Valerie Winston said her son Kenny was a mama's boy who fell in with the wrong crowd in junior high.
The body of Kenyatta Winston, 16, who went by Kenny, was found with fatal gunshot wounds at about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday by a construction worker in a vacant lot bordered by two houses near 1120 E. Crandall Ave. (about 2900 South).
Kenny was last seen Sunday night. Family and friends have told police they don't know why the Fairpark-area teen would have been in the Sugar House neighborhood.
Thursday, police said they were questioning a key witness, Natasha Alvarado, 33, after putting out an alert to the public to help them find her.
Court records indicate Alvarado has lived in various cities in Salt Lake County, including Salt Lake City and Magna. She has convictions for forgery, DUI and theft, according to Utah court documents.
Friday would have been Kenny's birthday. Instead, it will be a day of mourning and remembrance for a family who said they lost their soft-spoken son too soon.
Valerie Winston said Kenyatta was named by his father after an African king because his father felt his son "was a king."
In 2010, Winston was diagnosed with breast cancer and was in the hospital, but Kenny was in a detention center. Winston said Kenny was determined to do whatever he could to see his mom. He surprised her when he walked through the door after getting a weekend pass approved by the center.
She remembers her son as a "quiet, serious person," but also a people person. He loved babies and would volunteer to baby-sit for neighbors.
In junior high, Kenny started hanging around with "bad elements" and was in and out of detention centers and community programs. In late June, Kenny was released from detention and vowed it wouldn't happen again.
Juvenile court records show that since May 2010, Kenny had seven delinquency offenses, including a felony theft of a firearm.
"He always said, 'Mama, I'm going to be on the right track,' " Winston said.
Her last memory of her son was from Sunday.
Winston was in her back yard with family, harvesting crops from the garden, when an agitated Kenny came home. She asked him what was wrong.
"He said, 'I'm very irritated,' " she remembered. She told him to take a shower to settle down. Kenny went inside but didn't shower.
"He went out the front door, and that was the last time I seen him," Winston said as tears welled in her eyes.
A friend of Kenny's picked him up in a car, and as they drove off, his sister screamed for him to stay.
On Monday, Winston said she became nervous because her calls to him went to voicemail. The family didn't report him missing because they believed he would turn up. On Wednesday his body was found in Sugar House.
Even though he hung with a rough crowd, Kenny's death came as a shock to all his family.
"Nobody ever expected anything like this," said his uncle, Kevin Winston.
He said the family is determined to make the best out of this tragedy.
"We will grow from this," he said, noting the family wants to turn a bad situation into "something positive, rather than anger."
As a symbol of their resolve, the family planted a red-twigged dogwood shrub Thursday night at the place where Kenny's body was found.
The family is pleading with anyone who knows or saw anything to come forward. "Whoever left him there knew what they were doing," Kevin Winston said of the secluded area.
Elena Clark, a neighbor and good friend of Kenny, said he taught her daughter to walk and was trying to do the same with her 7-month-old daughter. She said Kenny would come over for dinner whenever he could to "have a place to get away and relax" and play with her baby daughters.
"I can't believe it. He was so young and now he is gone," she said as she cried at the Winston home.
Anyone with information about Winston's death is urged to call the Salt Lake City Police Department at 801-799-3000 or text 274637 and begin the message with "tipslcpd." The city's Tips-for-Cash program offers a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to an arrest in this case. Reference case number 12-151293.
Investigators would not say whether there was evidence the teen was killed at the crime scene or whether his body was placed there later.
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The family of Kenyatta "Kenny" Winston has set up an account to cover funeral costs at Mountain America Credit Union under his name.