Before she died, little Juelz Emily Gonzalez loved to run and scamper with her father’s Dachshund named Roley, and play on the backyard slide at home in San Antonio.
“She was only two and the strongest kid I’ve ever met,” her 18-year-old half sister, Abigail Gonzalez, told The Daily Beast.
Juelz was autistic and not able to talk yet, Abigail said, but that didn’t stop the sisters from having a special bond. “I never got to hear her say a full word or sentence,” recalls Abigail, who cared for Juelz for most of the girl’s life before relocating to El Paso last fall. “She would just say sounds.”
“She was the happiest baby, she was always smiling and just so alive,” Abigail added.
The toddler, who was fatally shot inside her mother Jessica Cantu’s residence in February, was known to easily make people around her smile. “She was the most beautiful girl inside and out,” Abigail said. “I remember she saw me crying one time, and she caressed my face and just wiped my tear away. She didn’t say nothing, she can’t talk. But I knew she saw me hurting and wanted to make me feel better.”
Juelz died in a hospital ICU on February 27, a little over a week after she’d been shot in the head at Cantu’s San Antonio duplex. Another young sibling was home at the time of the shooting, as was Cantu’s boyfriend, 32-year-old Joshua Christopher Ramirez, who weeks later was charged with a federal gun crime in connection to Juelz’s death. Investigators say that it was Ramirez’s handgun that killed Juelz.
Cops had arrived at Cantu’s home after receiving a call about a supposed self-inflicted gunshot wound. An affidavit in Ramirez’s case reveals more details about why he allegedly kept a firearm. “During a recorded interview with Child Protective Services, the juvenile’s mother admitted that Ramirez sells illegal drugs from a hotel because he is not allowed to sell drugs from” her residence, the filing states, adding that “Ramirez had packed the duffel bag in preparation to travel to the hotel to sell illegal drugs for the evening.”
Now authorities say Cantu’s story doesn’t add up, and that there’s no way the child shot herself with the firearm. The girl’s autopsy showed that she “could not have shot herself due to the gunshot being from a distance and not close proximity,” according to police records cited by NBC affiliate News 4 San Antonio.
On Friday, Cantu, 35, was arrested and charged with endangering a child in connection to her daughter’s death. The mother’s arrest affidavit states that she and another daughter, who is 4, were in another room when the mom claimed to hear a loud “pop.”
Julio Gonzalez, Juelz’s and Abigail’s father, could not be reached for comment.
As Juelz lay in her hospital bed in February, Julio told a local TV station he didn’t believe his daughter shot herself. “No, there is no way,” he told KENS 5, a CBS affiliate. “Even the doctors and stuff like that, they say we’ve seen cases a lot of times but your daughter is too young.”
After Juelz died, Julio told News 4, “I don’t think I’m ever going to heal.”
“She was a fighter. She fought since the day she was born,” he added of Juelz. “And she fought a really good fight for daddy. And now I’m gonna fight for her to keep her memory alive.”
Juelz and her siblings’ lives weren’t without hardship.
From Abigail’s perspective, Juelz’s parents weren’t caring for her, so she had to step in and take on a motherly role when she was just a teenager herself. She says she would get up at 6 a.m. to have some alone time, before waking Juelz and her siblings, making them breakfast, and taking them to the park or other activities. “In my heart, it was a mom instinct. If I don’t see nobody taking care of them, I’m going to take care of them,” she said.
“I tell my dad, like, those are my kids. I know that they’re not mine. But they’re mine. I promise no other woman in this world will love them the way I love them,” Abigail said.
“This made me feel like I lost my child. I’ve never been through anything like this. It was not just my little sister, but my little friend, my little sidekick,” she said.
When they told me it was self-inflicted, I did not believe that whatsoever.
“She was really strong,” the sister added. “Even after she got shot, she was in the hospital for a good week but she held on for a little bit.”
Abigail says she had moved to El Paso in November to take care of herself. At that point her relationship with her father had been improving, and she felt he could handle Juelz and her siblings on his own. But, eventually, Jessica had taken the kids back.
The sister had just gotten off work on Feb. 18 when she heard Juelz was in the hospital. “It was the quickest call of my life,” she said. “My dad just hysterically said Juelz was shot and hung up. I immediately packed a bag and went straight to San Antonio.”
“When they told me it was self-inflicted, I did not believe that whatsoever,” she said.
While authorities haven’t said who they believe fired the weapon, Abigail believes that Ramirez shot the gun and Cantu was covering for him. “Jessica texted me after the incident and she asked me basically if my little sister who was also there with her, Julia, had gun residue on her hands and if they had checked,” Abigail told us. “I never responded. It made me super mad. You’re not asking me if my little sister shot my other little sister?”
“Jessica was already not trying to point the finger at Joshua,” Abigail told The Beast. “She immediately said that she shot herself, and then asked me if Julia shot her.”
While the family held vigil in the ICU, Abigail says she made sure to stay in the room while Cantu was visiting even though it was “the hardest thing ever” since she blamed Cantu for her sister lying in the hospital bed. “I had to let my sister have that moment too because that was her mom.”
Juelz was shot in between her left eye and the bone by her nose. Abigail said that a bandage covered the area, but the girl’s eye wouldn’t stay in place. “In reality she was brain dead as soon as she was shot,” she said. “She was on life support the whole time.”
Julio had to make the heartbreaking decision to let Juelz go.
Abigail says she has a lot of anger toward Ramirez, but more for Cantu. “I despise her. She makes me sick. I never want to see her face ever again in my life,” Abigail said.
It’s unclear if Cantu has an attorney for the endangerment case. The Daily Beast also reached out to a lawyer representing Cantu on a drug-related case in Bexar County.
“You’re supposed to feel safest when you’re with your mother,” Abigail said. “It’s your safe place, where you don’t have to worry about anything like that.”
She can’t help but compare her sister’s case to other gun violence plaguing America, and questions why the safety wasn’t on the firearm in Cantu’s home.
“You see it everywhere. Schools are getting shot up. Kids are playing with guns. Police. It’s always something with guns,” Abigail said. “I feel like if anything, there needs to be more restrictions on who can get a gun, who can buy a gun.
“Because there’s no reason that my 2-year-old sister should not be running around still, climbing on stuff, being her little monkey self.”