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The last day anyone heard from Luis Alberto Antonio Armenta he was heading to Balboa Park. 

Luis visited the park often to spend time with friends, walk his dog, or simply because being there evoked pleasant childhood memories. It was the first place he visited after arriving in the United States. Luis was 11 years old then, in a strange country, and didn’t know a lick of English, but he was excited for his new life, his mom said.  

Alberta Armenta, his mother, looked through photos of Luis on an afternoon in February at the family’s Mount Hope home. She found one of him in Balboa Park with a smirk on his face and an arm wrapped around his father’s neck. Alberta, speaking in Spanish, said Luis would often tell her, “Do you remember, Bertita? That’s where we first went.”  

She smiled then looked away.  

On Friday, May 28, 2021, a friend found Luis’ body inside his parked car in Hillcrest. He was lying face down on the passenger seat with his face on the floorboard and his feet over the headrest, according to a police report. He was missing a shoe and some of his personal belongings.  

Three days later, the Medical Examiner ruled it an accidental death from a meth overdose. But the circumstances surrounding Luis’ death, and clues discovered by the family, have haunted them since. They feel the police did not thoroughly investigate or follow leads that could have provided them answers. They believe the police wrote off Luis’ death as an overdose, without concern for finding if he was with someone at the time of his death who could have prevented it, or more importantly, be held accountable.  

A former San Diego detective who reviewed details of the case at Voice’s request said the body’s position and missing personal belongings, especially the right shoe, should have raised red flags – at least enough for police officers on the scene to impound the car and go through his phone records. 

While all those points concern the family, it’s a note that appeared days later that they find most disturbing. The note was left at a small memorial put up where he was found.  

It reads: “This man was murdered ask the blue house!” 

He Was a Dreamer 

Alberta Armenta holds up a photo of Luis’ first visit to Balboa Park. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Luis was born on Sept. 5, 1989, in Veracruz, Mexico, to Alberta Armenta and Feliciano Antonio. The pair raised their four children, three girls and Luis, in a devout Christian household.  

When they lived in Veracruz, Feliciano Antonio was robbed at gunpoint by two men while he was delivering sodas to a store. He filed a police report so the men would get arrested, but when they didn’t, he feared they would hurt him for reporting the robbery, so he left Mexico and moved to San Diego. 

Nine months later, Alberta Armenta and Luis followed, and later the rest of the family. 

When Luis was a little boy, he sang in the family’s church choir, loved helping his mom with chores and always made sure his appearance was well kept. He had a close relationship with his mom throughout his life. He made her coffee in the morning and sang her made-up songs.  

“He was very playful, intelligent, kind and responsible,” she said.  

Luis had big dreams, she said, but as he got older his legal status weighed heavily on him. Alberta Armenta, Feliciano Antonio and their four children were living in the country illegally at the time.  

He dreamt of becoming a mechanical engineer and buying his mother a new car. His legal status was like a dark shadow hanging over those dreams, until relief arrived from the Obama-era program where the United States provided unauthorized youth a legal avenue to work in the United States, with a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.  

Alberta Armenta said Luis felt DACA would help him get ahead. He graduated with an associate degree from Cuyamaca College and later enrolled at the University of California, Riverside.  

Amari Jordan, a friend, said he was the kind of person who lit up a room with his personality and charm. He loved singing at the top of his lungs, and had a lot of friends. He liked to be the life of the party, Jordan said.  

“It was liberating to be around Luis in a way,” she said, adding that he could be flamboyant and wasn’t afraid to be himself around people. He was gay and expressive about his sexuality with friends, though he never came out to the family.  

Alberta Armenta said it was likely because he was afraid his dad would be upset. But she knew. 

Alberta Armenta holds up a photo of her late son Luis Alberto Antonio Armenta. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As he got older, Luis distanced himself from the Apostolic Christian Church the family attended. Alberta Armenta said he told her it was because he smoked marijuana and felt conflicted with how that clashed with the church’s values.  

