As professor Mercedes Medina read the words of Jael Valencia, a Wolfson Campus Honors College student, she had no idea the trouble they foreshadowed.
“The one thing I would change about my life right now if I could, would be having separated parents,” the 18-year-old freshman wrote in her first assignment for Medina’s Honors College Leadership Seminar course this past August. “Because even though it sounds selfish of me to want that, it makes my living situation as well as that of my sister burdensome.”
Less than two months later, it became tragically apparent how burdensome Valencia’s home life really was. The political science major was found shot to death in the driver’s seat of a black Chevy Malibu on the side of a Collier County road on Oct. 20. Her eyes were open slightly and blood was on her face, according to a Collier County Sheriff’s Office incident report.
Also found dead in the car was her seven-year-old sister, Melani, and their father Jesus. He had a pistol in his right hand with the slide locked back, according to the CCSO report.
Collier County Sheriff’s officials believe Jesus killed his daughters before turning the gun on himself. His wife, Neima Flores, 47, was found stabbed to death in the family’s home in Miami later that day.
After the news of Jael’s death made it to Miami, her friends struggled to deal with the tragedy. Virginia Fuillerat, the Honors College director at Wolfson Campus and Pascale Charlot, the dean of the Honors College, called an emergency meeting.
Many of Jael’s classmates were stunned. They cried. They hugged. And they remembered their “sweet” friend. Holding a makeshift candlelight vigil on campus, they sat on the floor surrounding a table filled with candles and flowers. The flowers were arranged in the shape of a heart.
“When I heard it was Jael, I couldn’t believe it,” said her classmate, Abraham Elmir, as his eyes teared up. “Somebody like that doesn’t deserve to die so young.”
Jael valued her education. She left an oppressive Cuban government behind when she was eight years old, arriving in Miami from Havana.
Eager and curious, she adjusted quickly. While at South Miami Senior High School, Jael was a straight-A student, who dreamt of becoming a lawyer to defend others. She was shaped by the experience of dealing with the corrupt and abusive Castro regime.
“I wanted to be someone who aided individuals through the laws that protected them as citizens,” Jael wrote in her first assignment in Medina’s class.
During her brief time at the Wolfson Campus Honors College, the bubbly freshman made an impression on everyone she met. She had a penchant for sitting front and center in class, being unafraid to ask questions and coming to class armed with spunk and enthusiasm.
“Her questions were on point,” said Christopher Miggliaccio, Jael’s biology professor. “She was a model student.”
Jael was enrolled in biology and the environment, English, art appreciation and the Honors Leadership Seminar during her first semester at the College. Jael had a strong work ethic. She was always prepared for class and constantly worried about keeping up with her coursework.
Recently, she was considering forgoing an invitation to listen to President Barack Obama speak at Wolfson Campus on Oct. 20. Jael thought the time could be better spent catching up on homework.
When one of her classmates—Madheline Almanzar—who had recently come to Miami from the Dominican Republic, complained about feeling alone, Valencia made it her business to make her feel welcome.
“ ‘You’re not alone,’ ” Medina said Jael told Almanzar. “ ‘I’ve adopted you and you’re going to have dinner with me.’ ”
And the words weren’t just talk. Jael visited Almanzar to watch movies, drink soda or eat chips.
Being selfless was always Jael’s way. When her best friend Legnay Fernandez was struggling to pay for a traveling visa to visit Colombia, Jael immediately set aside her own expenses and offered to lend her the money using her Honors College stipend.
Fernandez’s home became Jael’s safe haven. The two met in a middle school ESOL class. Their friendship endured even though Jael went to Wolfson Campus and Fernandez attended the Honors College Dual Language Program at InterAmerican Campus.
They didn’t allow the distance or their studies to separate them. The ambitious teenagers met nearly every day to complete their college assignments with Fernandez’s mother providing homemade meals to kickoff their study sessions.
“I said ‘I love you’ a thousand times, but I never said officially the words: ‘Yes, Jael, you’re right. You are my best friend,’and I wish I had the time to tell her that,” Fernandez said. “I would have liked for her to leave knowing that I accepted it; that she was my best friend.”
Jael was always the one with the playful personality and the moxie to strike up a conversation with strangers. The one with the mega-watt smile framed by her trademark rectangular glasses and auburn-colored mane. And the one who loved wearing blue jeans, T-shirts and white Converse.
“I have never felt as alone as I feel right now,” Fernandez said. “Wherever she is, I hope she knows that.”
High School Sweethearts
Enrique Sosa was Jael’s first love. The doting couple dated for the past 19 months. Their relationship blossomed shortly after Enrique drove Jael home after a day at the pool.
Sosa’s Instagram is filled with pictures from the night they first met, homecoming, prom and graduation. A photo from February shows Jael wearing a small promise ring.
“It sounds silly, but I had started a little savings account,” Sosa said. “I put it under my mattress. I had $1,400 to buy her a $40,000 ring in the future.”
Sosa misses Jael. They often met in the plaza between the 1000 and 2000 buildings at Wolfson Campus. He called it their “movie scene” moment.
“I always loved her and will always love her like nobody [else],” Sosa said
He is struggling with the loss. He still texts Jael’s cell phone, wishing for an answer.
“I text her things like ‘I miss you and I wish you were here,’” Sosa said.
It is unclear why this tragedy happened. Police have remained tight-lipped.
Fernandez describes Jael’s parents as supportive and friendly, but she said they often went days without speaking to avoid fights in front of their daughters.
“I knew that there were problems, but because I was her best friend, not because you could tell,” Fernandez said.
Jael was responsible for doing much of the domestic work around the house, according to Sosa.
“She always cleaned the house, did laundry, took care of [her] sister, helped her sister with the homework, all of those things that parents should be doing…” Sosa said. “She took care of her mom, she took care of her dad and she paid the bills for them online.”
The family planned to spend New Year’s Day at Disney World visiting Magic Kingdom, according to Fernandez. A hotel was already booked.
The outpouring of support for Jael has continued. Family and friends have raised more than $15,000 in a GoFundMe campaign for the costly burial expenses.
On Oct. 29, a viewing was held for the family at Vior Funeral Home in Little Havana. The dimly-lit room was filled with more than 100 visitors, many of whom stood silently, wiping their tears away.
At the entrance of the room were four books filled with photos of the family chronicling their lives. Four pastel-shaded caskets sat in the back of the room. A table displayed Jael’s high school diploma, senior crown and other mementos from her academic career. A bouquet of red roses sat nearby with a poem written by Sosa, her boyfriend: “I don’t love you with my heart because it will stop one day. I love you with my soul because it will never die.”
Meanwhile, Jael’s professors also paid homage to her. In a private moment in his office, her ENC 1101 professor, Victor Uszerowicz, talked about his plans for her final grade.
“I gave her an A on her final grade. It doesn’t mean anything, but out of respect in the final column I put an A,” Uszerowicz said. “This is something I thought she would have wanted.”
Staff writer Maria Vizcaino contributed to this report.