'It's Not Real': A Family Grieves After Accidental Shooting

Sep 25, 2020

Raquel Zavala holds the poster made for her son's memorial.
Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media

No mother is prepared to make final arrangements for their 21-year-old son. 

But Wednesday afternoon, that’s what Raquel Zavala was doing. Just last weekend, she said goodbye to her son, Hugo, for the last time although she didn’t know it. Hugo sometimes stayed with friends for a few nights at a time. That last thing she said to him was “I’ll see you Monday.”

But that didn’t happen. 

Hugo was staying with his friend, Matthew Gunn, that weekend. Late Monday night, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office was called to Gunn’s apartment in Florosa where Hugo was found dead of a gunshot wound to his face. 

According to the arrest report from OCSO, Gunn told deputies he and Hugo were tossing an AK-47 back and forth. Gunn was spinning in a computer chair while pointing the assault rifle at Hugo when he pulled the trigger. He told deputies he didn’t believe the gun was loaded. 

The news of Hugo’s death has put the family in a state of shock. 

“It feels like it’s not real, this can’t be happening,” said Hugo’s older brother, Jose. “I just can’t accept that I’m saying goodbye.”

To help fund funeral expenses, the family has set up an online fundraiser through Facebook raising over nearly $3,000 so far. It’s bittersweet to see the support. 

“We weren’t prepared for this at his age…he would’ve been 22 in December,” said Zavala. Zavala’s primary language is Spanish, so her daughter, Maria, interpreted for her.

In the past few days, Hugo’s family has been asking a lot of questions. The biggest one is “why?”

“(Hugo) knows better to be playing with guns like that because we have friends who have died…last year my friend Cordell Smart died because of a gun,” said Jose. 

Jose Sanchez talks about his brother, Hugo.
Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media

Smart was just a bystander caught in the middle of a gunfight in Fort Walton Beach last year. Seven people were charged and sentenced for his death. 

While gun violence has been an ongoing issue locally and nationally, accidental gun deaths are rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 486 deaths from an accidental discharge of a firearm in 2017 – the most recent data. 

Jose said he’s in disbelief about the tragedy. And the police report only leaves more questions. 

“There’s no way, if you’re tossing an AK back and forth it will shoot left or right, it will not shoot straight. You have to aim,” he said. “That’s really one in a million chance to shoot someone in the head.”

“How’s my brother tossing an AK-47 knowing well there’s a clip in it — it could be loaded. I know my brother had more brains that that. He was always scared of gun. He would never play Russian roulette, I just know.”

In the police report, witnesses say they heard 19-year-old Gunn screaming “What have I done” before deputies arrived. Gunn was arrested and charged with manslaughter, but Hugo’s family believe the charge doesn’t fit the crime. 

“I want justice,” said Zavala through tears. 

Attempts to reach representation for Gunn were unsuccessful.

In the state of Florida, it’s illegal for someone under 21-years-old to purchase a firearm, but not illegal to possess one. And those who meet state requirements can purchase as many firearms, including assault rifles like the AK-47, as they want. 

Last year, the activist group Ban Assault Weapons Now made a push for a proposed state constitutional ban on military style weapons, but failed to get the 766,200 signatures required for the 2020 ballot. 

Jose said he can't blame the gun, but the shooter.

"He (should) have more common sense than to play with a gun," he said. "That was just ridiculous, and the explanation that he gave was ridiculous."

With the investigation ongoing, OCSO could not comment on the shooting. Detectives have been in contact with Jose. 

Hugo Sanchez
Credit Courtesy Photo

All the Sanchez family can do now is mourn for Hugo — a son, brother, uncle. 

Hugo liked movies and rap music. He was unselfish and caring. His 16-year-old nephew Julio said he was goofy and like to make people laugh. 

“He wasn’t a bad person, he was a loving, sharing person,” said Jose. “If someone needed money for lunch, he would give them all of the money out of his pocket.” 

He was a father figure to his nephews, Dylan, Carlos, and Julio. Hugo was a favorite playmate for 3-year-old Carlos. 

“When Carlos wakes up, he would wake up Hugo, he would play with Hugo,” said Carlos’ mom Maria. “If he wanted to go outside, he would have Hugo take him outside.”

Even the dog loved Hugo. Julio’s German Shepherd, Riley, was so attached to Hugo, he’d sleep in his bed. 

Hugo’s funeral is Sunday. Extended family in Texas and Mexico will be watching via live stream. His remains will be cremated and he’ll return to the family home in Fort Walton Beach. Jose said he knows that it’s what Hugo would’ve wanted because he remembers having this conversation with him before. Back when it felt hypothetical. 

“We’ve talked about it,” said Jose. “It was one of those dumb, random conversations and I asked if he’d rather be buried or cremated and he said he’d rather be cremated and kept with the family and be united.” 

Jose said he doesn’t want this to be the end of his brother’s story. 

“He’s not alone, he can count on me to be his voice,” he said. “It cannot end like this.”