ROGERS PARK — Mark Villanueva, who was gunned down on the day before Thanksgiving in a Rogers Park alley, was a dedicated scholar who kept to himself — which is why his family says they can't figure out why he was killed.
He wouldn't have hurt a fly, his parents and siblings said in interviews late last week.
Despite his gentle and reserved spirit, police said Villanueva was found about 3 a.m. Nov. 27 in the 7500 block of North Greenview Avenue with a gunshot wound in his chest and face.
His family now wonders if his murder was a case of mistaken identity, as no money was taken from him.
Relatives said he was likely walking home from a convenience store, where he might have bought a late-night snack, when he was shot twice at close range. It was something he often did on nights when he'd stay up reading and listening to sermons on his computer, they said.
"Mark lived a simple life," said his father, Karl Villanueva Sr., inside the longtime family home on Bosworth Avenue north of Howard Street. "He slept on the floor. He didn't use a mattress. He didn't use a bed."
Villanueva, who was 30 and nicknamed "Peachie," spent most of his time inside his bedroom, his family said.
The room, measuring no bigger than 6-feet by 12-feet, was still filled with his belongings late last week. A bicycle he rode during the summer months hung from one wall. In a corner, dozens of books — about Malcolm X, world religions, slavery, astronomy — were stacked from floor to ceiling.
"These are his two bed spreads and pillow. He slept right here in the corner," his mother, Yvonne Martinez, 54, said while standing in the room last week. She also pointed out a bag nearly full of empty water bottles.
Martinez said he drank a lot of water, but never alcohol — even though on a shelf against another wall he had a collection of mini bottles of vodka, rum and other liquor lined up in six rows.
"He said they're supposed to collect dust," said Nicole Villanueva, of her brother. Each bottle cap was indeed covered with dust.
Karl Villanueva Jr., 32, said the room was his brother's "sanctuary."
The family, which hails from Belize, had decided to spend Thanksgiving at Karl Villanueva Jr.'s South Shore home, but he knew that his brother wouldn't be there; he'd never liked family gatherings.
So Martinez made her son a Thanksgiving meal and left it in the apartment's fridge with a store-bought pumpkin pie.
As the family celebrated the holiday, Mark Villanueva had already been found dead nearly 48 hours earlier.
"My brother was a pretty quiet dude. Definitely a loner," his brother said. "If you didn't grow up with Peachie — that's his nickname, Peachie — ... you didn't know him because he wasn't in the business [of] making friends."
It wasn't until his father came home and saw the untouched food in the fridge that he thought something was wrong. He had also found his son's ID card and cell phone in his room.
Then he went to the Rogers Park Police District station, where a detective, who had yet to identify the body, showed him a photo of his son, lying dead on the sidewalk.
"When I saw the photo of him when he was shot and I see his face — I look at his face — I see no fear in his eyes and I see no hate in his eyes," said Villanueva. "Even though he was watching a gun — there's a guy with a gun, pointing at him — he doesn't have any hate in those eyes and he has no fear. He was fearless because he did not fathom how anyone could harm him."
He recalled a time when his son refused to kill a water bug in the apartment after his mother asked him to squash it.
"He says, 'Martinez,' — that's what he called his mom — 'What did that bug do to you?'" he said.
It was an example of his son's personal beliefs, which include environmentalism and social justice, he said.
"He saw the people on the street as his brothers and sisters," said Villanueva Sr. "He somehow thought that these people who walked the street at night were his family."
The Villanueva family is at a loss about why Mark Villanueva was killed — and so are the police.
"We just don’t know. I don’t think it’s gang-related," said police district Cmdr. Thomas Waldera, describing the early morning hours and cold weather of that day as deterrents to gang activity. "We’re looking for any kind of help on this that we can get."
But Karl Villanueva Jr. said he believed his brother was killed in a case of "mistaken identity," possibly related to a neighborhood gang conflict that had been exemplified by recent rap videos posted to YouTube.
"The bullet went through his arm and hit him in the chest. He got another one in the left side of his cheek," he said. "No questions asked, straight execution style."
He said it was "definitely not a robbery" because a few dollars were found in his brother's pocket.
Martinez said her son, a Sullivan High School grad, struggled to get good grades, but when he was passionate about something he didn't stop learning.
He spent two years at the Institute of Audio Research in New York, she said. Before he died, he was taking online classes in business administration.
He wanted to start his own business, she said, and eventually move back to New York.
"If he [was] fascinated about something," she said, "he had a big voice."