Family, friends and his counselor said that Joey Mendoza, who was gunned down Wednesday in Santa Cruz's Lower Ocean neighborhood, wasn't in a gang and had been a hard-working student.
"He was the sweetest little boy in the world," said Irma Reyes as she stood in front of a two-day-old picture of her murdered 13-year-old son.
The blown-up photograph was mounted on a fence on San Lorenzo Boulevard, in front of the sidewalk where Joey Mendoza was shot to death Wednesday evening as he was headed to the bus station to go from his grandmother's Santa Cruz home to his mother's house in Watsonville.
Santa Cruz Police painted . They say they have had many contacts with the youth and tried to get him away from his affiliation with the Sureno prison gang. His family says the police are wrong and that Joey was a nice kid who was getting straight A's in school and playing sports.
"He was a sweet person who said hi to everybody," said his mother, on the spot where her son was murdered almost 24 hours earlier. "He talked to everyone. That doesn't mean he was one of them."
Willie Stokes who was his counselor through his nonprofit, The Black Sheep Redemption Program, said Mendoza was drifting toward the gang lifestyle but we caught him at just the right moment.
Stokes is a counselor who wrote the book "The Testimony of a Black Sheep" about getting out of gangs. He has worked with hundreds of teens in the area from Oakland to Salinas.
"He was only 13," said Stokes. "He hadn't had a chance to get hardened. He wasn't carrying weapons. He wasn't doing burglaries.
"Yeah, he lives in a neighborhood infested with gang members. He's got gang members in his family. He may have had run-ins with the law, maybe little minor things. He wasn't entrenched. This isn't another kid in the gangs."
Stokes thought he was a kid that could be saved.
When Joey turned down a chance to take the police-sponsored PRIDE program, Stokes took him on with help from other counselors. PRIDE is a group that brings kids to important places around the county showing success and failure, from jails to TV studios and horseback rides, to show them that good decisions can take them down a better path.
Stokes worked directly with him for two months, everyday.
"I asked what do you want to do? He said he wanted to play football. He'd never played. Under his breath he asked, 'Do I get a uniform?' He'd never had a uniform.
"I was out there when he got it and put it on for that picture. And you see this little kid with this big cheesy smile. He was so excited. That's who I want people to know. This kid was trying to make a difference. He was starting to turn the corner."
Stokes said Mendoza teared up when he asked him about his father. He didn't know his father. He became a father figure for Mendoza. His mother Irma thanked Stokes, saying that he made the last two months of her son's life so happy.
The counselor liked Mendoza so much he brought his young sons to practice to meet him. They really liked him and called him an "all star."
Mendoza had never played football. He didn't know the positions or even how to put on the uniform. Stokes was by his side helping and teaching. Joey was so excited to be playing his first game this coming Saturday and so excited to be working out and getting muscles, that he showed his new biceps off to his sister and cousins.
Mendoza was big for his age and carried himself with maturity, said Stokes. Maybe that's why the gangs were after him, he added.
"He was the first one in his family to be playing sports," said Stokes. "Yeah, he refused to work with the police. But kids that live in those environments put themselves in jeopardy if they are seen talking to police. That's a hard first step for any kid. But he began working with me and other counselors. Being in a community, if one can't reach the kid, another one can."
His mother noticed the difference and was hopeful. She said Joey was picked on in public school and moved to an independent study program with the County Office of Education. There he went from C's and D's to straight A's she said.
"No one in a gang would do that," she said. "They wouldn't go to school. They wouldn't play football. They wouldn't get straight A's."
Stokes said he wants people to remember that side of Joey.
"They shot him in the back," he said. "It was a confrontation and he was trying to run away or get away and they shot him in the back. It just crushed me. He got robbed of his dreams. He wanted to play football. He had the maturity to want something different. He was a kid who made a couple of bad choices, like all kids. But he was robbed."
A couple of dozen people stood in front of a makeshift memorial to Joey, lighting candles, pushing strollers and talking about him.
His sister, Ruby, 16, said she was at the spot earlier in the day when a car pulled up and someone yelled "Now you laughing, bitch?"
She said she didn't know what it meant. Asked who killed Joey, family members replied: "Haters."