Star Grewe returned to East Palo Alto on Thursday from Bedford, Texas, to see her 2-year-old son Andrew, who was living with her mother to get treatment at Stanford Hospital for a medical condition due to his premature birth.
But things went terribly awry as Grewe played with Andrew and other children in the garage of a relative's house on the 2200 block of Menalto Avenue.
Grewe said her 12-year-old first cousin was playing with a small rifle that everyone thought was a toy when a shot rang out, striking Andrew at about 11:10 p.m. Thursday.
Paramedics took the child to a local hospital, where he died at about 11:45 p.m. of a gunshot wound to the chest, police said. Andrew was Grewe's only child.
"The gun part of it was an accident," Grewe said Friday, choking back tears. "They didn't know it was a real gun. We just heard the gunshot."
Grewe said she didn't realize anyone was hurt "until my son's face turned pale."
The family then called police, who attempted to perform CPR until the paramedics arrived.
East Palo Alto police Capt. Carl Estelle said officers believe a 33-year-old man named Sergio Sanchez left the gun at the house. Sanchez was apparently living with the family temporarily and may have shot himself in the left hand with the weapon about two weeks ago, Estelle said.
After that alleged shooting, the family asked Sanchez to get rid of the gun or leave, Estelle said. Police believe Sanchez left but hid the gun somewhere in the house.
"We're still looking for him — he's a person of interest," Estelle said. "We'd like to find out from Sergio if in fact he did shoot himself a couple of weeks ago and, at that time, was the 12-year-old present? Did the 12-year-old witness it? Was the gun left, and why was the gun left at the location? Did they leave it loaded?"
He added that Sanchez may work at a 7-Eleven in the area.
"There's a lot of places in the house where you could hide a gun because of the condition of the house," Estelle said, noting that the residence appeared "very crammed."
Members of Grewe's family living at an address police gave reporters said the shooting actually occurred in a white house across the street, where a heater, boxes and other items filled the garage.
The 12-year-old boy and five of his siblings are in the custody of Child Protective Services, police said. Authorities may return the children after interviewing everyone involved and determining there are no more weapons in the house, Estelle said.
"There's actually two victims in this — the poor 2-year-old who was shot and the 12-year-old who was allowed to be in conditions where a weapon could be found and recovered and played with and ultimately used to end the life of a 2-year-old," Estelle said.
Lisha Simmons, a neighbor and family friend, described the 12-year-old boy as a good kid.
"I wouldn't expect this to happen," she said.
For her part, Grewe said she doesn't blame her cousin because "he didn't mean it."
San Mateo County Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Friday that Sanchez could face child endangerment charges, particularly if authorities determine he gave the weapon to the boy. Under a separate California law, authorities can hold gun owners who leave a weapon in an area that's accessible to children responsible.
Police haven't arrested anyone in the shooting, and the San Mateo County District Attorney's office will determine whether criminal charges will be filed. San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said autopsy results for Andrew would be available this morning.