Family members and friends of 15-year-old Alexander Eugene Sztanko, who was tortured and killed after going for a ride on his motorbike last weekend, celebrated his life and mourned his death yesterday in the church where he attended Sunday school and sang in the youth choir.
More than 500 people filled Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, where the youth who loved soccer and dirt-bike riding was eulogized before he was buried in a family plot at Dumfries Cemetery.
Dozens of flower arrangements adorned the altar, sent by friends who have rallied to aid Gail and Attila Sztanko, whose youngest son was shot to death in the "powerlines area" of Woodbridge.
"The loss of my son hasn't really hit me yet," Gail Sztanko said in an interview. "It's like he's away from home somewhere and next week he'll be back. I think this week has been the easiest for me because I have been surrounded by my friends, and the loss hasn't become a reality."
Alex Sztanko was last seen leaving his family's former home in the 15400 block of Cardinal Drive last Saturday to ride his motorbike. He was found dead Sunday about 1:40 p.m. during a massive search of the woods between Highway 234 and Interstate 95.
The youth was shot once in the head, court records said, after being tortured with an electric stun gun. Michael Carl George, 32, of Hartwood, has been charged with murder in the case. Prosecutors hope to seek the death penalty, they said.
St. Paul's minister, the Rev. Larry O. Tingle, told the congregation yesterday that they should celebrate the slain youth's life, despite the tragedy of his death.
"We gather today, family and friends, to share not only our heartache, but our faith," he said. "I was moved by a letter someone wrote the family that said, 'I loved Alex. I will never love like that again because it hurts too much.' You can begin to feel like life is so bad you will never trust it again. But the reason this senseless loss is so painful is because life is so good."
After the church service, a few family members and close friends traveled to the cemetery, where the youth's oak coffin was buried near the grave of his grandfather.
Others adjourned to the church's fellowship hall, where they shared refreshments and stories about the slain youth.
"He was just such a special person. He was always trying to do things to make other people happy," said 14-year-old Melanie Rogers, a classmate at Potomac High School. "He was so caring. When people were sad he would always say or do something to make them laugh."
Family friend Danny Lawray, who coached Alex in a community football league, said he last saw Alex last week when the youth waved at him from a school bus.
"That's how I will always remember him -- it's like he was waving goodbye," said Lawray, 23. "Alex was like an adopted brother to me. He liked to do a lot of the same things that I liked to do. And he didn't want to get in trouble, so I think he felt that if he was with me that wouldn't happen because I would take care of him."
A display of Alex's belongings designed by his mother included symbols from each phase of the youth's short life: A photo of Alex bouncing on his father's knee as a baby. Alex beaming at a camera with a group of preschoolers. Alex looking dignified in a navy blue blazer in a portrait with his older brothers, Chris and John. Alex looking athletic and strong with his wrestling team. His bronzed baby shoes. His stuffed Curious George doll.
"Everybody loved him," said family friend Frances Perry, whose son Roy was a close friend of Alex's. "He was just a very special boy."
"It's like something is missing," said 15-year-old Tony Massa, who clung to a friend and sobbed. "This could have happened to me. I'm just insecure about it."
Gail Sztanko said she is not bitter toward her son's killer.
"I'm wise enough to know at age 48 that my being bitter and negative is not going to bring my son back," she said.