“He said, ‘I can’t go to church anymore, I can’t act like a saint when I’m not,’ and I told him that’s OK all I want is for you to be with me,” she said.  

After graduating from community college, Luis moved to Riverside to study at UCR, but in 2018 he dropped out. Alberta Armenta said he never told her why, but she knew that he was disappointed that he wasn’t going to graduate.  

“He was sad, and he was apologetic … he would say, ‘I really wanted to graduate and put that diploma in your hands,’” she said.  

He worked at a couple of retail stores in Riverside until the pandemic hit, then he moved back to San Diego to work for his oldest sister’s company.  

The family was glad to have him back. He loved to spend time with them and take pictures at gatherings. Sometimes he would leave to hang out with friends during holiday celebrations, but he always made sure to return home for dinner, Alberta Armenta said.  

“En familia nos divertíamos mucho,” she said, saying that as a family they always had fun.   

His death has been hard on all of them, especially his mom.  

That’s why his sister Sandy Antonio Armenta said she feels she must hide her grief about her brother’s death.  

‘My Friend Is Passed Out in the Car’   

A framed photo of Luis Alberto Antonio Armenta sits near the entrance of his family’s house in Mount Hope. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On Wednesday, May 26, Luis’ older sister Fabiola Antonio spoke with him about a meeting they had scheduled for the next day. But Luis never showed up.  

The family grew worried, especially Alberta Armenta, who was used to speaking with her son every day. On Thursday night, the family drove to his home but didn’t see his car in the driveway. Alberta Armenta knew Luis planned to go away for the weekend with friends, but she still found it odd he had not checked in.  

The family called his friend Nada Boutros, who said she spoke to him on Wednesday, and he told her he was going to Balboa Park, but she didn’t hear from him again.  

In a phone interview Boutros said she was worried about Luis and had unsuccessfully tried to locate him using the app Find my iPhone. The pair were close friends and, in the past, had agreed to share their locations with each other. On Friday, she searched for him with her partner around Balboa Park, but when she couldn’t find him, they decided to go home. That’s when they came across Luis’ car near the DMV in Hillcrest, she said.  

The 911 call came in on Friday, May 28, at around 11:40 a.m.  

“I need an ambulance my friend is passed out in the car,” Boutros said on the recording, her voice breaking, “I don’t know if he’s dead. His body is cold.”  

The officers first to respond noted that Luis was in the passenger seat of the car face down with his head on the floorboard and his feet on the headrest, according to the police report. His car was parked near a church in Hillcrest.  

He was missing a shoe, wallet and other personal belongings – including a notepad he carried around to draw, his family said. Inside the car were food containers and a receipt from Jack in the Box for an order placed in the early morning of Thursday.  

Boutros spoke to a police officer about Luis’ health and life and shared that she knew he had tried meth and other drugs before.  

When the family arrived, the block was surrounded with yellow police tape. Sandy Armenta Antonio said she told a police officer that they were family. They were not allowed on the other side of the yellow tape, and they were not questioned.  

An investigator with the county’s Medical Examiner examined Luis’ body and the car, then took his body. The police turned over the car to the family, and all the items inside it, including Luis’ cell phone.  

Heartbroken, the family went home and tried to make sense of why police officers didn’t ask them questions. That’s when they looked in the car.  

Case Closed 

Alberta Armenta looks down at a framed photo of her late son Luis Alberto Antonio Armenta. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Joel Tien, a sergeant with the San Diego Police Department’s homicide unit who is currently handling the case but was not present on the scene for the initial investigation, said the case is currently closed.  

He could not comment on specific details of the investigation.  

He said that there are a lot of odd circumstance in death investigations that “are going to look questionable” but if those did not lead to the cause of death then there is not much they can do. 

The family disagrees with that. And they are not alone.  

Carl Hershman, a retired detective with the San Diego Police Department who worked homicides and sex crimes, said he believes police officers should have taken the car because of the way Luis was found and the missing shoe.  

