By BRITTANY REYES
Homicide Watch Chicago
Aaren O’Connor wasn’t mixed up with the wrong crowd. She didn’t walk down an alley late at night, look at someone the wrong way or give anyone the wrong impression.
She was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and, as she sat in her car in front of her Pilsen apartment, a stray bullet struck her in the back of the head–changing her loved ones’ lives forever.
O’Connor was a San Diego native with big dreams, a compassionate spirit, a sincere desire to travel and a wish to immerse herself in everything the present had to offer.
She cared deeply about family and friends, had a long love affair with anime, and was admired for her ability to connect to those around her with a warm smile and friendly personality.
The 25-year-old moved to Chicago about two years ago to start a job at TOMY International in Oak Brook, and to be closer to her boyfriend, Carlos Sorto, whom she met while studying in Japan as a University of San Diego undergraduate.
Her father, David O’Connor, was sitting in his study in California when his youngest daughter, Kasey, rushed in and told him something was wrong.
The 17-year-old said she was on the phone with her sister when all of a sudden the line went dead. David O’Connor immediately called his daughter, but as soon as she answered, he knew his little girl was in trouble.
She kept repeating, “My head hurts. My head hurts,” and what he feared was his daughter suffering a stroke ended up being something worse.
After she was found in her car and taken to a hospital in critical condition, David O’Connor received a call from his daughter’s roommate informing him she’d been shot. He asked where the bullet hit her and when he heard it had struck her head, he “pretty much lost it.”
Aaren O’Connor was taken to Stroger Hospital on Feb. 5, was declared brain dead, and died two days later.
And just like that, two parents lost their first-born; two siblings lost their big sister, and a man lost the love of his life.
“She was perfect to me and we had a lot of plans and hopes,” Sorto said. “We used to spend every moment we could together and would talk on the phone for hours even if I had to wake up at 4 a.m. for work … but I have no regrets about that.”
Since her death, Sorto has tried to keep busy working with the Cook County Crime Stoppers and Chicago Police to help the investigation. He said his life has been completely transformed.
During the five years of their relationship, his job was to make Aaren happy, but now, he feels like his job is gone and he hopes others “learn to cherish the people in their lives more.”
The emotional pain is something Sorto still carries, but he says the support he’s received from loved ones–especially O’Connor’s family–has done much to lessen the blow.
“I always loved hanging out with them and it was important to Aaren that I was close to them so it was important to me,” Sorto said. “This experience has made us closer and I feel like after all of this, I’m still part of the family.”
Prior to the move east, David O’Connor had tried many times to get his daughter to reconsider. While the story is tragic, it’s all too common, he said. And that’s why he protested against the move to the Windy City.
“She was an innocent victim sitting in her car talking to her little sister,” David O’Connor said. “She wasn’t doing anything. She wasn’t bothering anyone and this happened to her because of the recklessness of gang members and their use of guns on Chicago streets.”
As a former law enforcement officer who worked at a port of entry along the San Diego border for 21 years, David O’Connor struggles to deal with it, believing if Aaren had not been thousands of miles from home, he might have been able to save her.
“I had a drug dog, made arrests, captured people, put them in jail, and had a gun every day of my life down there,” he said. “It hit home even more that I couldn’t be there. If I was there, maybe I could’ve prevented this. Maybe I could’ve protected her.”
So far, no arrests have been made in connection with the shooting, but loved ones are hopeful that police will find the killer.
According to her father, the detective assigned to the case has been working around the clock, and has only taken one day off work since the murder.
Funeral services were held in San Diego Feb. 15 and more than 300 people came to say their final good-byes and celebrate her life. A memorial service took place in Chicago for co-workers and friends.
The family is grateful for the outpouring of support from the people of TOMY, who helped start a memorial fund in Aaren’s memory.
While donations were primarily collected to cover funeral and memorial expenses, the organizers also aim to fund a scholarship program for at-risk Chicago youth to advance their education and give them a chance to encounter new cultures and study abroad, an experience Aaren held close to her heart.
According to the online donation page created by her colleague, Willie Wilkov, the end goal is to develop an after-school program at a community center in O’Connor’s name, giving children in Chicago the resources and support needed to “choose a non-violent path and open their hearts to others.”
As of Wednesday, the Arren O’Connor Memorial Fund has collected more than $40,000.
David O’Connor hopes that by connecting youth to opportunities to get off the street and find alternatives to gang life, other families may avoid the pain caused by the reckless pulling of a trigger.
The heartbroken father also urges Chicagoans to call for more action from government officials, specifically Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“They’re not bringing people together to help these kids and combat the problem, and that’s what I’m angry about,” David O’Connor said. “A solution needs to come from the community and this isn’t going to get solved unless someone steps forward and becomes a leader.”
While he acknowledged that gun violence has been a longstanding issue in the city, he believes his daughter’s death can be the wake-up call people need to realize enough is enough and their children deserve better.
“Aaren is a big loss to us,” David O’Connor said. “She is our family, she is our daughter, and our first-born, but I think that loss extends even beyond her friends and family to people who didn’t even know her because we really lost a beautiful human being.
“She was humble about her accomplishments and wanted to be friends with everyone, and that’s what I want people to understand. I want people to look at this story and say that they lost somebody special because they have. Aaren was just that kind of person.”