SAN JOSE -- It was a killing in fantasy land and yet another nightmare for San Jose.
Pedro Cortez, an 18-year-old who was legally blind and just beginning to get his life together, was gunned down Saturday afternoon in a drive-by shooting on Van Winkle Lane. The car carrying the gunman probably entered from Galahad or perhaps Sinbad avenue. The shooter fired a bullet into the young man's chest, and the vehicle sped away on a street named after Peter Pan.
A whimsical developer decades ago happily tossed in other street names borrowed from kiddie fiction: Bambi, Sleepy Hollow, Cinderella, Lilliput and Cotton Tail. It seemed humorous and fitting for what was a sparkling new Eastside subdivision built alongside -- Story Road.
But in 2013, San Jose streets might just as well be given cold, hard numbers. Cortez became the city's 44th homicide victim of the year, a pace to make it one of the bloodiest years in history and a total that further tarnishes the image of San Jose, which used to be known as "The Safest Big City in America."
On a bright Sunday morning, with a strong, low-autumn sun making everybody squint, Cortez's relatives and friends gathered around the spot where he fell for the last time. It was patch of grass at a park on Van Winkle Lane. Women, children and older men sat or stood around a makeshift shrine featuring his photo, candles and bouquets of flowers. A dozen or so young men, Cortez's friends, brooded a few yards away on the sidewalk.
Plenty of them said they knew about the city's mounting homicide rate and their own neighborhood's past problems with gang warfare. But no one could say with any semblance of certainty what happened or why. Cortez lived nearby with his grandparents Arturo and Silvia Dado. They described him as a likable and popular young man who was also -- unfortunately -- a bit naive.
"I used to take away his red clothing," Silvia Dado said in Spanish. "He would always say he would be fine, to not worry about him or his friends, but I would worry anyway and still get rid of his red shirts."
Grandmother Dado was referring to gang culture in which red is the color sported by Norteño gangs who generally are more Americanized than their Sureño rivals, immigrant gangs who wear blue to symbolize their association. Arturo Dado insisted that his grandson and two friends he was walking with were not Norteño gang members.
"They just like to hang out the way young men do, and they didn't carry guns, shoot at people or rob them -- none of that," he said, following with a concession. "It is true that this is marked territory. It is marked red."
San Jose police could not be reached for comment Sunday, but members of the Dado family theorized this scenario: Shortly after 4 p.m., Cortez was walking with two friends at the park on Van Winkle Lane. He and another were wearing black, but the third might have been wearing red. They weren't sure. A black convertible Camaro pulled up, and a gunman wearing a bandanna over his face opened fire, hitting Cortez in the heart.
"Then it took off down the street, burning rubber," Arturo Dado said.
'We don't know why'
Stephanie Dado, Cortez's aunt, said any number of gang rivalries, real or imagined, could have been in play.
"We don't know why it happened," she said. "That's what hurts the most."
The Dados said Cortez suffered from a vision problem that got worse at age 13 and could have been partially to blame for him dropping out of James Lick High School. His vision had become so bad, they said, that his eye doctor recommended he apply for permanent disability.
Instead, they said, Cortez recently got a job with his stepfather at a moving company that specializes in relocating commercial offices.
"He told me he wasn't making much money, but he was OK with that," his grandmother said. "He was content, wanted to save money for a car. He still believed he would be able to get his license and drive a car. That was his plan."
The Dado family continued the vigil well into the afternoon. According to one anti-gang community worker, police limited access to the area by sundown. In a neighborhood inspired by imagination and fantasy, a starkness had set in, and there is a fear over what may come next.
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/joerodmercury.