“That’s the thing that makes you go, ‘hmm,’” he said, adding that police officers regularly encounter deaths that are accidental, suicides, natural and suspicious, but often the determination for further investigation, falls on someone feeling that “something is not right.”  

And in Luis’ case there are plenty of loose ends, he said.  

The location of Luis’ body is important as is the position of his body, Hershman said. He said police should have taken the car and cell phone.  

“That’s the moment you need to kind of take pause and at least figure out how and why he ended up like this, that would be a red flag,” he said.  

Sgt. Tien said if a witness steps up or police get more information about the case, they will follow up. Just because a case is closed doesn’t mean they can’t look again. 

“Based on the circumstances of the autopsy report, the doctor determined that whatever position he was found in was not a factor in his death,” Tien said.  

So much of what happens with homicide investigations is determined by the initial conclusions of whether certain circumstances contributed to the death. In Luis’ case, investigators concluded the unusual circumstances did not. Tien said he could not comment on specific details of the investigation, but he said that every case is different and some cases are going to have elements that require more investigation than others. And with Luis’ case the police did not reach that point. 

Luis’ family members and friends believe there were enough odd circumstances that should have been investigated by police. But it’s the dismissal of her family’s concerns that Sandy Antonio Arment finds most disturbing.  

“You expect more from them and really they are not doing anything,” she said. “We found more information about my brother of who he was with that night.” 

A Family Desperate for Answers  

Left to right: Luis Alberto Antonio Armenta’s family, Feliciano Antonio, Fabiola Antonio and Sandy Antonio Armenta, reflect on how the San Diego Police Department has handled the investigation of Luis’s death. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When Luis was found the police did not impound the vehicle, interview the family or take his phone as evidence.  

Back at their house, the family went through the car and found the receipt from Jack in the Box for an order of two breakfast sandwiches and drinks made in the early morning hours of Thursday.  

The family did not hear from Luis at any point on Thursday. He missed a work meeting, and although he was in daily contact with his mom, he didn’t respond to any texts or calls that day. His body was found Friday morning.   

They decided to start their own investigation. The day after his body was found, the family went to Jack in the Box and requested the security footage of the drive-thru from the restaurant. The restaurant gave them the video.  

In the video, an unknown man is sitting in the driver seat of Luis’ car waiting for the food order. He occasionally moves an object around on the passenger seat. His face is turned inside the car most of the time as if he were speaking to another passenger, and he sips on a drink before pulling away with the rest of the order. 

The family does not know who the man is. There is no evidence that the man was with Luis at the time Luis overdosed or that the man was involved with Luis’ death.

Luis’ car appears in security footage from a Jack in the Box in Hillcrest in the early morning of Thursday, May 27, 2021. Luis is not visible in the video and an unknown man is sitting in the driver’s seat. There is no evidence that the man was with Luis at the time Luis overdosed and died.

A couple of weeks after his death, a small memorial was set up with flowers and signs outside the church where his car was found. That’s where someone left the note that read, “This man was murdered ask the blue house!” 

Fabiola Antonio, Luis’ oldest sister, turned over those details, and a recording of the video to the police, she said, because she felt that maybe the police weren’t investigating because they didn’t have those details.  

She said they tried to convince her that it would be too difficult to follow the case because Luis was determined to have died by an overdose. She was told that even if someone had done something to him, it would be difficult to get that person to claim responsibility, she said.  

“I know that no matter what I do, I can’t bring my brother back to life,” Fabiola Antonio said.  She explained that she and her family would nevertheless like to know who, if anyone, was with him at the time that he overdosed and why that person did not help him.

The police never returned to take the car, and eventually Alberta Armenta sold it because she couldn’t stand seeing it in their front yard. The family still has Luis’ phone and the note, neatly tucked in a notebook.  

The note pictured above appeared several weeks after Luis’ body was found. It was placed at a memorial the family set up. The family keeps it in a notebook for safekeeping. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The note does not include a contact number or name, but VOSD visited the blue house in February. A man coming out of the house said he heard someone was found dead on their block, but that he didn’t hear or see anything.  

