PROSSER -- A 21-year-old Prosser man who was found shot dead on Saturday had been associating with gang members, according to a school counselor who had tried to help him and his family.
River Saenz spent his entire life in Prosser, and was home-schooled before attending high school in Mabton where he graduated in 2008.
Saenz's body was found about 7 p.m. Saturday by someone walking along an irrigation access road near the Prosser High School baseball field.
An autopsy conducted Monday confirmed Saenz was killed by a gunshot wound to his head, said Benton County Coroner Rick Corson.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
It's estimated he was killed about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Corson said. The autopsy was performed by Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, a forensic pathologist in Yakima.
Saenz had struggled to fit in after coming as a home-schooled student to a public school, said Mike Surmeyer, a teacher who was Saenz's adviser at Mabton High School.
"He had difficulty fitting in but he made a few friends," he said.
Surmeyer said he remembers Saenz as being very polite and respectful when he first met with him and his parents after they brought him to attend public school in Mabton.
Saenz didn't join any school clubs or campus organizations, and the friends he was closest to had gang associations, Surmeyer said.
His grades weren't good enough to play high school sports and he didn't join any extracurricular activities even though Surmeyer encouraged him to participate in a school play.
"He needed some kind of social outlet," said Surmeyer.
Saenz finished his senior year of high school at Mabton's alternative education program, then called Focus Alternative School.
"By the time he left (Mabton) he was in a bad crowd -- the same one he was with until the end," Surmeyer said.
The only criminal record Saenz had was for two minor offenses in 2007 and 2008.
Surmeyer said he recommended his parents have their only son go through drug screening.
"They chose not to, saying they believed him," he said.
"I told him if (he and his new friends) kept going forward with what they were doing, they would have jail or death in their future," Surmeyer said.
But he added that he felt Saenz had begun to change. "Toward the end I knew he was trying to pull his act together," he said.
Family members and others in the community were reluctant to talk about the case Monday, but one family acquaintance said his death was "a great loss, a life wasted." The acquaintance insisted on not being identified by name, saying that would "put me in jeopardy. ... It could cause me harm."
Prosser police Officer Mark Cole said Monday that no suspects had been identified in the case yet, but they were talking to several individuals.
Benton County sheriff's detectives also were helping in the investigation, but few details were being released.
"We don't want to compromise the information and give a possible suspect or suspects the direction of where we're going," Cole said. "It's not fair to the family if we're releasing information that could jeopardize the information, because that's our primary thought right now -- the Saenz family. We want to do our best to bring closure for them."
Cole, who grew up and went to high school in Prosser, added that he's "just as outraged" as everyone else that someone was killed in their town.
This is only the second homicide in Prosser city limits since 1909.
The last homicide was in 1995, when Leslie Beierle, 33, was shot nine times in the head with a .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle by Darrell Holmes, a former Prosser bartender. Holmes, who was angry that Beierle had slashed him with a knife hours earlier, shot Beierle as he slept.
Holmes was sentenced to 13 years in prison after being convicted by a jury of second-degree murder. He was charged with first-degree murder, but jurors deadlocked on whether he plotted to kill his friend.
Holmes was arrested the day of Beierle's death in a shootout with two Oregon State Police troopers and was later convicted in Umatilla County of two counts of attempted aggravated murder.
A memorial service is being planned for Saenz at Friendship Baptist Church in Prosser, but the date and time are pending, according to Prosser Funeral Home, which is in charge of arrangements.
At the request of his mother and father, the obituary will not mention anyone in his family as a survivor.
Anyone with information about the homicide can call Prosser police at 509-786-1500 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.