The gunmen had already shot the boy’s older brother and his mother’s boyfriend, execution-style with a bullet into their heads, when they aimed at his mother.
So the 12-year-old threw himself in front of Maria Hernandez that early November morning in their Independence home, attempting to shield her with his small frame.
One bullet tore through the little boy’s jaw. Two more went through his torso. It was one of those bullets that passed through him and into his mother’s chest.
Hernandez died soon after.
Her son turned 13 the next day. Wednesday he was released from an area hospital.
“You’d be surprised to see how quickly that little boy is healing,” said the boy’s older sister, Nancy Herrera, who lives in Arizona.
He’s relying less and less on an erasable board to communicate. His mouth, still wired shut, is healing enough to speak through a valve in his tracheotomy tube.
As the new matriarch of this extensive family, Herrera, 28, flew to Kansas City the day of the murders and spent every night at the bedside of her heroic little brother.
Also killed that early morning was another brother, 19-year-old Antonio Hernandez, and their mother’s boyfriend, Tomas Dominguez. Police are characterizing the triple murders as part of a botched home invasion. Five people have been arrested and charged.
Maria Hernandez and her son Antonio were buried Monday at Mount Moriah Cemetery.
One of the first things the wounded little boy wrote on the board to his sister was “Mom’s gone.” And the family thinks he didn’t fully comprehend that his older brother had died until another family member wore a memorial T-shirt with Antonio’s name on it into the hospital room.
He still needs a feeding tube. But he also keeps mentioning the hotdog wrapped in bacon that he craves, his siblings say, laughing.
Since the murders, Herrera has been working to pull her family back together. It’s a legal and emotional struggle.
Two other sisters — 11 and 15 years old — were also in the house that day.
The youngest ran between her mother and brother as they lay on the family’s living room floor, throwing water on them to try to awaken them.
Both girls, and a 17-year-old brother, are staying with an area foster family while Herrera and her husband work to get custody of the four youngest siblings.
The children have nightmares, sometimes waking up as if they are choking, their older sister said. But they visited their brother’s hospital room almost daily.
“He’s happiest when we are all there,” another sister said.
That’s more difficult now, as he has been placed in a different foster home than the other children. He has to be with someone certified to handle his medical needs.
In Kansas City now for her third week, Herrera knows that her own children, an 8-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old boy, cry for her back in Arizona. Her son is especially traumatized.
“But they didn’t do anything wrong,” he pleads with his mother, a child’s attempt to understand the violence that ended the lives of his grandmother and a favorite uncle.
Herrera is already planning on how to accommodate her four siblings in her three-bedroom home. Bunk beds are in the future.
“It’s what my mother would have wanted,” Herrera says. “She always wanted us together.”
The small white house on South Pope Avenue in Independence might not have looked impressive to some who saw it in news coverage of the murders.
But to Maria Hernandez, her children said, it was the most stable home she’d had in a long time.
Hernandez was born in Michoacan, Mexico, as were the oldest of her 10 children. She came to the United States more than 20 years ago, fleeing an abusive relationship, her children said.
She lived in Washington state, Arizona and finally, for more than a dozen years, in the Kansas City area.
“She struggled a lot,” the children emphasize, echoing each other around a table. “She was a single mom.”
She had relationships that involved domestic violence, the children said, and lived in shelters for a time.
She was poor, always broke, they said.
But she was a hard worker, diligently taking any job to support her children: selling tamales, cleaning houses and painting houses.
“She even did roofing,” said another son, 22. “She’d be up there throwing shingles.”
Her last job in the Kansas City area was in a church daycare, the children said.
The children said their mother, a legal permanent resident, had recently gotten her driver’s license, a proud moment for a woman who previously walked miles to work.
“She was finally being treated the way she wanted,” her 22-year-old son said of her relationship with Tomas Dominguez, their mother’s boyfriend of about three years.
It was Dominguez who provided her the opportunity to move from a more dangerous neighborhood in Kansas City, welcoming her and the youngest children to live at the house on South Pope.
He put a tire swing up for the little ones and bought a pool for the backyard. The garage had been converted into another bedroom.
A stepson of Dominguez is among those charged in the murders. Charging documents accuse the stepson of plotting a robbery seeking drugs and money. The trial will sort out those details.
For now, Herrera concentrates on her cellphone and its jumble of new numbers and names, all with an 816 area code.
There is the social worker at the hospital, the nurses, the attorney helping her with the custody arrangements, state foster care officials, the people at McGilley Midtown Chapel who worked with the family to cut costs.
The children placed donation jars at some Northeast area businesses that cater to Mexican immigrants, trying to offset the funeral expenses.
They are grateful for all of the generosity.
But they reserve special praise for Independence police.
Herrera feared that her mother’s Mexican heritage, her low-income status, would cause police to discount the murders, not give the case their full attention.
But that didn’t happen.
The arrests came quickly, something all the children express gratitude for.
“My mom struggled so much, she needs to rest now,” Herrera said the day before her mother’s funeral.
All of the suspects in the case are scheduled back in court on Dec. 12.
That’s a special day, set aside in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s also their mother’s birthday.
Had she lived, Maria Guadalupe Hernandez would have turned 49.
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