By Sarah Nagem
Ten-year-old Estrella Sosa, who dreams of becoming a veterinarian, wanted only one thing for Christmas: a puppy.
Now Estrella is never far from Gracie, a rambunctious Chihuahua that nibbles on her fingers and gnaws on a bone nearly as big as its body. A girl and her dog – a sweet scene that, for a moment, masks the horror Estrella continues to endure.
Estrella was riding in a car with her parents and older sister on Sept. 11 when she was shot in the head and back. The ambush shooting, which also left her mother injured, happened as the family pulled into their Pembroke neighborhood.
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Investigators with the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office have said the Sosa family was not the intended target, and the shooters likely mistook their car for another.
“They said we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Estrella’s mom, Retona Sosa.
Through the holidays, Estrella’s family is especially grateful for her progress.
Doctors at first said Estrella likely wouldn’t survive her injuries, Sosa said. But she was discharged after five days in the hospital.
Her recovery is a journey, however. The little girl who used to love making TikTok videos and dressing in fancy clothes now prefers to lounge around in pajama pants or cotton shorts. She sleeps a lot and has major mood swings in which she sometimes lashes out in anger. She can no longer tie her shoes.
And those dreams of becoming a veterinarian? Sosa said doctors aren’t sure how much Estrella’s brain will continue to develop.
“That’s the hardest part of it, is not knowing if she’s going to be herself again or not,” said Sosa, who works as a home health nurse.
It’s also tough, Sosa said, knowing that some of the suspects in the shooting are their neighbors.
Kids and guns
At least five people have been arrested and charged in the case: three juveniles, ages 14, 15 and 16, and 21-year-old Christian Locklear and 24-year-old Josh Locklear.
Sosa’s frustration about gun violence in her community is evident as she recalls the day that changed her daughter’s life. Estrella’s grandmother, Regina Maldonado, who lives in the same subdivision off of Moss Neck Road, is also frustrated.
About a year ago, Maldonado said, a bullet fired from a neighbor’s property went through an out building in her yard.
She said she and her husband began to hear gunshots so frequently that they abandoned their home’s master bedroom, which sits close to the road, and switched to a bedroom on the other side of the house where they felt safer.
Maldonado said she wants authorities to do more to stop the shooting. And she wants parents to step up to make sure their kids are going to school and staying out of trouble.
“Parents (are) on drugs and don’t take time to raise their children,” she said.
Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins said some of the recent violence and gun-related charges in the county have been linked to teenagers.
At least five students have been caught with guns in Robeson County public schools since the start of the school year, prompting the district to make a plea to parents about the importance of gun safety. In the most recent incident, on Dec. 2, a second-grader had a gun at Knuckles Elementary School in Lumberton.
Wilkins also said much of the responsibility falls on parents and guardians, who should make sure guns are locked away in safes.
Estrella’s family and Wilkins agree on at least one thing: Prosecutors were right to press charges against the parents of 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, who is accused of fatally shooting four students and injuring seven people at his Michigan high school on Nov. 30. The parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter.
But Wilkins has nothing against guns.
“I’m a big proponent of your Second Amendment rights,” he said. “I actually think everybody should carry a gun, especially in today’s society.”
However, that doesn’t absolve parents of responsibility, according to Wilkins.
“It’s your responsibility to check your child before they leave that morning, to check that backpack and check their bedroom, to check all their secret hiding places in the yard before they get on that school bus,” he said.
Raise the Age
Danny Britt, a state senator and defense attorney in Robeson County, has been one of the biggest advocates for Raise the Age, a law that allows 16- and 17-year-olds charged with non-violent crimes to be charged as juveniles.
Advocates for the law say it spares teens from a lifelong criminal record that affects their ability to find jobs and live as productive citizens.
In 2020, the first year the law was in effect in North Carolina, 4,300 16- and 17-year-olds were processed through the juvenile justice system instead of the adult system, The News & Observer reported.
Sosa and Maldonado say they wish the juveniles charged in their family’s case would be tried as adults.
“If they were old enough to go out there and do it, they should be old enough and man enough to take the consequences that’s going to come to them,” Maldonado said.
The sheriff’s office enlisted the help of U.S. Marshals to arrest two of the suspects, including the 15-year-old, at the Budget Inn in Lumberton less than a week after the shooting.
A 14-year-old suspect later surrendered to the sheriff’s office, according to investigators.
In an interview with the Border Belt Independent, Britt said he understands the family’s concerns. Under the law, he said, a Superior Court judge can decide whether the 16-year-old charged in the case will be tried as an adult because of the seriousness of the alleged offenses.
“If it was my child,” he said, “I would want the 16-year-old prosecuted as an adult.”
But Britt said he once represented a 16-year-old who went to a movie theater with a friend who committed an armed robbery. The teen, who drove the car after the robbery, was charged with a serious crime.
“That 16-year-old now has a conspiracy to commit armed robbery on his record for the rest of his life,” he said.
Still, Wilkins said he is skeptical of the new law. “Raise the Age has raised the crime,” he said. “Because it seems like they don’t care, because they know they’re under 18. And they are just of the opinion that a lot is not going to happen to them.”
‘God shielded that car’
Estrella isn’t the only one whose life was forever altered that late summer day. Her 12-year-old sister, Heaven, was also in the car and used her body to shield her younger sister from the gunfire.
But the bullets managed to strike Estrella as they ripped through the back windshield.
Heaven doesn’t talk much about what happened, said Sosa, who was shot in the arm. But she broke down and cried the other day, her grandmother said. So much focus has been on Estrella’s recovery that Heaven might not have had time to process her own trauma.
These days, the family spends much of their time juggling doctor visits, some of which are two hours away in Chapel Hill.
Soon, Estrella will see an eye doctor, her mother said. She needs another brain scan. She will undergo occupational therapy, and doctors also want her to talk to a counselor. She has not yet returned to school, where she is a fourth-grader, so an educator visits twice a week. Estrella also has speech therapy regularly.
Sosa said she and her husband, who works in construction, often have to take time off work. “It’s tiresome,” she said.
Sosa also attends the suspects’ court hearings, and she can rattle off upcoming dates – a reminder of the slow wheels of justice.
People tell them they should be grateful that Estrella is alive. And they are. Maldonado said she heard from people across the country who said they were praying for her granddaughter. Faith, she said, kept Estrella going.
“There’s not a day I don’t get up and thank God,” she said. “God shielded that car.”
Now, Gracie the Chihuahua rarely leaves Estrella’s side. Her older sister was Estrella’s guardian angel the day of the shooting, Maldonado said.
A puppy small enough to fit in the palm of a hand is now on guardian angel duty. Estrella seems just fine with that.
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem