WEST ELSDON — Abner Garcia's family held back its fears and concerns when the young man decided that he wanted to join the Army, thinking it would at least keep him away from Chicago's violence.
They were proud of him when he returned from service last year and decided to mentor at-risk kids through a YMCA anti-gang initiative.
Now, after the 23-year-old was fatally shot in West Elsdon Saturday, they're trying to fathom how a promising, young life fell victim to the gun violence he worked to escape.
"How can he go through the Army, come home ... it's supposed to be a safe place, you know? And this happens," his cousin Da'Maris Garcia said. "It's heartbreaking."
At 1:40 a.m. Saturday morning, Abner was driving with two people in the 5200 block of South Pulaski Road when a van pulled beside them and people inside the van flashed gang signs at his car. The people in the cars began to argue and someone in the van opened a door and shot at Abner's car.
He was hit in his head and was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in critical condition. He was pronounced dead at 5:45 a.m. Saturday morning, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office.
Abner Garcia, center, with blue YMCA polo and hat, poses with kids he mentors as part of an at-risk youth program. Garcia was fatally shot Saturday in West Elsdon. [Photo from Garcia family]
Family said Abner was out to dinner and drinks with his dad and some friends before he was shot. They said they weren't sure if the attackers followed them from the restaurant or if there was some kind of prior confrontation.
Itzel Garcia, Abner's cousin, said when the men began throwing gang sings, Abner tried to tell the men to leave, but that they instead drew a gun and shot at him from close range. No one else in the car with Abner was hurt.
"He had no chance," Itzel said. "These guys just started shooting. It's shocking."
Abner, of the 5400 block of South Luna Avenue, was attending University of Illinois at Chicago with the hopes of becoming a Chicago Police officer, family said.
His desire to be a police officer was an extension of his work helping at-risk kids and serving the county: He liked to help, and he particularly wanted to help stop Chicago's growing problems with crime, they said.
"He always wanted to give back," Da'Maris said. "We were all scared [when he joined the Army] to leave and let him go, but the family always 100 percent supported him."
While working towards a degree in criminal justice, Abner volunteered with "Urban Warriors," a YMCA-based program that works with kids in danger of joining gangs.
Like Abner, any of the kids he mentored were Hispanic, and they looked up to him as proof that a better life is possible for South Side kids, Itzel said.
"He was driven. He wanted to continue to help and save people," she said. "He wasn't done living his life."
He had been honored for his work by the Chicago Bulls, even getting his photo taken with NBA star Damian Lillard before a game at the United Center.
Garcia appeared in a DNAinfo story in May about the murder of one of his uncles, Jesus Juarez.
"We were really close to each other," Garcia said then of his uncle, who was shot in a drive-by shooting in Pilsen as he stood at the take-out window of a grill on Halsted Street along with several other customers.
The uncle was described as a hardworking family man with three children who owned a heating and air conditioning company.
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