‘It’s heartbreaking.’ West Valley City shooting victims remembered in somber candlelight vigil

Members of the Hunter High School and Polynesian community mourned the deaths of 14-year-old Tivani Lopati and 15-year-old Paul Tahi, while also hoping Ephraim Asiata recovers.

West Valley City • Hunter High School junior Tanner Vasquez crouched down just a few feet away from the crowd. His face showed anguish as others stood silently in front of the chain-link fence on the corner of 4100 South and Mountain View Corridor.

A row of flowers sat at the base of the fence that donned a sign with written messages of remembrances for three Hunter High teenagers who were shot Thursday. Two of them, 14-year-old Tivani Lopati and 15-year-old Paul Tahi, died. Ephraim Asiata, 15, remains at the hospital in critical condition.

West Valley police arrested a 14-year-old suspect in the shooting, and he was booked into a juvenile detention facility Thursday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) More that a hundred people gather at the candlelight vigil of Hunter High football players Paul Tahi , 15, Tivani Lopati, 14, and Ephraim Asiata, 15, on Friday, Jan 14, 2022, in West Valley City, near Hunter High School along 1400 South at Mountain View Corridor. Paul Tahi and Tivani Lopati were killed in a shooting, while Ephraim Asiata remains in critical condition.

Vasquez, a center on the high school’s varsity football team, struggled to articulate how the shooting affected him, his teammates and the community at large.

“Honestly, I have no words for it,” Vasquez said. “It’s sad and it’s heartbreaking.”

The scene underscored a community thrown into mourning. The Hunter High School community. The West Valley City community. And the wider Polynesian community.

Junior quarterback Nathan Parke, who said he’s closest with Asiata, said the group chats for both the football and basketball teams have been filled with messages of support.

“We’ve all just been reaching out [and saying], ‘If you guys need to talk to anybody, we’re all here for each other,’” Parke said. “If anybody needs anything, no matter how big or how small, we’re a team. We’re a brotherhood. We’re going to pull through and get through this together.”

At least 200 people streamed in and out of the makeshift memorial that morphed into a candlelight vigil at nightfall. Friends, family, teammates and coaches hugged each other with tears in their eyes. They lit single black candles and held them in front of the memorial. They lit multiple orange lanterns and sent them to the sky.

The wider Polyneisan community showed up in droves, affected by the tragedy. Pele Malaga, who did not know anyone involved, couldn’t sleep the night before knowing her community was involved.

“Our Polynesian community is a tight and small, but [a] big community,” Malaga said. “We look out for each other, especially the kids. When one hurts we all hurt. So this was, and is, very devastating for us all.”

Lopati’s uncle, Azia, echoed this feeling of a wider community coming together.

“I’m directly related to him,” he said. “And I’m seeing people who I don’t recognize.”

Those who knew Lopati and Tahi and still know Asiata described them as “bright lights” and trustworthy friends. Vasquez described all three boys as a “lifeline.”

“You could go to them any time,” Vasquez said. “And any time you need them, they would have your back and support you.”

Parke said there’s a joke within the team that Asiata, whose nickname is “Fat Boy,” is like a grown man.

“He’s going to pull through,” Parke said. “I know he is. He’s a fighter. … I just have no doubt in my mind he’s going to pull through.”

Parke also developed a good relationship with Lopati, and said he was “one of my favorite freshmen on the team.” He also described Lopati as a “bright spirit.”

“I never saw him mad,” Parke said. “He was always laughing, making jokes, just trying to make people happy.”

All three involved in the shooting played football at Hunter.

Asiata, who remains hospitalized, is a standout linebacker. He has offers from Wisconsin and Utah. He is the son of former Utah running back Matt Asiata, who went on to play five years for the Minnesota Vikings.

Former teammates of his father remember a young Asiata coming to games and being in the locker room. The University of Utah football team put out a statement in response to the shooting.

“We send all our love and support in this incredibly difficult time,” Utah said in the statement. “We are asking for everyone to join us and our community in praying for Ephraim Asiata and his family.”

The shooting of the three boys is the most recent tragedy for a wider sports community in the state of Utah. University of Utah football players Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan died within a year of each other due to gunshot wounds in different circumstances. In October 2018, Utes track athlete Lauren McCluskey was murdered.

Thursday’s shooting is still under investigation by West Valley City police.

While that gets sorted out, those who mourn Lopati’s and Tahi’s deaths may never be whole again.

Misinale Lapuaho, a Hunter High student who knew Lopati and Tahi, said the pair had such a close relationship that they called themselves each other’s brother.

“I’d do anything in the world to switch places with either one of them,” Lapuaho said.

After Vasquez paid his respects, he stood up from his crouch and walked away alone, just like he had arrived. He stood at a nearby stoplight for a moment. And in his gray Hunter High sweatshirt, the high school junior lamented that the community had lost two people too soon.

“It’s just sad to see such young people in the community die at such a young age after how much they had to give life,” Vasquez said.