By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
On Monday afternoon, Becky Jones got the knock on the door. Her son, her youngest child, was dead.
“No mother is expecting that,” Jones said. “I was still hoping. Hoping that he could still be somewhere.”
On Tuesday, she was mourning the loss of the boy who on July 24, 1990, she named Mateo Vincent Lorenzo, but whom everyone called “Vinnie.” His death came just a year after the death of Jones’ oldest child, a daughter, Sara Smith, 32.
Lorenzo’s body was pulled Monday afternoon by local law enforcement officers from a 15-foot-deep strip pit at Wilderness Park, where he had slipped into the water during a hike with a friend on Saturday morning.
“Everything we know now leads us to believe the cause of death was accidental,” said Pittsburg police Detective Lt. Cris Hatcher. “But of course we can’t say that 100 percent concretely until we finish our investigation.”
The body has been sent to Topeka for an autopsy, and results are pending.
The friend “told me they were walking along and Vinnie got lethargic, like he was weak or something, and fell down. It was on an incline, and he rolled into the water,” Jones said. “He said he looked real tired, kind of stumbled and fell.”
Jones said the friend told her that Lorenzo told him to call 911, which he did. The Pittsburg Police Department received the call at 11:21 a.m. Saturday.
The friend “had to go to the gates of the park to show them where Vinnie was, and that’s quite a distance,” Jones said. “And when he came back to the water, Vinnie was gone.
“He (the friend) told me he did all he could. I’m sure (the friend) is suffering now.”
Searches by rescue teams from Pittsburg, Frontenac and Newton County, Mo., were unsuccessful on Saturday and Sunday.
“It was sleepless,” Jones said of Saturday and Sunday nights as she awaited word of whether her son had been found.
“It was very hard,” she said. “I tried to keep hoping for the best. I was trying not to think anything other than he would be found and maybe just hurt.”
Lorenzo and his wife, Holly, lived with Jones at 718 E. Eighth St.
Jones said the last time she saw her son was early Saturday morning, when she got up with her dogs and they wanted to be let into his room. The friend had been over to the house until nearly 3 a.m., so she didn’t exchange many words with her son and returned to her bed for a while.
She wouldn’t realize his whereabouts until she got a call from the friend later that day telling her there had been an accident at Wilderness Park.
The park, formerly mined land in the city limits of neighboring Frontenac, was donated to the city of Pittsburg by Louis and Louise Casaletto in June 2000 for use as a public area and to preserve its diverse ecosystem.
Since then, the Pittsburg Parks and Recreation Department has maintained a four-mile network of trails that climb the hills and ridges left by steam shovels that mined the land for coal. The trails pass by at least four sizable strip pits, a commonly heard term in Southeast Kansas used to describe large bodies of water left by surface mining that was prevalent from the 1930s through the 1960s.
The park is a popular spot for recreation, used by parents pushing strollers, fitness walkers, mountain bike enthusiasts, cross-country runners, hikers, anglers and geocachers.
It was a place to which Lorenzo had just begun going, his mother said.
“He had told me earlier in the week he had been out there,” Jones said. “He had walked out all of the trails and got real good about being out there. He told me, ‘I can be by myself out there,’ and said he had a nice time and it was a nice feeling.”
With nighttime temperatures in the mid-20s and daytime temperatures not exceeding 50 degrees on Saturday, the water in the strip pits would have been frigid.
Jones said she moved to Pittsburg with her son from California when he was 5 so that she could attend Pittsburg State University. They ended up staying, because Lorenzo liked it here. He attended George Nettels Elementary, Pittsburg Community Middle School and Pittsburg High School’s Phase 250 alternative education program.
Jon Bishop, PHS principal, said Lorenzo was a member of the class of 2008 but did not graduate.
Jones said Lorenzo was young — just 17 — when he became a father to a son, Damien, with Holly and began a job at Highland Park Cemetery. The couple married on Aug. 23, 2008. Damien is now 6 and lives with Holly’s father.
Joe Naylor, director of Bath-Naylor Funeral Home, said Lorenzo lost his job at the cemetery earlier this year. He was not employed at the time of his death. He spent much of his time on music, his mother said.
“He loved music — taught himself how to play guitar and recently started on drums,” she said. “He was becoming a very good guitar player.”
Funeral arrangements are uncertain, Jones said, because Lorenzo’s father’s side of the family is of Wintun Native American Indian ancestry in California, and it must gather for a meeting on how to proceed. His father’s mother was Creek, Delaware and Sioux from Oklahoma.
“He was proud of his heritage,” Jones said of her son. “I imagine there will be a special ceremony or something. Native American heritage was a very big part of his life.”
MATEO LORENZO’S SISTER, Sara Smith, died Aug. 29, 2011, at the Besse Hotel in Pittsburg. His father died in March, said Becky Jones, Lorenzo’s mother. He is survived by a half sister, Rachel Jones, of Oklahoma, two nephews and two nieces.