On April 13th, Vincent Thomas, 17, was shot and killed during an early-morning gun battle in a house full of guns and drugs in Northeast Philadelphia.

"I think," says his mother, Donna Thomas, "he got lost."

He was the baby of her five children, "the light of the household," the one who always had a joke or a smile, and who as a kid would crawl into her bed on a Saturday morning to snuggle and watch cartoons.

Thomas, who works double shifts caring for special-ne eds adults, says her West Philadelphia house had "a lot of love." Still, on the day last August when Vincent told her, 'It's time for me to move out,' she says she couldn't talk him out of it - any more than she could erase the tattoo he'd just gotten without her knowing.

He'd come back to visit his family a few times a week, but made sure none of them knew where he lived.

"I guess," says his mother, "he wanted to protect us. Even friends that would take him home had to drop him two or three blocks away."

She'd ask if he needed money, and beg him to come home. She didn't know his new roommates in upper Bustleton, but she knew that "he was loyal to them. He made them his family. He said, 'I love them.'" And gave himself the nickname "Sanity."

She worried less because he was doing so well in school at Community Education Partners Allegheny, where he enrolled after getting into a single fight at William Penn High School. Learning manager Kareem Bryant, who worked closely with the boy, says, "Vincent was really trying to lift himself from all this adversity. . . . He was really doing well here; everyone loved him. He always came to school, he was always on time."

"Out of all the kids here," Bryant says, "he was the last one I would imagine in that situation. . . . All last week was a big blur, because I couldn't believe it was him."