This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
When Debra Gilley gave birth to her youngest son, she knew she was done having kids. She now had four children – two boys and two girls – and to her, that was the perfect number.
Her family was complete.
Juan Morales was the baby of the family. His full cheeks earned him the nickname “chubby cheeks.” Despite growing older and thinning out, the nickname stuck. Everyone referred to him as Chubby.
The family spent their early years in Louisiana before moving to Jacksonville, Florida when Juan was young. His family remained close, regularly spending time together throughout the years. But the family was shattered in 2015 when Chubby was murdered at the age of 30.
Being the youngest, Juan was naturally spoiled and loved by many. Chubby felt that love and gave it back to the world. He was kind and generous, never angry.
His endless smile would light up a room and uplift those around him. His mother said that whenever he appeared, he made people laugh, regardless of what mood they were in.
“If we were having a bad day, Chubby would show up and make us laugh,” she said.
Ever since childhood, Juan had a rambunctious spirit. He and his older brother were always playing and making trouble for their mother.
Debra laughed as she shared stories of Chubby’s antics – like the time he came home with a mayonnaise jar full of water moccasins he caught in a creek. The sight of the slithering creatures nearly gave her a heart attack.
Pranking his loved ones was one of Chubby’s favorite pastimes. Halloween was his favorite time of year. He would dress up spooky and scare trick-or-treaters. Sometimes if he went to visit his mom, and his nieces and nephews were there asleep, he would draw on their faces – a signature move by their mischievous uncle to greet them in the mirror the next morning.
Chubby’s goal was always to make those around him smile.
Juan was a son, a friend, a brother, a cousin, and an uncle, but his favorite role of all was being a father. He loved his five children dearly. He had his first child when he was just 16, and her birth motivated him to do better. He had been getting into a little trouble, but with his daughter’s arrival came a lot of responsibility.
He was a man of many trades – a painter, a roofer, and a gardener. His love for the outdoors and landscaping led him to start his own lawn care company. He was great at what he did, and his business became a success. He was happy to be able to provide and share with his friends and family.
His mother says he would help anyone who needed it – even strangers. Her son’s generosity had no boundaries. Ultimately, Debra says, she believes it’s what led to his death.
“He was too trusting,” she said. He saw good in everybody, even those he should not have.
On Friday, June 19, 2015, Chubby stopped by his mom’s house after work. He stored his equipment for work at her house. Every morning, he would tap on her window as a “hello” as he started his day. In the evenings, they ended their days together. Relaxing by a fire pit in the backyard, Debra and Chubby talked about their days.
This night was no different.
They made plans to take three of Chubby’s children, along with three of his nieces and nephews, to swim the following day. Debra suggested he bring the kids over so they could all sleep at her house that night since they would be leaving in the morning. Chubby said he would call her once he got back to the apartment to confirm their plans.
But Debra never heard from him again.
The next morning, Debra received a call.
It was the mother of Juan’s girlfriend. She informed Debra that Chubby had been killed – shot dead while sitting in his truck in the parking lot of his apartment complex in the Arlington area of Jacksonville.
She could not believe it.
At the time, Debra lived across town from her son. An already lengthy drive felt unbearably long under the circumstances.
When she reached the scene, police had roped off the parking lot.
Debra desperately wanted to see her son but officers could not let her through. All she could see was Chubby’s leg hanging out from the driver’s side door of his truck.
Carmen, Chubby’s sister, joined her mother. She, too, pleaded with the officers to let her see her brother.
After they tried to get to him several times, police threatened to arrest them. As Debra stood there, hopeless and heartbroken, she knew she would never be the same.
A ribbon of red and white served as a barrier between her and her baby boy.
In the days and weeks following Juan’s murder, no one came forward with information about the case. Debra feels strongly that someone knows something, but no one has ever spoken up.
The police described the murder as a random drive-by, but she believes he was targeted. Bullet holes covered Chubby’s truck front to back, while the cars around him had minimal damage – the harm seemed directed at him.
Debra believes the murder was an act of jealousy or spite – or perhaps Chubby let the wrong person into his life.
As time went on, the police hit dead ends, and Chubby’s murder became a cold case.
One of the most difficult parts of losing her child is the lack of answers. Debra says she feels as though she is stuck living in a nightmare. She worries that whoever took away her son can do the same to another family. Debra does not want anyone else experiencing her pain.
Chubby was cremated and each of his family members has a necklace containing some of his ashes. Debra wears hers every day.
She carries the weight of his murder with her. Five years after his death, there are still some days she does not want to get out of bed.
“He was my heart. The life of our family,” she says.
She says Chubby’s murder drove their family apart- everyone went in different directions and dealt with the tragedy differently. Chubby’s children live with their mothers. Debra doesn’t get to see them as much as she’d like due to conflicting schedules.
Recently, Debra moved out of Florida, which held too many reminders, and went back to where their story began – Louisiana.
Juan “Chubby” Morales was only 30 years old when his life was taken. He is missed by many who are left trying to make sense of a senseless act.
“I was left with a big, empty hole for no reason,” Debra said.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Juan Morales, please call the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office at (904) 630-0500. To remain anonymous and possibly be eligible for a $3,000 reward, call First Coast Crime Stoppers at (866) 845-TIPS.
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