LAWRENCE — Juan Espinal wanted the same thing all his friends did: to get out of Lawrence, friends said.
The 18-year-old had worked steadily — at a fried chicken joint, then in the mall. But recently, he was focused on getting his high school diploma, his stepfather said. He had just gotten his own apartment. He planned to join the Navy or the Army.
Instead, he was shot to death at 1 a.m. Wednesday, on the corner of Forest Street and Crescent Street. Neighbors who rushed from their homes after hearing the shots found him alone and lifeless on the pavement.
“Everybody’s plan is to leave this city behind,” said Minaya Rodriguez, 16, as she stood with a group of friends as close as family at the spot where Espinal fell. “Everybody dies in this city.”
Officials on Wednesday said little about the shooting. Carrie Kimball-Monahan, a spoksewoman for the Essex district attorney’s office, declined to speculate on a possible motive for the crime. Lawrence Police Chief James X Fitzpatrick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Neighbors said they heard five to six shots, but no voices or screeching tires. The shooting occurred right across the street from the home of another slain Lawrence teenager, 16-year-old Lee Manuel Viloria-Paulino, who was allegedly beheaded in November by a classmate.
“It is violent, it’s very scary,” said Viloria-Paulino’s aunt, Christine Michaud. “Me and my child were sleeping right there. . . . Kids just — they don’t care anymore.”
Samuel Paulino, Viloria-Paulino’s uncle, said his brother ran out after the gunfire but saw immediately that Espinal was dead.
Espinal’s stepfather, Alex Espinosa, said police had given the family little information about what occurred. Espinal was a good and quiet kid, he said, but hung out with the wrong people.
Though Espinal’s friends said he attended Lawrence High School, Espinosa said the teen had enrolled in a high school diploma equivalency program. The teenager had not finished at Lawrence High, Espinosa said, but decided to get his life together and was working toward his diploma and the military. He was a big brother to a 9-year-old sister, Espinosa said, and looked out for her. Espinal always teased Espinosa, hugging him and calling him an “old man.”
The teenager wasn’t afraid of anyone, Espinosa said, and didn’t report any problems with anyone.
Espinal’s friends, however, said that the streets of Lawrence are dangerous whether a person has a problem with someone or not.
“I hope today it’s not my day to go,” said Giziah Vega, 17.
Vega has a daughter on the way, he said — what if someday she falls in love with a boy who is gunned down? What if his little brother is killed? Vega met Espinal when they were kids, and helped him learn English. What if he has to bury another of the friends he considers brothers?
“People have a lot of hate,” he said. “I feel like there’s no hope in Lawrence.”
Another of Espinal’s friends said that the police don’t protect young people, and so teenage boys are left to fend for themselves.
“What is the only self-defense against a gun?” he asked. “Another gun. Your body can’t stop a bullet.”
Vega and his cousin Minaya Rodriguez, who also came to the spot where Espinal was killed, want to change their city, so they make music to try to interrupt the violence — a mix of rap and philosophy, Vega said. Rodriguez crossed herself and said their next rap would be about prayers for family.
Espinal was quiet and humble, his friends said, the type of kid who never got rowdy no matter what his buddies were doing. In a big group, he was the point of calm. He loved basketball and practiced incessantly at the YMCA.
Two days before he was killed, Espinal hung out with his friends, talking and driving around with some girls, said his friend Julius Mateo, 19. At 4 a.m., Espinal woke him up to make him ham-and-cheese hot pockets, Mateo said, laughing at the memory.
As they lit tall prayer candles, the teenager’s friends tried to identify the exact spot where he fell. One young man pointed — “Here?” He bent down, staring at the ground. He was quiet for a long time.