LAWRENCE — Lee Manuel Viloria-Paulino was always singing — during lunch, even during class. If his friends told him to pipe down, he would just sing louder, until they were all laughing together.
A sophomore at Lawrence High School, he wrote poetry, and encouraged his classmates to follow their dreams. He talked about how love beats material things every time.
“He had a really big heart,” said Stephanie Soriano, 15, a high school friend.
“The most pure soul you could ever come across,” added her friend, Kialy Pichardo, 16.
Viloria-Paulino went missing Nov. 18. On Friday, authorities identified the headless body of a teenage boy, found the day before along the banks of the Merrimack River, as Viloria-Paulino, dashing the boy’s family’s prayers that it somehow wasn’t their Lee.
“The family is devastated, they’re shattered,” family spokesperson Linette Perez said from outside the family’s home Friday afternoon. “They still had hope that it wasn’t Lee.”
Viloria-Paulino, 16, was last seen in the area where his body was found, Perez said. He was with another boy who his family did not know well, she said. The boy had only come to the family’s home once.
Officials have said the teenager’s death appears to involve foul play. No arrests have been made. Investigators recovered the boy’s head at the scene.
“This is a tragic loss for his family and friends,” Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said in a statement. “We are working tirelessly to determine the person or persons responsible for Mr. Viloria-Paulino’s death.”
Earlier in the day, officials sought to reassure residents anxious over the gruesome death. Blodgett described the violence as “an isolated incident,” and Mayor Daniel Rivera said the homicide was not “a random attack.”
“Our community, our neighborhoods, and our kids are not at threat from what happened to this victim,” Rivera said. “I share everyone’s frustration and anger.’’
Officials declined to say how they knew the killing was not random. Rivera said that revealing details could compromise the investigation.
“What I know is that the Lawrence detectives, the district attorney’s office, and the State Police have promising information that will help them get to the bottom of this gruesome and despicable murder,” he said.
Perez, the family spokesperson, said that Viloria-Paulino was a good kid who had never been in trouble. He has an older sister and a younger brother who turned 7 on Thursday, the day Viloria-Paulino’s body was found.
Investigators have not shared theories about a motive, and the teenager’s family cannot fathom why he would be targeted, Perez said.
“They just don’t know,” she said.
At Lawrence High School, students remembered Viloria-Paulino as a popular and upbeat personality who was quick to encourage others. He was never in trouble and steered clear of gangs, they said.
“He was like a mentor to some people,” said one of his classmates, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
Elisaul Roman, 15, a classmate and friend, cried when he heard Viloria-Paulino had been killed.
“I remember, I wanted to play [basket]ball, and he was like, ‘Keep going,’ ” he recalled.
Pichardo recalled the teenager’s sunny disposition, charisma, and his way with words. Soriano said she could have listened to him talk forever. He once told her that life puts up obstacles for everybody, and they had to either go through them or around them.
“It gets you thinking,” Soriano said.
On the day he disappeared, Viloria-Paulino was talking about what a great day it was, recalled Elvis Acosta, 15. He was the kind of person who hugged you hello and asked how your day was going, Acosta said. He didn’t seem to have problems with anyone.
A candlelight vigil was held Friday evening outside the high school. Perez, the family spokesperson, said she was planning another vigil next week, and urged anyone with information about the crime to contact investigators.
“This could have been any child,” she said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet ruled on whether the death is a homicide.