Victor Huerta was desperate to steer his 19-year-old son Alexis away from the gang life -- so much so that he was willing to move his family out of their home of 18 years in Elgin.
That didn't happen, but he and his wife Silvia started attending church, seeking spiritual guidance, just two months before Alexis was shot and killed a year ago today.
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Elgin tip lineAnyone with any information about Alexis Huerta's death can contact Elgin Police Sgt. Jim Lullo at (847) 289-2646.
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"I told Alexis we could move, but he wouldn't tell me anything. He said everything was fine," he said. "So I went to ask for help from God."
Alexis' is the only unsolved case among last year's three homicides in Elgin, and one of 30 involving 34 victims since 1971, Elgin Police Lt. Sean Rafferty said.
Victor Huerta said he had no idea his son -- a calm, laid-back young man -- was affiliated with a gang until Elgin police stopped Alexis on a marijuana charge in 2012 and found gang-related photos on his cellphone.
"I saw him with his friends, but I didn't know what they were involved in," he said.
Alexis dropped out of South Elgin High School after the 11th grade, said his father, who works for a printing company. His mother works in hotel housekeeping. The couple also has three teenage daughters.
Less than a week before his death, Alexis had been released on bond on an Elgin burglary charge, Victor said.
Still, the family was hopeful, because Alexis seemed to be happy with his girlfriend of a few months and had started applying for factory jobs, Victor said.
The night Alexis died, his father sensed something.
"I was sitting in bed watching TV, my wife was asleep," he said. "Then I thought of him and said, 'Alexis!' I looked at the clock and it was 9:25 p.m."
That's about the time that Alexis was gunned down -- three shots in the back, five more at close range -- on his way to a friend's house on Silver Court.
Victor Huerta said he spent the first couple of months seeking information from Alexis' friends, often getting contradictory stories. He eventually gave up, deciding to let police do their job, he said.
The senselessness of gang life and its tenets baffles him, Huerta said.
"In Mexico, they kill each other for drugs," he said. "Here, they kill each other just for hate."
Elgin has averaged 4.2 homicides per year since it began keeping searchable records in 1971, ranging from none in 1972 to 11 victims in 1999, the most violent year, said Rafferty, who leads the major investigations division.
Of those victims, five were killed in the 1970s, nine in the 1980s, and 10 each in the 1990s and 2000s, Rafferty said.
"In the '70s and '80s, there were no real gang issues that we knew about," he said.
Unsolved homicides aren't necessarily murders, Rafferty pointed out. For example, some might be classified as self-defense once the facts of the case come to light.
The first thing a new investigations supervisor does is take a close look at all unsolved homicides, Rafferty said.
"You look at it with a fresh set of eyes," he said. "Even the cases I didn't have (as an officer), you still feel like you owe it to the families and the victims to do as much work as you can to figure it out."
Sifting through decades-old documentation isn't always easy, and often involves tracking down the original detectives, he said.
"They may have a hunch, but they may not have put the hunch on a piece of paper," he said.
There is always the hope that people will come forward eventually, Rafferty said.
"Over time, people get a guilty conscience and they might actually want to talk and cooperate."
Sometimes, police a identify a suspect but it's too late to bring the case to prosecution, such as in the 1986 homicide of Martin Nathan, whose body was found at Wing Park, Rafferty said.
Detectives revisited the case a couple of years ago and tied it to another 1986 murder in Joliet, Rafferty said. However, a little over a month ago police found out the Joliet killer -- who served his sentence and was released -- died in 2009, he said.
"We have a strong belief that this case would have probably been presented to the Kane County State's Attorney's office," he said.
"I think (solving the case internally) brought comfort to the family. They were looking for some answers, some closure. It opened up some old wounds to hear things again, but they were very appreciative."
Garnering information from witnesses in gang-related homicides can be very difficult, said Sgt. Jim Lullo, who supervises Elgin's gang crimes unit.
"A lot of times they don't want to cooperate with police personnel. A lot of times they want to take care of it themselves," he said.
Lullo paid a visit to the Huerta family about 10 days ago and arranged for a Spanish-speaking police chaplain to visit the family as well.
"I wanted to let them know that we're still following up on the case, and to assure them that we don't stop investigating," Lullo said.
Lullo, who declined to give specifics on the investigation, said he understands why Victor Huerta tried to find out on his own about Alexis' death. Still, it's best to let police do that, he said.
"We understand the grief that victims' families are going through, we understand that it's very difficult for them to sit back and let police handle the case," he said. "It's a natural instinct that you want to help."
While it does get harder to solve cases with the passage of time, one never knows when the right morsel of information will come along, Lullo said.
"We never forget about a homicide. It's always, continually, an ongoing investigation," he said. "I'm always 100 percent optimistic about every homicide."
Victor Huerta said he, too, will never give up hope that Alexis' killer will be found.
He also hopes his family's grief will prompt young people to think about how precious life is.
"Some days I'm calm, some days I'm sad, some days I'm angry," he said. "It's like they killed you alive."