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DUI victim a smiling youth with bright 'light'

WEST VALLEY — The only son of Gregorio Rodriguez and Sara Figueroa was a humble young man with a bright future, his friends and family say.

He was always smiling.

Always helpful.

Always around family.

A food bank volunteer.

An outdoorsman who loved fishing and four-wheeling.

And in an instant Monday, the first first day of high school, 15-year-old Greg Rodriguez was gone.

Greg was killed as he talked with friends on a sidewalk near Hunter High, where he was beginning his sophomore year. Police say he was struck by a vehicle driven by an intoxicated man.

The teen's close-knit family is trying to piece together how such tragedy could strike a boy with ill will toward no one.

"He is the light in his family . . . he had a very special angel inside of him," Juana Serrano said of her nephew in Spanish, interpreted by another of the boy's aunts, Marcela Rodriguez. "The person who took his life away, he destroyed us, completely."

Rodriguez was riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, accompanied by two friends after school let out Monday. One of those friends, Sanchesca Hodges, said Greg had just told them where he lived, reached to shake another boy's hand, and "the next thing we knew, he was flying through the air," Hodges said.

"It was really hard," the 11th-grader said. "I couldn't even breathe."

Greg's family members had immigrated from Mexico to find a better life, they said. Adults in the family, which includes some 50 close relatives from grandparents to cousins, stressed following all rules and laws, and, especially, cautious driving, particularly around children.

Greg, who has three sisters, was caring. He helped distribute food bank supplies to families in need. He didn't like asking for money, so he would buy candy, then sell it back to family members to earn the money himself, uncle Juan Rodriguez said. He loved helping with his father, who works with marble.

Greg, who attended Jim Bridger Elementary and Jefferson Junior High in Granite School District, wanted to earn good grades and graduate. He talked with cousins about fixing up his dad's classic car and vacationing in Cancun after graduation, cousin Saul Serrano said. Maybe he'd open an auto shop, where he would fix cars, and a cousin would paint them.

Greg was obedient and always told his mother where he was going, family members said.

So, when his mother didn't hear from him after school Monday, she worried, family members said. Other family members couldn't find him. Then came the devastating news.

"We consider ourselves a complete family, a very strong family," Juana Serrano said. "With this tragedy, the person who took (Greg's) life, he has also taken the life of more than 50 people . . . and the hearts of other people we don't know."

The incident has shaken the 2,200-student Hunter High, principal Maile Loo said. "Personally, I've been on pins and needles myself, concerned for the safety of kids, and for the family."

The school community, however, is banding together to help.

Business partners, parents, faculty and students are gathering donations to help the family with costs. The drill team donated $500 — half the earnings of a recent fund-raiser.

Student government adviser Ken Hopkins drummed up cash at lunchtime Wednesday. The school hopes to raise $5,000 by the end of the week.

"This will depend on every one of us . . . so we can be proud we're Wolverines," he said as student leaders dropped bills into a giant "H."

Meanwhile, a student in the hallway handed cash to Loo; others brought in $5, $10, even $20 bills. Some paused at a family-created poster with the boy's photographs and information for his services, which began Wednesday with a viewing and Rosary.

Mass is scheduled today at 1 p.m. at St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church, 3600 S. 3600 West; a service is scheduled at 3 p.m. at Valley View Memorial, 4335 W. 4100 South.

"We want to thank everyone in the school — the principal, friends, people we've never met . . . for all the support that (they) are giving to our family," said Marcela Rodriguez, who watched some of Hunter's fund-raising activities.

Now, the family hopes government leaders will take action to prevent similar tragedy.

They asked police to notch up patrols for drunken drivers and to increase efforts to guard children, particularly around schools. They asked the state to give more money to after-school activities and other programs for low-income youths, to give them more opportunities for success and to prevent violent and senseless acts like the one that killed Greg.

And they asked the community to give authorities any information they might have regarding Monday's accident and to continue to stand by them as they seek justice.

"This person has taken our lives, our dreams, our hopes, and that's not right," Marcela Rodriguez said on behalf of her family.

"We want the maximum penalty for him that the law can carry . . . but we are also sorry for the family of this person who took (Greg's) life. He is causing pain to his own family; we understand that," she said. "Nothing is going to bring (Greg) back to us. He will always live in our hearts, we'll always remember him as a happy child . . . but we also want to make sure another innocent life is not taken."