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Army vet slain after returning to Chicago, where he hoped to battle gun violence

Chicago Tribune logoChicago Tribune 8/15/2016 Marwa Eltagouri and Annie Sweeney
Undated photo of Abner Garcia. © Elizabeth Juarez via YouCaring Undated photo of Abner Garcia.

Abner Garcia, a U.S. Army veteran, was just 19 years old when he approached his mother, Elizabeth Juarez, with his decision to enlist.

"I supported him. I wanted him to go. I didn't tell him I was scared. I didn't tell him I was afraid," Juarez said. "I just wanted him out of Chicago ... the violence here, that was the reason why I wanted him to go."

Juarez is still struggling with the news that Garcia, 23, died early Saturday from the gun violence he sought to escape. He had returned from the military last year eager to help a city saturated with violence, and he did so by studying criminal justice at University of Illinois at Chicago and by spending so many hours mentoring at-risk youth at the YMCA.

"The hardest thing for me was when he left for the military," Juarez said. "And now, this? This is the worst thing."

Garcia was shot in the head about 1:40 a.m. Saturday as he drove south in the 5200 block of South Pulaski Road. A van pulled alongside his car and the people inside the van began flashing gang signs, police said. An argument ensued, and then someone inside the van opened a door and fired one shot, according to law enforcement sources.

Garcia was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in critical condition, where he was pronounced dead at 5:45 a.m., according to the Cook County medical examiner's office.

The law enforcement sources said Garcia has no known gang affiliation.

"There was no confrontation, no confrontation at all," Juarez said. "This crisis came out of nowhere."

Garcia, who lived in the 5400 block of South Luna Avenue in Chicago's Garfield Ridge neighborhood, attended Curie Metropolitan High School and joined the military soon after graduating, Juarez said. He served at a military base in Anchorage while attending the University of Alaska at Anchorage.

Garcia was an honors student who always performed near the top of his class, and never once brought home an "F," Juarez said. He dedicated his high school years to boxing, the sport he loved most, though he also participated in track and wrestling. He hoped to become a police officer.

Garcia was a member of a mentoring program at the YMCA that pairs youths with veterans, said Eddie Bocanegra, who founded the Urban Warriors program and knew Garcia and his family. Garcia served two 16-week Urban Warriors programs, and was scheduled to begin his third round of mentoring with Urban Warriors next week. He worked with teens from Little Village and was known as an energetic participant.

He connected with the youth because of his age, but also because he had a magnetic personality, said Bocanegra, who is executive director of youth safety and violence prevention at the YMCA of Metro Chicago.

"The youth gravitated toward him," said Bocanegra, who spent Saturday counseling youths and veterans in the Urban Warriors program. "He has this kind of cool swagger."

Garcia, who his mother said was close with his family, also lost an uncle to gun violence, and was quoted in a Tribune article in May about his uncle.

"He was fun, he was outgoing," Juarez said about Garcia. "He was loving. He loved me."

Garcia is survived by Juarez; his father, Indel Garcia; a sister, Lalia Garcia; and a brother, Indel R. Garcia Jr.

meltagouri@chicagotribune.com

asweeney@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @annie1221

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