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Family, friends mourn teen refugee killed in Kansas City laundromat: ‘Why him?’

iStock/Thinkstock
iStock/Thinkstock

(KANSAS CITY, Kan.) — December Htoo was on his way to achieving his very own American dream, say those who knew him. After fleeing from Thailand as a refugee with his family, he came to the U.S. when he was 6 years old. He worked hard in school, joined his high school’s wrestling team, sang in the choir and wanted to become a doctor, his sister said.

But his life came to a brutal end Friday night when he was gunned down in a Kansas City, Kansas, laundromat just weeks before his 16th birthday.

Say Htoonay said she dropped off her brother for work just like she always did on Friday and Saturday nights. Named after his birth month, Htoo worked cleaning and clerking the coin-operated Maple Hill Laundromat for $8 an hour, his sister said. He used the money he made to buy new shoes and clothing and was generous with his friends.

“He really loved his job and making money,” Htoonay told ABC News. “He told me, ‘I don’t really want money for myself, I want to spend it on my friends.'”

When his shift ended on Friday, Htoonay said she tried texting her brother before driving over to pick him up. But when she arrived, there was no sign of him.

“I thought maybe he would call me when he was finished,” Htoonay said, adding that it wasn’t uncommon for December to stick around late to tidy and close out the place. “He didn’t call me so I waited and then I called the work laundry and no one picked up.”

She assumed Htoo had gone home with one of his friends.

“He did that a couple of times in the summer,” she said. “So after I call him several times and no answer, I give up.”

But the following morning, the owners of the laundromat rang her home with grave news: Htoo had been shot and killed around 9 p.m.

Police ‘kind of baffled at this point’

According to police, December Htoo was found lying face up in the laundromat with multiple gunshot wounds. When police found his body around 7:15 a.m. Saturday, they said there were no signs of forced entry and nothing had been broken. No cash was stolen and the small desktop safe “wasn’t touched,” Officer Tom Tomasic, the spokesman for the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department, told ABC News.

“He was face up with multiple shots next to a washing machine out in the public area,” Tomasic said. “I can tell you we are kind of baffled at this point.”

Tomasic said only two tips have come in so far and there is no surveillance footage from inside the laundromat. With so little to go on, the police are hoping the public comes forward with more information.

“We’re just trying to track down customers that may have been in there or saw people in there,” he said.

In one police press release, a photo of a metallic-colored minivan and a light-colored pickup truck are shown with a request from detectives “to speak with individuals” in the vehicles. Police said the owners of the vehicles are “not necessarily” suspects “but may be able to assist us in the investigation.”

‘Unlike anyone else’

As police investigate the killing, December Htoo’s friends are left to cope with his absence.

The J.C. Harmon High School Hawks are now without one of their brightest and “one-of-a-kind” wrestlers, wrestling coach Zach Davies said.

“December had a ton of potential as he was one of the more naturally gifted athletes I’ve had the pleasure of coaching,” Davies told ABC News. “He had his own way about life that was unlike anyone else.”

“He was the same way on the wrestling mat, he has his own way about him and his own style,” Davies added.

Htoo’s best friend, Diana Bueso, 15, said that December loved to win but always did so with honor.

“Last season he was competing for first place and he got second place,” Bueso told ABC News. “But I saw him shake hands and he went in for a hug and let him know how he respected him, and that it was a great opportunity to wrestle with you.”

Davies said the wrestling team was just about to kick off the season with Htoo as one of its leaders. The coach remembered him as someone who “always had a smile on his face.”

“Our team is our family, so the kids felt they lost a brother and as coaches, we lost a son,” he said. “We will miss his innocence, his goofiness, his kindness and his giving attitude.”

Htoo brought that attitude to the mat, to the classroom, and to his friends.

He had also made a name for himself as part of the school’s choir.

“He had an amazing voice,” Bueso said. “If we were in a room that echoed, he would sing his favorite song.”

That was the Imagine Dragons track “Demons,” she said.

“We had choir and he was the loudest and everyone heard him, and he didn’t care,” Bueso remembered. “He just would go.”

‘Why did you kill my son?’

His family is struggling to understand who would kill a promising young student.

Htoo’s mother, Ma Than, traveled to the laundromat after his murder. A handwritten sign there now reads “RIP December,” just one part of a makeshift memorial that also includes milk crates filled with green and magenta stuffed animals.

Than got on her knees to mourn in front of it. She told ABC’s Kansas City affiliate KMBC that she wanted answers.

“Why did you kill my son?” Than told KMBC. “He did not do anything wrong and was nice to everyone.”

Htoo’s classmates are planning to release balloons in his honor on Wednesday.

Bueso said students will convene at the laundromat and send balloons and lanterns into the sky bearing the school’s purple, black and white colors.

Htoo’s favorite color, she said, was purple.

His sister, who remembered how her little brother joked and called her “short” as he towered over her, said she also wants answers.

“I want to know why you kill him,” Htoonay said. “Why you have to shoot him so many times? Why him, why? We have to make justice for him.”

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