Jonathan Guerrero was a generous guy, an old soul in a young body, his aunt Tammy Watson said. He had a big heart for the down and out, the people who had no food, nor any place to stay. When he was 14, his mom Karen Guerrero started taking him to the Atlanta Bread Company near their house in the Ft. Worth suburbs to get day-old bread to give it to the homeless. “Little did I know that he would become one of those people himself,” his mother said.
Jonathan and his sister Nina, who were born just 14 months apart, were raised by Karen and her sister Tammy. Jon and Nina really had two moms. “I was in the delivery room when they were born,” Tammy said. Tammy moved into the family home when Jon and Nina’s father left after Jon’s first birthday. Tammy had a thriving landscaping business she ran with the help of her sister, and was working as the park superintendent at University Park City, Texas. She helped support the family while Karen got her English as a Second Language teaching credential.
As her parents’ aged, Tammy realized the family needed a house large enough to house her sister and her sister’s children as well as the elderly. In April 1995, all the members of the family moved into the five-bedroom house Tammy had built. This meant that Nina and Jon were rarely alone. They even came home for lunch when they were at school.
Although Jon was bright, he always had trouble in school. Besides being dyslexic, when he was six Tammy noticed that he would space out for several minutes at a time while working on school assignments. That year, the doctor diagnosed his epilepsy, and the next year a specialist identified him as being bi-polar and prescribed lithium. “God just put too many things on this kid,” Tammy said.
Tammy and Jon were very close throughout his life, maybe because Tammy was pretty good at helping him learn traditionally masculine skills. Jon was good with his hands and adept at construction and gardening, especially tree trimming, Tammy said, so she hoped that even if he wasn’t the kind of kid who excelled at academics, these skills would be the way he latched onto the world.
The summer between middle school and high school Jon suffered severe kidney damage from the lithium he had been taking to control his bipolar condition. He was hospitalized and nearly died of dehydration. Jon was terrified of being alone in the hospital. His mother sat by his bedside most of those ten days. After that, Jonathan changed, his sister Nina said. “He started hanging out with the skateboard crowd, and in the 10th grade, he was hanging out with kids who were even weirder,” she said.
After his grandparents died and Nina started to focus on college, Jon drifted further from his family. “He was one of those kids who never took change well,” Tamara said. “And when he tried to go in his own direction, he didn’t go in a very good one.”
He had conflict with his mom and aunt before his junior year as they were increasingly alarmed by his friends. “He was a punk rocker straight through,” said his high school friend Nick Coker, who still lives across the creek from the home where Jonathan grew up. “He only wanted to have exactly what he needed. He made his own shirts. He made his own pants. He thought it wasn’t fair of him to have a lot of stuff when it could go to someone who needed something more.”
Senior year, after Nina left for college, he refused to stand to recite the pledge of allegiance and was given in-house suspension at school. “We all refused to say the pledge, but only Jon got in trouble for it,” Nick said. “They wanted to make an example of him.”
His mom Karen still held out hope that Jon would find a way to handle schoolwork. Jon was a talented artist; the school administration hung his drawings in a school-wide art exhibit at their office. “He was a good writer. He won awards for his writing when he was in grammar school,” she said. “I thought he was a late bloomer. This was a boy who was hiding his light under a bushel and I was waiting for that light to emerge.”
As his high school graduation approached, Karen kept clinging to that hope, against the evidence. When Karen came to take him to the portrait studio for his graduation photo, she found him on the back porch with a friend who was shaving his hair into a Mohawk. They quarreled. The only picture Karen allowed was the cap and gown portrait where the mortarboard covers up his Mohawk. “By the time that senior year came around, it was too late for me to access his heart,” she said.
After high school, Jon found junior college tough going. By the second semester, he was on academic probation, then he dropped out. And, in direct defiance of his bi-polar diagnosis, he started drinking heavily. “He went from being the person who drove because he couldn’t drink, to be being a drunk,” Karen said. “If he wasn’t an alcoholic, he certainly was on that road.”
He got a job at U.P.S., but he didn’t pass the probationary period because he was late for work too often. He did better at Pizza Hut, where the manager hinted that he might make Jon an assistant manager and even allow him to run a new branch that he was planning to open. His family was overjoyed, and set him up in an apartment, but Jon was restless. His friend Doggie, who had been hopping trains since he was 16, charmed Jon with tales of life on the rails. “Our first trip was to New Orleans, of course,” Doggie said. “He was stoked about it, but he was never into drugs. He wanted to drink and run around like a mad man.”
In the spring of 2010, Jonathan left for Austin and told his family he wasn’t coming back. “When he left, I was mad as all get out,” said Tammy. “I kept his phone service because I wanted a way to find him.”
Tammy made him promise to call every week to ten days, and Jon kept that promise, even if the phone calls were frantic for the family. “I would ask him, Buddy, where are you? How did you get here? Who are you with?” When his phone had run out of battery life, or he’d lost it and had to call on someone else’s, Tammy would save that number in her phone. “If he ever disappeared, I’d have some people to call to try to figure out where he was,” she said.
Jon came home for Thanksgiving in 2010, but the visit didn’t go well. His mom put him up in a motel a few miles away because she didn’t know what shape he would be in when he returned. He walked back to the motel room as soon as the Thanksgiving meal was through without saying goodbye to his aunt. Tammy had a feeling of foreboding after he left. “That’s the last time I’m going to see him and I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,” she said.
She spoke with him a few hours before the fire on the 28th. “He told me they had built a fire to keep warm,” Tammy said. “I said, Buddy, promise me you will not move that fire inside the building. Promise me.”
Nick also spoke to Jon shortly before the fire. “That warehouse, he wanted to change it to a place where kids could come and build bicycles themselves,” Nick said. “They would not only be free, but they would learn how to use tools. He wanted to teach them.”
The family believes Jon was getting tired of life on the rails. He stayed in New Orleans for Christmas partially because he had a new girlfriend there, and also because he couldn’t arrange transportation home. Nina said she got a drunken phone call from him in October when he said he wasn’t so sure about some of the people he was traveling with. “These friends aren’t who they say they are,” he told Nina. She took this as a good sign. The whole family hoped when he came back to Texas in January, has he promised, he would stay home for good.
When Nina got a Facebook message about the warehouse fire on December 28, at first she couldn’t believe it, but the messages from Jon’s friends kept coming, and her disbelief dropped away. She went upstairs to tell her mom, who was just coming out of the shower.
“Please don’t be mad at me,” Nina said, sobbing
“What? Did you wreck your car?
Nina continued to cry.
“Are you pregnant?”
“No, Jon’s dead,” she said.
As the news spread through Jon’s friends in Texas, they all descended on the house, where Karen and Tammy welcomed them. There was also a memorial at a punk bar in Ft. Worth where the kids raised $400 to help the family pay for the tombstone. This helped Tammy and Karen deal with their grief, but Karen has also sought grief counseling.
“He was so smart and he had such a kind heart,” his mom said. “If someone needed help, he couldn’t stop from going to help them. But he had his own ideas about things from the very beginning.”
His friend Nick is consoled by the way Jon lived his last days. “Jon didn’t have a plan past the age of 25,” Nick said. “He said after 25, all your best years are over. He always wanted to pick up and take off. He died living his adventure, and that is a lot more than some people will be able to say in their lives.”