real pizza in a real pizza parlor.
Now it was early June, his birthday fast approaching, and she was determined to celebrate an 18th year he would never see.
She invited family and his friends to the Mountain Mike's in Parlier. It was the town where Junior played Little League as a kid, the town where he was now buried at a cemetery surrounded by fruit orchards. They'd eat pizza, visit his grave and then pray for his soul at the little Catholic church in town.
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Truth be known, Ruiz was afraid to hold the party anywhere near her home in southeast Fresno.
Just a few months earlier, in April, she had invited family and friends to a candlelight vigil at the Walmart on Kings Canyon Road where Junior had been killed. Nearly 100 people were gathered in the parking lot to remember her son, a struggling student who had been stabbed to death on March 25 while fighting with other troubled students from Sunnyside High School.
As the vigil ended, a car filled with young Bulldog gang members cruised by, and one of the occupants started barking, police said. Junior's friends took this as a show of disrespect and surrounded the car, striking it.
From the back seat, a gang member pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and began firing in the air, police said. As the crowd ran, the gang member took aim and fired again. This time, he grazed a few mourners.
"We could see the gun pointing out of the rear window," Maria Ruiz, Junior's aunt, recalled. "I had my daughters packed in the car. They were screaming and crying."
Many of the young Hispanics gathered that day to remember Junior had either dropped out of high school or were on the verge of dropping out, friends and family said. The young gang members in the car were almost certainly high school dropouts, as well, police said. This is, after all, a neighborhood where six out of 10 Hispanics never graduate from high school.
But among the mourners was a seventh-grader at Sequoia Middle School who was so lost and defiant that he, too, was on the brink of dropping out. The seventh- grader was Anthony, Junior's younger brother, a baby-faced 13-year-old caught in a child's husky body who was still struggling to absorb the death of his hero.
"I'm afraid for Anthony," Lidia Ruiz confided. "He's angry at the whole world, but he doesn't know how to react. Sometimes he acts like a little boy. Sometimes he talks about getting revenge."
She was hoping the birthday gathering, and the visit to Junior's grave, would finally allow Anthony a chance to grieve.
As family and friends gathered that Sunday at Mountain Mike's, it was good to be away from southeast Fresno, even for a day. Waiting for their pizzas, they swapped all kinds of stories about Junior.
There was the time he proudly pointed to his report card on the kitchen refrigerator. "Look, Tia, look," he shouted to his aunt. She got close enough to see that he had scratched out an "F" and turned it into a "B."
"I told him, 'Don't be like me, Junior,' " another aunt recalled. " 'I used to get stoned, but you don't want to end up like me. I dropped out. You can get high and still get your work done. Finish school, Mijo.' "
When he died at age 17, Junior had half the classroom credits he needed to graduate, and his cumulative GPA had fallen to 1.54.
Lidia Ruiz was dressed in a T-shirt screen-printed with photos from each year of Junior's life -- babyhood to teenager. His friends from high school, packed into two booths, were wearing their own T-shirts with his face on the front and the words "RIP" or "Chango," his childhood nickname, which means "monkey" in Spanish.
As they dug into their pizzas, 18-year-old Blanca, who just graduated from Sunnyside High, asked a classmate named Shawn why he decided to drop out.
"Why not just finish that one class and get your diploma?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "It doesn't matter."
Now that high school was over, none of Junior's friends had a plan. Another dropout named Juan laughed and said he'd work for anyone who'd hire him -- good boss or bad boss.
They summoned 13-year-old Anthony to their booth, calling him "Ranchero," or farm boy. The attention from Junior's friends lit him up.
Sequoia Middle School had placed him in a special class for troubled kids, but he was refusing to take off his ball cap, refusing to open a book, refusing to write even his name atop sheets of schoolwork he never finished. He was adamant about not meeting with a psychologist. "We can't talk to them, Mom, they'll tear us apart." He said a friend had seen a shrink one day and the next day was plucked from his house.
Over the previous two years, school records show, Anthony had been suspended from school on eight separate occasions -- once for tripping fellow students and cussing in class and twice for threatening to beat up his teacher.
Fresno Unified, citing student privacy, declined to comment for this story. Superintendent Michael Hanson turned down numerous requests for an interview about the dropout and truancy crisis in general.
Even though Anthony qualified as a "habitual truant," missing 46 days of school with no valid excuse over a three-year period, Fresno Unified never referred Anthony and his mother to the School Attendance Review Board, records show. This process would have triggered an initial meeting with school officials to address his truancy and then a follow-up meeting with representatives from the superintendent's office, county probation, mental health and law enforcement to come up with a corrective plan.
The pizzas had vanished, and Ruiz reminded everyone that they needed to hurry to the cemetery if they were going to make it to the church on time. "We'll have the cake there," she told them.
They drove past the vineyards and orchards and ball fields to a cemetery on the outskirts of Parlier. As they walked up to Junior's grave, his aunts told the young men to take off their ball caps. Ruiz had handed them 3-by-5 cards and balloons.
