Sterling Simpson and Sahira Ortalejo grew up together, from playing outside their northeast Kansas City mobile homes to becoming high school sweethearts and eventually having two girls.
When Simpson was about 18, he fashioned an engagement ring out of a wire from his car. Though they never got married, they were bonded for life, according to Ortalejo.
“He said ‘I don’t have the money to give you what you deserve’ and he made a whole ring of like steel,” she said. “I lost it. I should have tried to hold onto it, but I never thought something like this would happen.”
On Sunday, Simpson, 26, was fatally shot in the 5200 block of East 29th Street. His death is being investigated as a homicide, according to Capt. Leslie Foreman, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City Police Department.
At first, Ortalejo couldn’t believe it.
But now she is trying to figure out how to support their daughters, three-year-old Izabella and two-year-old Selena.
“Honestly, I haven’t stopped crying,” the 24 year old said. “My day seems so empty. So boring. He gave me energy. And for my daughters … he was their world.”
Simpson was born March 6, 1996, in northeast Kansas City. He grew up in La Casita Mobile Home Park on Crystal Avenue, near Ortalejo’s family.
At the age of six, he was loud and rambunctious. Ortalejo remembers he often came to her trailer and asked her to play outside. He jokingly called her “big head,” but Ortalejo loved it — she knew it was his way of flirting.
Simpson was popular and loved playing basketball with the other boys in the park. As he got older, he played on school teams and took up football.
Ortalejo remembers he’d bike around the park doing tricks on his bicycle. She’d watch him in awe, unable to ride a bike herself. They were different: she did not like being around many people and he loved being the life of the party.
Both Ortalejo and Simpson attended East High School on Van Brunt Blvd. They met each other every day at the bus stop before school.
“He’d try to talk to me and tell me that he liked me,” she said. “He’s the only person who I could be close to 24/7.”
When he was 16, he asked her to be his girlfriend and she said yes. The pair would spend hours sitting on the stairs of his sister’s trailer talking about life.
He told her he was struggling in classes because he had ADHD and dyslexia.
Though Simpson didn’t graduate high school, she said he had dreams of opening an auto mechanic shop and leaving it to his children. He wanted to fix cars for a living and would often repair neighbors’ cars, bikes and motorcycles in his free time.
“I admired how strong he was with everything he had been through and how he carried himself,” she said.
“He didn’t like crying or bothering people with his problems. He’d try to keep it hidden, but he’d open up to me.”
Being a father
Ortalejo said Simpson was scared to be a father of daughters. He was about 23 at the time and wanted to shield them from the world.
Money was also a concern. He got a job shoveling meat and working as an overnight cook for Boyles Famous Corned Beef. While it helped pay for the couple’s first apartment together off of Independence Avenue, he worried it would not be enough to give them a childhood better than his own.
Still, he vowed to give them everything they wanted.
When they asked for a playground, he turned one of their car seats into a swing by tying it to a nearby tree. And when they saw him fixing up old bicycles, he decided to find small ones and get them in good condition so they could ride them as a family.
He often took them to the park because Ortalejo enjoyed staying indoors. She said her daughters are just as outgoing as him.
“He always told us that we deserved more than he could give,” she said.
Though his skills were respected, she remembers him feeling like he would not be good enough to be a mechanic. He wanted to build something for his family and to be a better person, she said.
But he ran out of time.
Ortalejo last saw him Sunday morning when she was dropping him off at a friend’s apartment on the East Side of Kansas City. He said he would not be able to make the birthday party Ortalejo was throwing for her brother, but wished him a happy birthday and left.
“It’s so hard to know that he’s not going to call anymore. He’s not going to be there. We’ve known each other for so long and he’s the only person who I can talk to. He was my best friend,” she said.
Ortalejo said it’s been difficult for her daughters, who struggled to understand that he would not be coming home.
“My daughters kept saying ‘Let’s go get daddy so he could come eat with us,’” she said tearfully.
“Our goal was to keep this family together.”
Family of Ortalejo have started a fundraiser to pay for Simpson’s burial and funeral. As of Thursday, they have raised $930.
Another fundraiser for Simpson’s family will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at 2020 Denver Ave. Ortalejo and her family will be cooking pupusas, a Latin American flatbread stuffed with cheese and meat, selling an order of three for $10.