This middle-schooler ‘knew how to be a best friend to everybody.’ Then gunfire erupted while she was out to buy milk
Editor’s note: This story is part of a series profiling young Americans killed this year by guns, one of the leading causes of child death in the United States. Learn more about the project here.
It’s been almost nine months since Brexi Torres-Ortiz and her mother sang together — hitting every note, feeling every emotion with every word of a gospel tune that happened to be the 11-year-old’s favorite song.
Take me to the king. I don’t have much to contribute.
My heart is torn into pieces; This is my offer.
Take me to the king.
“You’ll cry just listening to him sing,” said Brexi’s mother, Brenlee “Bre” Ortiz. “It’s like she was so young, how did she know what that song said?”
At the time, even Ortiz didn’t realize the depth of those words, she said.
Sometimes she wishes she hadn’t.
The power of the anthem, however, has become clear, Ortiz said, since Brexi — short for Brexialee — was fatally shot while grabbing a gallon of milk at a convenience store in Syracuse, New York – one of more than 1,300 young people killed by guns that year. year in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive, with firearms overtaking motor vehicles in 2020 as the nation’s leading cause of death among children and adolescents.
January 16 was supposed to be a cozy evening at home for Brexi, with a movie on the projector and blankets covering the floor after her favorite dinner of macaroni and cheese made from scratch by her grandmother. Brexi’s two sisters and their mother, after returning from work, were said to have been with them.
Instead, Brexi spent her final hours in a hospital bed on life support while Ortiz tried to understand how her second daughter – while out buying milk for the meal – had gotten caught in what police described as a storm of bullets. less than 40 feet from her home.
Three suspects — then ages 16, 18 and 20 — were arrested within 10 days of the shooting, a senior deputy prosecutor in Onondaga County told CNN, and charged by a grand jury with second-degree murder and other charges, according to a court filing. Two have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and the third is expected to go to trial early next year, according to prosecutor Anthony Mangovski and court documents.
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As the justice system’s response to Brexi’s murder unfolds, Ortiz attends every hearing.
But she still fights.
And every desperate night.
“As soon as I open my eyes, she’s the one on my mind,” Ortiz said. “And as soon as I can finally close my eyes, I don’t fall asleep but my body shuts down and she’s in my mind and I can see her in my dreams.
“But these are not dreams; they are nightmares.
She was everyone’s “best friend”
The warmth of her smile, the way she made you feel after a hug and her ability to empathize with peers and adults are on the never-ending list of what makes Brexi special, Ortiz said.
“You never know someone, even if it’s your own child, until things like this happen,” she said. “I didn’t want to find out like that.”
At Brexi’s funeral, Ortiz received condolences from many children, she said. “She was my best friend,” her mother heard more times than she could count.
Brexi “knew how to be everyone’s best friend and give everyone what they needed,” Ortiz said. “She will be with you in a way that she wouldn’t be with me because we don’t have the same needs.”
The middle schooler was also student council president of her sixth-grade class, a “shining star” on the after-school dance team and “always encouraged others to do the right thing,” educators at her school said.
Brexi’s death stole all that — while bringing home the reality of her generation’s gun violence, said her school psychologist, who discovered a broader horror as she went from classroom to classroom helping children to face murder.
“It’s that every kid already knew what to do,” Kayla Gallagher said. “They had T-shirts, lanyards, hats, all kinds of clothing with his name and image on it. They created a shrine near his locker. They went to the vigils.
Learn more about Brexialee Torres-Ortiz
“The children are so accustomed to this violence that they helped the adults in the building grieve,” Gallagher said.
Now, the Brexi school community honors her life every month on “Brexi Day,” with activities like putting on a talent show, decorating the campus with flowers, or enjoying ice cream.
“We choose to remember her not for the grief of her passing but for the joy, determination and sense of belonging she brought to our school,” Syracuse teacher Leeza Roper told CNN Blodgett Middle School STEM.
“Her legacy lives on in the hearts of those she touched. »
Read more profiles of children who died from gunshots
At the Boys and Girls Club of Central Village, where Brexi spent much of his free time, his name was added to a sign outside the building and his photo hung in the entryway to commemorate the “wonderful feeling” he ‘she left on the organization, said Stacey Nichols, a spokeswoman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Syracuse.
“I want all the kids who go there to not be sad when they see his picture,” Ortiz said. “I want them to be motivated to do more and be better.”
And the Syracuse Police Department worked with the Syracuse Housing Authority to purchase a bench placed in front of the building in Brexi’s memory so her friends and family would have a place to reflect and remember her, said Sgt. Syracuse Police Department. Brad Giarrusso said.
“Brexi comes from a forgotten community,” Gallagher said, “but she will not be forgotten by her community.”
On October 7, Brexi’s loved ones celebrated what would have been her 12th birthday. But there was no cake or Brexi to blow out the candles after the birthday song.
Instead, relatives and friends gathered around his grave in the evening and released white balloons in his honor.
“I have to go celebrate my baby’s birthday at the cemetery,” Ortiz said. “There is no justice. Justice will bring back my daughter.
And while Ortiz would give anything for an extra hug from Brexi or an extra verse sung together, she takes an ounce of comfort, she said, knowing that her daughter “finally made it to the king.”