"I want you to write down what you didn't have a chance to tell Junior when he was alive," she said. "Then tie the cards to the balloons."
They sang "Happy Birthday, Chango" and added the part that "he looks like a monkey and smells like one, too." Anthony lingered on the periphery as the balloons slowly made their way skyward over the orchard, and everyone cheered.
Staring at Junior's grave, Ruiz seemed paralyzed. Out of nowhere, Anthony popped up and began spraying Silly String in her face. "It's time for you to get a life," one of his aunts yelled at him.
They placed 18 candles in the ground and set out the cake. Ruiz had forgotten to bring a knife to cut it. No problem. One of Junior's crew reached into his jacket and pulled out an 8-inch blade. They cut Junior a big fat piece and left it by the candles.
They took up four rows at Our Lady of Sorrows Church. Ruiz had donated money to the church so the Mass would be dedicated to Junior. It was the fourth time since his death that she had done so, believing it would get him into heaven sooner.
Junior's friends never made it to the church, and neither did Anthony. They all stayed behind at the cemetery. Later that evening, a few pieces of pizza and untouched cake sat on the gravesite with a few empty 40-ounce bottles of beer.
"That's just the way it is," a friend named Ernesto said. "It shouldn't have happened to him, but that's just the way it is."
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During the final month of classes in May and June, Ruiz said, the principal and guidance counselor at Sequoia Middle School became so frustrated with Anthony's behavior that they sent him home, telling Ruiz there was nothing else they could do for her son.
The arrangement not only went against her better judgment, but it also apparently violated state education laws. There is no official record of his being suspended or expelled or assigned to "independent home study." During his three-week banishment, no one at Sequoia met with Anthony to check on his progress or whether he was keeping up with his coursework, Ruiz said.
Instead, home alone, Anthony was engaged in epic games on his PlayStation. "He doesn't want to talk to anybody," Ruiz said. "Not me or his teachers or a psychologist."
As the summer school session kicked off, Ruiz gathered up Anthony's final month of assignments and headed to Sequoia to turn them in. The dozen or so pages she held in her hand seemed far short of a required workload. His answers to the questions were fragments at best. Not much was decipherable except for his brother's street name scrawled across every page. BOSR, BOSR, BOSR.
She walked into the office of Melanie Forges-Webb, the guidance counselor and learning director. They hugged, and Ruiz handed over her son's homework, only to be informed that the final grades had been turned in the week before.
Yes, Anthony warranted a report card of F's, Forges-Webb said. But the school would give him five D-minuses instead, and he would move up to the eighth grade.
Ruiz wasn't at all sure that the summer vacation would change a thing. She feared that Anthony would return to school with the same bad attitude. She agreed with Forges-Webb that Anthony was a troubled child years before his brother's murder. His first suspension came in the sixth grade for talking back to a teacher and shoving another student.
Forges-Webb recalled the first time she saw Anthony and his mother interact. He showed complete disrespect for Ruiz, she said. And Ruiz, muttering "Mijo, Mijo," seemed powerless to reach him.
Principal Katie Russell joined the meeting. Ruiz told her she was still disappointed in the school for sending Anthony home during the last several weeks of school and never following up with him.
"It was not an ideal situation for him to be at home alone," Russell conceded.
But come August, the principal said, Anthony would be enrolled in regular classes again.
Over the past year, school records show, his English language arts test scores had fallen from "basic" to "far below basic" while his math test scores remained at "below basic." When asked about Anthony's chances for success, both the principal and the guidance counselor agreed that he would likely continue to struggle with a traditional school curriculum.
And yet they rejected the notion that he might benefit from an educational track more geared toward career tech, if one had existed at the middle school level.
"All middle school students can succeed in the three R's," Forges-Webb said. "Even kids like Anthony can turn it around and be college-bound."
It had the sound of a mantra. Ruiz didn't bother to disagree.
In August, Anthony did return to school. The first week, records show, he was suspended for a day for calling the new principal a "bitch." By the second week, he was refusing to go. Ruiz couldn't rouse him from sleep. He stayed home four days, eight days, 12 days. Then he returned and was promptly caught with a bag of marijuana and suspended for five days.
By mid-October, he hadn't cracked open a book or completed an assignment. And no one from Sequoia Middle or the district office had yet referred him to the district's attendance review board.
Ruiz continued to visit the school to pick up Anthony's assignments, but each time the staff at Sequoia gave her only a single page. When she questioned how this could be, knowing that Anthony was enrolled in six classes, the staff just stared at her blankly, she said.
"All day at work, I worry about him," Ruiz said. "I call, but sometimes he doesn't answer. 'What is he doing? Is he safe?'
"I have so much in my head. Right now, I just take it like it is. Nothing I can do. Nothing I can do except hope -- pray -- that he doesn't follow Junior."
Postscript: In recent weeks, after this reporter made repeated inquiries to the school district about Anthony's status, Fresno Unified finally referred Anthony and his mother to SARB. Last week, they had two meetings with SARB personnel, and a corrective plan is being implemented. But Anthony still had not returned to school.