FREEPORT — As Luz Tapia lowered to her knees in prayer, a gentle breeze lifted the cluster of red-and-white balloons floating above the loved ones of 13-year-old Juan Borja huddled at Peppermint Park.
Hours earlier, police had arrested and charged a 14-year-old Freeport boy with manslaughter and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, both felonies, in connection with the Wednesday evening shooting that left Borja dead.
The arrest only raised more questions about why the Freeport Intermediate School eighth-grader lost his life, robbing those he knew of his joyful spirit.
“He was always happy and making us happy,” cousin Yuvia Williams said. “If you were sad, he’d start acting like a goofball just to make you smile. I try to think of that, to calm myself down.”
Solemn-faced teenagers joined the family in consolation and grief at Peppermint Park once Thursday’s final bell rang at Freeport Intermediate. Teammates sporting Redskins football shirts added to the growing bundle of balloons inscribed with farewell messages including “You will be missed, my angel.”
Bella Borja didn’t let her tears interrupt a fervent prayer as she clutched family members at the foot of her son’s makeshift shrine, where he lie dying less than 24 hours earlier. The grieving mother kept returning to the same phrase: “Mi amor,” Spanish for, “My love.”
Juan Borja was hanging out Wednesday with several friends at the park in the 1200 block of West Eighth Street when he pulled out a revolver, put a bullet into it and suggested they play Russian roulette, according to a news release from Freeport Police Capt. Ray Garivey.
Borja then handed the revolver to the 14-year-old, who pointed it at him and pulled the trigger. The gun fired, striking Borja in the upper chest, Garivey said. The suspect later hid the gun in a field, where Freeport officers recovered it, the police captain said.
A man living nearby called police about 5:45 p.m. to report possible fireworks or gunfire near the park, calling again a few minutes later to say an unconscious boy was lying face down in the grass, Garivey said.
Emergency medical personnel quickly arrived at the park and attempted to revive Borja en route to CHI St. Luke’s Health-Brazosport in Lake Jackson, Garivey said, but the boy was pronounced dead at the hospital at 6:38 p.m.
Officers initially thought Borja had been shot multiple times, but later learned he had suffered only the single wound, Garivey said.
Borja’s family members found it difficult to reconcile the teenager who suggested a deadly game with the boy who couldn’t wait to play football and soccer at Brazosport High School next year.
“It’s not true. The kids lied about it,” Williams said. “They don’t have guns. Who gave it to him?”
Police still do not know how Borja obtained the gun, Garivey said.
“We are investigating that thoroughly,” he said.
The 14-year-old suspect is being held without bond at the Brazoria County Juvenile Detention Center in Angleton, Garivey said.
If convicted, the boy could face a sentence that stretches across the juvenile and adult justice systems lasting up to 40 years, Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said.
“Under certain circumstances such as this, the state could file a petition for a determinate sentence, which means if you are sentenced in the juvenile system, you receive more time in that system, or it allows you to be supervised and transferred to an adult system,” Yenne said. “Juvenile jurisdiction ends at a certain age, so obviously our office is interested in continuing the jurisdiction as long as possible. We’re going to look at all options and determine the appropriate filing.”
Counselors were on hand Thursday at Freeport Intermediate, where Borja played on the football team and in the jazz band. Fellow trumpet players were forever trying to unseat him as first chair, but their attempts were always futile, Brazosport ISD Chief Academic Officer Clara Sale-Davis said.
“Everybody wanted to beat him out of first chair, but no one could hit the high notes like Juan could hit the high notes,” said Sale-Davis, a former Freeport Intermediate principal, as she hugged Tapia at the family’s home.
Standing room was difficult to come by in the Borja family’s Freeport home as friends arrived en masse with flowers, food and condolences.
Among the bustle, Bella Borja quietly sobbed as she clutched a picture of her only son, who would have turned 14 next month.
“You can’t take her pain away,” Williams said. “Nothing can bring him back.”