Friends and classmates of the Tini brothers are clinging to memories of happier times. Of baseball games and swim meets. Sleepovers and ski trips.
They remember Jeffrey, 13, and Nelson, 9, as fun-loving kids active in sports at Council Rock schools. So news that the boys’ mother allegedly shot them as they slept in their Newtown home Monday stunned and saddened those close to the family.
Police say Trinh Nguyen shot her sons in the head in their bedrooms, then fled to the parking lot of a local church and took unspecified narcotics in a failed effort to take her own life. She has been charged with attempted murder and related crimes.
“This just doesn’t happen. It’s unfathomable,” said Megan Smith, whose son was close to the brothers. “Everyone is just numb.”
The boys were being kept on life support Wednesday, awaiting surgery to donate their organs through the Gift of Life program.
On Tuesday night, friends, neighbors, and classmates gathered at a vigil for the brothers at Washington Crossing Methodist Church. The family did not belong to the church, but Nguyen, 38, fled there hours after the shooting and was arrested in the parking lot. So it seemed a fitting place to come together in tribute to the boys.
Pastor Scott McDermott led the group in song and prayer, encouraging them to seek solace in one another.
“Some of you are too young to have experienced a tragedy like this,” McDermott told the dozens of middle schoolers who wept openly at the loss of their friends. “But we need to learn something from a time like this, and that is that our pain needs direction.”
In the hours before the candlelight vigil, tributes poured in through social media, recalling the brothers as kind and gentle.
Jeffrey, known as “JT” to his classmates at Council Rock Middle School, was an avid swimmer and baseball player and was a member of the Newtown Athletic Club’s sports conditioning program for young athletes. His younger brother also enjoyed baseball, and Smith said he often made his classmates smile with his goofy sense of humor.
Linda Mitchell, the NAC’s public relations director, said their mother, Nguyen, was active in the club, and well-known and well-liked by other parents.
“Everyone who knew her is completely shocked,” Mitchell said. “Nobody had any idea she was this troubled.”
After shooting her sons, Nguyen tried to shoot her neighbor, her ex-husband’s nephew, with the same gun, according to prosecutors. He went to her home after hearing the earlier gunshots, authorities said.
Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub has declined to comment on what prompted the shooting. But court records shed light on troubles in Nguyen’s personal life in recent months.
She and her sons were about to be evicted Tuesday from their half of the duplex they shared with the family of her ex-husband, according to court records. Nguyen owed more than $11,000 in unpaid rent to her former sister-in-law, Corrina Tini-Melchiondo, who owned the building, records show.
Nguyen divorced Nelson’s father, Ed Tini, last year, according to court records. Documents from the eviction dispute show that Nguyen and Tini-Melchiondo had a contentious relationship, and her former sister-in-law and landlord had accused her of abusive and harassing behavior, including leaving dog feces on the front lawn.
Smith, who had spoken with Nguyen as recently as Saturday, said it was clear that she had been struggling in the last few months.
“We knew it was a bad situation she was dealing with,” Smith said. “We just didn’t know how bad.”
It was unclear whether the children were aware of the troubles. But the violent events that followed sent those who knew the family reeling.
Susan Elliot, the acting superintendent of the Council Rock School District, said the shootings had “a significant and heart-wrenching impact” on students, parents, and teachers at their schools..
“A tragic event is always difficult to process for all of us, especially our children,” Elliot said in a statement, adding that grief counselors and other resources would be made available to students and parents.
“Please know that we will continue to monitor our students and staff and provide them the support they need while they are at school,” Elliot said.
Rosie Alfaro said her daughter knew Jeffrey from their years together at Sol Feinstone Elementary School, where both attended classes. She said she had a difficult conversation with her daughter on the ride home from school on Tuesday as the child confronted the loss.
“It was almost surreal yesterday, for her, what happened,” Alfaro said. “You can’t comprehend that someone is there one day, and not coming back anymore. It’s been really difficult for the kids.”
To help her daughter’s classmates cope, Alfaro, who runs Earth’s Best Organic farm in Newtown, has invited Council Rock families to the farm to spend time on the property, and pet and feed the animals.
“Basically, it’s just a relaxing experience for the kids to decompress a little,” Alfaro said. “They can go in, spend time with animals, and not think about this for a while.”