For those who loved Andre Hernandez Jr., fondly called AJ, it was his inviting smile and fiercely protective nature that resonate in the weeks following his fatal shooting.
His mother is now going through each tiny moment she had with him.
“He was always so affectionate and loving,” Lynda Espinoza said. “He would always put his arm around me and tell me he loves me.”
The 13-year-old was fatally shot by a San Antonio police officer in the Hidden Cove Indian Creek neighborhood, which is majority Hispanic, on the west side of the city earlier this month when authorities said he slammed a stolen car into a police vehicle, causing the officer to shoot into the car to stop him.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for the boy’s family, who watched partial footage from three police videos of the incident called the police account “false” and “incorrect” and said that Andre bumped the car while traveling at a low speed. He has called the shooting an unjustified use of force because the officers were not in imminent threat of death.
As police proceed with an internal investigation into Andre’s death, those who knew the boy say he guarded his loved ones tightly and was a typical teen, figuring himself out, before his life came to an abrupt end.
Andre was the sixth of 10 children but Espinoza, who raised them alone, said he would often take on the role of protector by walking his sisters to school and looking over them.
“Even at 13, he would talk about having his own family and about how he would be a good dad,” she said.
That protective instinct extended to children in the neighborhood and at school, Espinoza said. Many parents told her that Andre stood up to bullies for their children, she said.
Members of the close-knit family leaned on one another but this year has brought unimaginable obstacles, she said.
In early April, Andre was arrested in a smuggling case in a nearby county after police chased him and another juvenile in their vehicle, according to local CBS affiliate KENS 5, which said it had obtained an affidavit of the arrest. Authorities said seven undocumented migrants were found lying down in the car, the outlet reported. NBC News has not verified the details of the news station’s account.
Espinoza believed her son was lured by someone on Instagram into what he may not have known was a crime.
“Somebody probably told him, ‘Hey, you’re going to pick up these people right here and you’re just going to drive back.’ But he’s a kid.”
“I'm not painting him to be an angel, he made mistakes but that didn’t mean his life should have ended for it.”
She said Andre spent a few days in a juvenile detention center before returning home.
The following month, the family was dealt another blow.
On May 10, Espinoza’s 16-year-old daughter, Naveah Martinez, Andre’s immediate elder sibling, was found shot to death in a stolen car right outside the family’s home. Her funeral was just two weeks before Andre was shot.
His sister’s death broke him and he sank into a deep grief, several family members and friends said.
Andre went to live with friends after his sister’s funeral, Espinoza said. She last saw him alive two weeks before he was killed and had reported him to authorities as a runaway.
Sonia Perez, 39, a close family friend who lives down the street from the family and had known Andre since he was a child, said he was always a happy kid.
“AJ was a good boy and a good brother and he had this big, huge smile,” she said.
But when Andre’s father, who is incarcerated, walked out two years ago, the boy became angry with this dad and was hurt, Perez said. That hurt lasted for a while, she said.
Andre’s mother also confirmed “a little breakdown” in the beginning after his father left but said he had become better with the help of a mentor at school.
Even though Espinoza did her best to provide for her children, working as a certified nursing assistant, it was hard at times because she was by herself, Perez said.
She believes Andre may have got caught up with the wrong crowd partly because he was enticed by money.
“He was like, ‘I’m going to go work to help my mom,’” Perez said, adding that he would offer his mother money for bills. “His mom would tell him, ‘Don’t worry,’ like, ‘I got it,’ but he’d tell her ‘When I get bigger I’m going to take care of you, I’m going to buy you a house.’”
Many people in the Indian Creek neighborhood, where Andre lived and died, struggle with poverty, Perez, said. Children can have it tough without money or resources at times, she added.
Nearly 30% of residents in the neighborhood live in poverty, according to 2020 census data.
Andre’s family’s struggles have continued after his death.
Espinoza said police did not reach out to her for five days to tell her an officer had shot her son, leaving her to frantically piece together the boy’s death using news articles.
And on the day she received word from police, she said, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services removed her four younger children, a 9-year-old, a 6-year-old, and 8- year-old twins. Espinoza said they cited “negligent parenting” as one of the reasons.
The department told NBC News the removal process had already started prior to Andre’s death but was delayed because the agency had not been able to locate Espinoza who said she started staying with her eldest daughter after her 16-year-old was found dead near her home.
“I’m not a bad mother. I did the best I could, I tried to raise them the best and be there for everything they needed, but how can I tie him down?” Espinoza said, referring to Andre.
Ernestina Soto, 18, saw Andre two days before his death when she and her younger brother, who was his good friend, were at a nearby public pool with him. Soto said they took him there in the hopes that it would distract him from his sister’s death.
“It was very hard for him. He did tell us sometimes that he missed her and that he was sad about it. But then he’d say ‘She is in heaven.’”
After his sister was killed, Andre would sit at the spot where she was found dead, sometimes for hours, Soto said.
She recalled the boy as a “typical 13-year-old,” but also someone with a generous nature.
“He would make sure everybody around him was taken care of,” Soto said. “Even if it was his last dollar in his pocket, he would just find a way for him to get something to eat for whoever didn’t have nothing to eat or didn’t have anything to wear. He would give his own clothes away to his friend because they needed it.”
The family has set up a fundraising page for his funeral expenses.