BACK OF THE YARDS — Leonardo Betancourt was a military history buff who dreamt of traveling the world with the Navy, his family said.
But before he even had the chance to finish seventh grade, a bullet cut his life short.
Around 6:35 p.m. Monday, Leonardo, 13, was sitting in the back seat of an SUV driving in the 4500 block of South Ashland Avenue when passengers heard gunshots and realized he'd been shot through the back, according to Officer Ana Pacheco, a Chicago Police spokeswoman.
The driver brought the boy to a firehouse at 44th Street and Ashland Avenue, Pacheco said, and from there he was brought to Stroger Hospital.
He was later pronounced dead, police said.
By the time Leonardo's family learned what happened, they said, he was already being brought to the hospital.
"We got to the fire station and saw the SUV up on the curb, practically crashed into the side," said Carina Betancourt, Leonardo's sister. "He must have been with some friends, but no one was there when we got there."
Leonardo was a voracious reader and a "perfect student," said his mother, Maria Garcia. He was a favorite of all his teachers, she said, and he was on the verge of finishing the year at Seward Communication Arts Academy, 4600 S. Hermitage Ave., with stellar grades.
"He was always reading, like he never had enough books," Garcia said, through tears. "Every time we'd drive past some place with books he'd make us stop so he could look around."
He was especially interested in history, family members said, poring over volumes of books about naval battles and the American Civil War.
"Anything about war, or about history, he loved all that stuff," said Eric Betancourt, Leonardo's older brother. "It's what made him say he wanted to go be in the Navy. And with his grades, he could have, too."
Brandon Serrano, 16, lived in the same apartment building as Leonardo and his family. He sat outside Tuesday morning, chatting with passing neighbors.
Brandon had been playing with friends in Davis Square Park Monday evening when he heard "three or four" gunshots from the next block over. When news got around, he said, it hit the neighborhood hard.
"I know he was a good kid, just really nice," said Brandon, who studies at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen. "I know he wasn't a [gang]banger — he was just always with his friends, and they never got mixed up in that. So people are taking it hard."
Staying clear of gang violence isn't easy near his home in the 4500 block of South Hermitage Avenue, he said. Leonardo was the fourth person to be gunned down within a block of Brandon's home since Jan. 1.
"It's just fear. Fear all the time, around here," Brandon said. "Survival is something you've always gotta be thinking about."
"You gotta watch out who you hang out with, and just make sure you're always alert," he added. "But not too alert, or people might think something's up."
Brandon said he's counting the days until graduation, when he can leave the neighborhood behind. If he's lucky, he said, he can earn enough money to help his family move, too.
"I just want to be independent," Brandon said. "I just want to have a life."
No one is in custody, Pacheco said.
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