Hershman, who worked for SDPD for 32 years, said police should have followed up with the family after they learned of the note to process it for fingerprints or to rule it out. 

“That’s called a lead,” he said. “That’s something you follow up on.”  

He said the missing shoe indicates that Luis could have overdosed outside of the car, or that the car was moved at some point. Hershman said that often when officers make a wrong call it’s because they have confirmation bias.  

“Instead of looking for things to actually find out what happened they look for things to confirm their bias and that’s where investigators screw up,” he said. “They are supposed to stay in the middle and follow leads.” 

Jordan said she feels the police wrote off Luis’ death as a simple overdose.  

“That’s wrong because that’s still somebody’s son, friend,” she said.  

Manner of Death  

Arron Emde, who met Luis on a dating app, and built a relationship with him, holds a bouquet of lavender that Luis gave him the last time they saw each other. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The Medical Examiner’s office determined that the manner of death was an accident. The toxicology report they completed showed that he had meth in his system. The autopsy report does not explain how the drugs entered his system, but it notes that there were no visible track marks on his arms.  

Luis’ family members knew he smoked marijuana, but they were not aware that Luis was using other drugs. But some friends did.  

Aaron Emde knew Luis for nearly six months before he died.  

Emde said they met on a dating app, for gay men, and did meth together. But they only used meth together a couple of times, because Emde was struggling with his use, and Luis wanted to help him get clean.  

He described Luis as a periodic user, saying that he only smoked meth occasionally and it could range from once every two weeks or month. He never observed Luis’ pushing his limits, he said. They were supposed to go on a trip to the Salton Sea the day Luis’ body was found, to help Emde get clean, but he didn’t hear from Luis despite texting him. On the day of the trip, Friday, Emde texted Luis asking him to call him back, and instead a friend texted him saying, “we found Luis’s car and he was inside passed away.”   

Emde said he has struggled to cope with Luis’ death. Though they only knew each other for a short period, they connected, he said. The last time they saw each other in person, was a week before he died. Luis stopped by to visit and brought him a bundle of lavender, Emde said.  

He opted to dry the flowers, rather than stick them in a vase with water, so they’d last longer, not knowing that they’d carry a stronger meaning a year later. He still has the dried-up lavender in his apartment and keeps it in a glass case next to his bed.  

“I tell him I love him every single day,” he said, crying.  

Emde said he doesn’t know what happened to him, but he knows that he didn’t deserve it.  

“He wasn’t just some guy using drugs giving up on life, that wasn’t him, he was so full of life,” Emde said.   

No Resolution  

Alberta Armenta visits her son’s grave on Feb. 17, 2022. Luis Alberto Antonio Armenta died of an overdose according to the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office in early 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Alberta Armenta wants anyone who was with Luis that night and the person who was driving his car to come forward to help answer the family’s questions. She doesn’t believe her son will truly rest in peace until that is done.  

Feliciano Antonio said he fears that, if anyone was involved with Luis’ overdose, that person or people might hurt the family for asking questions or making noise about the case. But not knowing what happened to Luis is worse, he said.  

Luis’ memory is present in the family’s home today. There is a large photo of Luis that greets anyone who enters their home at the end of a hallway. A few of his hats are placed throughout the home, and his little dog Nala is staying with them. 

His parents visit his gravesite every day. 

On a recent afternoon, Alberta Armenta, Feliciano Antonio and Sandy stood next to the plot where Luis is buried. The site was covered with flowers and balloons.  

“They only found him and ignored everything,” said Alberta Armenta of the police, adding that their apparent lack of interest in finding what happened to her son hurts the most.  

Alberta Armenta stood over his gravesite, and with tears rolling down her face she said, “I tell him, I don’t know how I am going to do it, but we need to find the person that took your dreams away.”  

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña, Managing Editor, Daily News Andrea oversees the production of daily news stories for Voice of San Diego. She...

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2 Comments

  1. What a tragic story. I hope someone comes forward with more information. Someone knows something.

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