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Nevada city struggles to comprehend school shooting

Jose Reyes, 12, was a seventh-grader who had only been on campus two months. Friends say bullying may have driven him to shoot two students and a teacher, then himself.

October 25, 2013|By Melanie Mason
  • Students leave mementos along a fence at Sparks Middle School in Sparks, Nev., where a seventh-grader fatally shot a teacher and himself. Two students who were wounded are recovering.
Students leave mementos along a fence at Sparks Middle School in Sparks,… (Andy Barron, Associated…)

SPARKS, Nev. — He loved to tell jokes but couldn't stop himself from laughing before the punch line. He worked in his family's restaurant and used his earnings to buy ice cream and candy. He played the trumpet and rooted for the San Francisco 49ers.

And on Monday, within three ghastly minutes, he killed a popular teacher and shot two of his peers on the grounds of Sparks Middle School. Then he killed himself.

Now, in a process all too familiar in Aurora, Colo., Newtown, Conn., and other American cities, people in Sparks are looking for clues, reviewing events, searching for an explanation. This time the shooter was Jose Reyes, a 12-year-old seventh-grader known by some for his smile.

Friends and classmates in interviews said that Jose may have felt bullied.

"Everybody wants to know why — that's the big question," said Sparks Deputy Police Chief Tom Miller on Tuesday. "The answer is, we don't know right now. We are proactively trying to determine why."

His family has not spoken publicly, and an attorney for Jose's parents did not respond to written questions from The Times.

"When they want to, his parents are going to speak," said Rosalina Urtiz, the boy's aunt, declining to say more.

Many students said they had never met Jose or even his friends. Sparks Middle School starts in seventh grade, so he and his classmates had spent just two months on the new campus.

"Not to be rude, but he was like a nobody," said Axel Lopez, a fellow seventh-grader.

His relatives' Facebook pages offer glimpses: He had brown eyes framed by thick brows. His black hair was cropped short on the sides and was slightly spiky on top. His teeth seemed just a tad too big for his mouth.

In one photo posted on his mother's Facebook page in March, he's at a school band recital, trumpet in hand and sheet music on the stand in front of him. Wearing a crisp white dress shirt, he looks over his shoulder at the camera, smiling.

You'll be a mother-in-law soon, one person wrote in a comment about the photo, teasing his mother about Jose's good looks.

"Don't scare me," his mother, Liliana Urtiz, replied. She wrote in Spanish, as did most of Jose's relatives.

Jose was quiet, but "he would always be smiling," recalled one of his friends, Margielle Stewart, 13.

He was friends with mostly girls, including Margielle's sister, Rionna. The trio used to hang out in front of Agnes Risley Elementary School, where the ice cream truck would stop.

Jose liked soda and vanilla ice cream, and he'd buy his snacks with money earned from his job at a bakery and later at the restaurant his parents owned. Those earnings would often benefit his friends.

"If you were standing there, he'd ask you if you wanted something from the ice cream truck," Margielle said.

He told jokes that weren't all that funny, but his delivery would crack his friends up.

"He would say a joke and then start laughing in the middle," Rionna said. "So then we'd start laughing."

But there were occasional signs of distress. Sometimes Jose would cry, saying that people were calling him names.

"He would just sit there and look sad. And anytime somebody would ask him, 'What's wrong, Jose?' he would just say, 'It's nothing. Nothing's wrong,'" Rionna said.

Now, Jose's friends are struggling to reconcile how the boy they knew could have been the boy who pulled out a 9-millimeter Ruger semiautomatic handgun as students were arriving at the middle school for classes Monday morning. He shot Michael Landsberry, a math teacher and soccer coach, in the chest. Two 12-year-old boys were wounded — one shot in the abdomen, the other in the shoulder — and are recovering.

One Sparks Middle School parent, who did not want to give her name to a reporter, said her daughter did not believe the boy could be the shooter.

When the mother asked if Jose was the shooter, her daughter said, "No, Mommy, he's a good person." The mother, speaking in Spanish, recalled that when she persisted, the daughter replied again, "No, Mommy, this boy is a good person."

Some students have said bullying may have been a motive. One witness to the shooting, Omar Lopez, an eighth-grader, said he locked eyes with Jose as the boy brandished the gun.

"You guys ruined my life, so I'm going to ruin yours," Jose said, according to Omar.

"He looked like he was going to cry," Omar said. "He said it in an angry and crying voice."

Rionna said Jose had problems with bullies last year, but she thought this school year would be different. It wasn't, she said, and to her, that explained his actions.

"I just think he got bullied," Rionna said, matter-of-factly.

"And he got sick of it and he just snapped," Margielle added.

melanie.mason@latimes.com

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