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New York Times looks at case of Midland teen killed in police shooting, and his mother’s search for answers

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It’s been a month since 14-year-old Juan Herrera was shot and killed as police responded to a burglary call, but police still have not released many basic details about the shooting.

By Travis Bubenik

The deadly shooting in early March happened after the boy, Juan Herrera, had apparently run away from home.

That’s according to a recent story by the New York Times. The case caught the paper’s attention in part because so many basic details about the shooting remain unanswered.

The newspaper reports that law enforcement officials have yet to publicly say whether it was a responding Midland County sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed the teenager, or someone else at the scene.

All this has led Juan Herrera’s mother, Dora Vela, to search for answers on her own.

For more on the story, Marfa Public Radio recently caught up with San Antonio-based Times reporter Edgar Sandoval, who spent a week in Midland talking with officials, residents and the boy’s family about the case.


Interview Highlights

What officials have said about the shooting

Sandoval reports that Midland police have released few details about how the shooting unfolded.

“All we know was that Juan Herrera found himself at a pretty fancy apartment complex in the northwest part of Midland,” Sandoval said. “Somehow Juan ended up there with four other friends, and the police only said that they dispatched a sheriff’s deputy. Shots were fired, [but] we don’t know how many.”

As Sandoval reports, police have not said explicitly who fired the shot - or shots - that killed Herrera.

What the boy’s mother and family members have pieced together themselves

“The family and the mother of this poor teenager kind of took it upon themselves to become their own investigators,” Sandoval said.

The family handed out fliers with Herrera’s picture and scoured social media, where they eventually found evidence of the boy’s whereabouts before the shooting took place.

“They could see that he was living with another group of teenagers in another part of town, and that he was kind of being taunted and bullied,” Sandoval said. “That kind of broke Dora Vela’s heart when she saw that.”

The family learned other details about the day of the shooting, as Sandoval reports:

[QUOTE FUNCTION THIS WHOLE GRAPH] On the early hours of March 3, they learned, Juan and four other friends had gone to the Sandstone Ridge Apartments, an upscale complex with a pool and a tanning deck, to do “car hopping,” in which young people commit thefts as opportunities arise and then speed away in a car, Ms. Vela said. That’s where the shooting took place, the police statement said.

Why it took the boy’s mother five days to locate his remains, across the state in Dallas

Sandoval reports that Herrera did not have any identification on him when he was shot and killed, which may have led to the inability to immediately identify his body.

“For some unknown reason, his body was taken to Dallas, where they were able to identify him using dental records,” Sandoval said. “That was a five-day window where the mother was in excruciating pain trying to find out what happened to her son.”

On whether it’s normal for police to release so little information about a shooting death involving an officer

Pointing to other high-profile cases of police killings seen across the U.S., Sandoval noted that it’s common for police to hold some kind of press conference after a shooting involving an officer.

“Usually, there’s some sort of camera, police footage, or they can at least give a description of what went down,” he said. “The time the police arrived, how many officers were involved, how many shots were fired, who was hit, all those basic details.”

How the family remembers Juan Herrera

Sandoval said he arrived in Midland the day that Dora Vela received her son’s remains.

“It was very painful for them,” he said. “They were holding funeral services and a rosary service the day that I arrived, so I asked her if I could attend some of the services, just to sit back and learn about who Juan was.” 

Sandoval said family members remembered Juan as a somewhat shy teenager who loved to draw and play music, and who, like most teenagers, sometimes fought with his mom.

After Herrera ran away, Sandoval said, his mom wanted to be there for her son.

“But she also couldn’t just, like she told me during my interview, she said, ‘I couldn’t just tie him to the chair,’” Sandoval said. “She had hoped he would return, just not in a casket.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.