In West Sacramento, Aliyah Smith's mother was still in shock.
Catrina Kilgore sat at her kitchen table, struggling, she said, to understand how her daughter ended up in one of south Sacramento's toughest neighborhoods, dead of a gunshot at the age of 15.
Police investigating her death have made no arrests. Smith's funeral is Wednesday.
The small teen with an oversized personality was getting good grades at River City High School and had set herself on a track toward college.
After relatives broke the news to Kilgore early Jan. 3 that her daughter had been killed at a house in a notorious spot in south Sacramento, she protested it couldn't be true.
"It's not Aliyah," she told them. "It's not Aliyah."
In the past week, a picture has emerged of a girl, known as "Lele," who straddled two worlds: One, a modest but comfortable home in West Sacramento, where she had love and support from family, friends and teachers. Another, in south Sacramento, where she hung out in areas with a more dangerous edge.
Friends recalled her generosity and fun-loving spirit. They also said she had a temper and didn't back down from fights – traits that may have led to trouble the night she died.
At her house in West Sacramento last week, Smith's room was the way she left it, her bed neatly made and new shoes in boxes on the floor.
Her mother said she hadn't been able to bring herself to go in since her daughter's death.
Kilgore looked at photos on the kitchen table of her daughters – Aliyah and older sister, Desiree. She said Aliyah loved her dog, played softball and was heartbroken when she didn't make the cheerleading squad. "She was always cracking jokes," Kilgore said. "She always wanted to make you smile."
Her outgoing personality could be trying. "She talked too much, though she wasn't supposed to," her mother said.
On several occasions, Smith had gotten into trouble for disturbing class, and her mother went to school to sit in the back of the classroom to make sure she behaved.
She'd improved her grades
Kilgore was proud of her daughter this year for bringing her grades up and aiming toward college.
In the offices of River City High School, counselor Freda Clark had worked with Smith in her role as adviser to the Black Student Union.
She said Smith was instrumental in bringing to campus one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American aviators from World War II.
Smith had decided she was going to a four-year college and had raised her grades from a 2.0 average in ninth grade to a 3.0 in 10th grade, Clark said. She was taking courses that would enable her to attend a University of California campus.
"She was energetic. She was very likable. And she cared for other people," Clark said.
In her English teacher Clairisa Maygren's classroom, friends had written messages to Smith on a bulletin board. "You will always be in our hearts. We love you Aliyah," one note says.
The board included a poem Smith wrote with photos of her friends:
"I love my life. I love my friends. They're the best. I love my girls. I put them before the rest. They have my back to the fullest. I love them. They're the coolest."
At a memorial service Thursday at a West Sacramento church, Maygren remembered Smith's penchant for disrupting her class with opinionated outbursts.
"My class is so quiet it's eerie," she said. "Instead of a moment of silence, we had a moment of loudness because she would have appreciated that."
Classmates recalled Smith's smile. Afterward, friends talked about a different side of her that sometimes led to confrontations. "When it came to an argument, she wouldn't leave it alone," said Briauna Pringle, 14.
Kaitlynn Wallace, a ninth-grader, said she became close to Smith after she told kids picking on Wallace to knock it off. "She was protective," Wallace said. "She would stick up for you."
Micah Faaifo, 15, said when Smith got into a confrontation and someone else started the fight, she wouldn't back down.
"She wasn't afraid to fight anyone," he said. Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.