Elgin police are asking the community for help in finding those responsible for the death of 5-year-old Eric M. Galarza Jr. during what they believe was a gang-related shooting Friday night.
"It is an irreplaceable loss," Paula Bahena, Eric's great aunt, said Saturday morning as relatives, friends and neighbors gathered in front of the family's home in Elgin. Many were crying and holding each other.
Eric was shot about 7 p.m. while he was in the back seat of a car that was pulling out of the family's driveway in the 900 block of Elma Avenue, police said.
His mother, Denisse Galarza, 24, said she was in the back seat with Eric and his brother Luis, 2, and his sister, Jayleen, five months; his father, Eric Galarza, was in the front passenger seat, and Denisse's sister Christina Ignacio was driving.
The family was on their way to dinner at Eric's great-grandmother's house less than two miles away, Denisse said.
Her sister was maneuvering the car in the middle of the street when five or six shots were fired, Denisse said. "After the bullets stopped, I wanted to make sure all my kids were OK, but Eric was not responding," she recalled through tears.
Denisse said she called 911 and was told they should pull into a nearby gas station in the 1300 block of Dundee Avenue to wait for an ambulance.
The boy was taken to Sherman Hospital in critical condition, and he died between 9 and 10 p.m. Denisse said she believed a bullet hit Eric in the head.
Her eldest son was a happy, chatty boy who was always friendly to everyone, a great older brother who liked to help take care of the younger ones, said Denisse, a stay-at-home mom.
Eric liked riding his bike, Disney movies, the "X-Men" characters and Batman; he also loved his Chihuahua, Pink, who had been his pal since he was 6 months old, she said.
Eric's grandmother Vianey Bahena said the boy had a great time at his fifth birthday party in July. "He loved the clown, and especially the moonwalk," she said.
His grandfather Alejandro Ignacio said Eric was a very happy kid.
Elgin Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said the gang unit is leading the investigation, but every investigator within the department is on the case.
"The investigators haven't left since the time (the shooting) happened," Swoboda said Saturday afternoon. "We have somebody who needs to be taken off the streets right now."
Police believe the car was targeted, Swoboda said.
"This wasn't a random act. Whoever did this was firing directly into this car."
Swoboda said he hopes the community will come forward with information.
"An innocent 5-year-old was killed. My hope is that their allegiance to society is stronger than protecting this person."
When asked if she thought her husband might have been the target of the shooting, Denisse answered "probably." But she also added that 30-year-old Eric Galarza, a construction worker, hadn't gotten into trouble since his younger days.
Records show that Eric M. Galarza was arrested in October 2008 in connection with a fight at a nightclub in Elgin and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting a peace officer. No information on the disposition of the case was immediately available.
Denisse said the family was getting ready to move out of Illinois, although they weren't sure where yet. "We just wanted to start over somewhere else," she said.
The neighborhood where the Galarzas live is normally quiet and family-friendly, said longtime resident Ken Pearson, who lives a couple of blocks up the street. "I've lived here more than 30 years, and it's not like this usually," he said.
Several people said they heard the shots and called 911 on Friday night.
"I was having dinner by myself," neighbor Nelson Medran said. "I heard six or seven shots, and I thought 'Oh, my God,' and I got down on the floor. I came out when I heard police outside."
Neighbor Jorge Linares said he was watching TV when the shooting happened. Eric was friends with Linares' children Jorge, 7, and Natalia, 5.
"He was at my house every other day," Linares said, wiping away tears. "He was always running, and he was always asking questions. Always saying 'why?'"
Among those who paid their respects Saturday was Elgin resident Elias Juarez, who dropped off flowers at a makeshift memorial near the family's driveway. Juarez said he grew up in the same neighborhood as Eric's father but hadn't seen him in about two years.
Many within their circle were troublemakers in their teens, Juarez said.
"At that age, you don't think about what you're doing, you don't think about the consequences. Then you have children, and everything is different," he said.
It seems like more bystanders are getting caught in the middle of gang violence, said Juarez, who said he has been planning to start a gang prevention group with a few friends.
"People have got to think about the way we are affecting our community," he said. "When you hear of a kid, even if it's a stranger's kid, getting shot, it's always a tragedy."
The last gang-related shooting in Elgin took place Sept. 15 in the 200 block of Wilcox Avenue. A 15-year-old boy was injured by a bullet shot from a car, police said.
This year so far there have been 15 gang-motivated shootings in Elgin, Swoboda said. That figure was 17 in the same time period last year, 14 in 2009, and 31 in 2008, he said.
"Gang-motivated crime over the last decade or two has been cut dramatically," he said.
Swoboda encouraged those who are concerned that someone they know is involved in a gang to call the police department's prevention unit at (847) 289-2646.
"Preventing kids from getting involved in gangs is the answer to the real problem. We're not going to arrest our way out of the gang problem," he said.
Anyone with any information about the shooting is encourage to call the Elgin police anonymous crime line at (847) 695-4195 or leave an anonymous tip at cityofelgin.org/police.