Yesterday, in a Northeast Washington church packed to overflowing, the 17-year-old known as "the Bus" and "L'il Kevin" -- and called "my shining star" by his grandmother -- lay in an open casket.

Surrounded by a couple of hundred teens, young men and women and older relatives and friends, Kevin Thomas was memorialized for being "always the sound of laughter" and for being, to his father, Kevin Wallace, "a blessed gift."

"Since the first time I held you in my arms, I wanted to protect you from all life storms," Wallace wrote in a remembrance that was read to the standing-room-only crowd, which spilled into the vestibule of St. James the Baptist Church.

Controversy has surrounded the youth's death. He was being chased by D.C. police when he died of multiple gunshot wounds. Authorities are conducting forensic tests to determine whether he died from a self-inflicted wound or officers' gunfire.

Two weeks ago today, the day before his 18th birthday, Thomas was sitting in his bedroom in his grandmother's house on K Street NE and joking with his girlfriend and an aunt, Lawanda Smith, about the gifts he hoped to receive. Then he told his aunt he had something to show her, and he pulled from the waistband of his pants a 9mm handgun.

Promising his aunt that the safety was on, he laid the gun in his hand and looked for the catch to prove that it was safe. At that moment, Smith, 27, said in an earlier interview, she heard a click and then a bang. She had been shot in the hand and chest.

After calling 911 and finding towels for his aunt, Thomas fled from the house. Responding to the emergency call, police spotted Thomas. They said he had a gun and pointed it at them. Police fired.

At the church on Minnesota Avenue just north of Benning Road, the pews were filled with people wearing fur coats and pinstripes, black puffy jackets, Army green coats and RIP shirts covered with photos of Thomas. Girls filed past the casket, and even before they neared his body, some covered their eyes. Many dropped their heads onto the shoulders of the girls in front of them.

They listened to psalms and a recitation from St. John -- "Let not your heart be troubled." They sang gospel songs, and the chords of the organ soared, with everyone in the church clapping and swaying.

Thomas was reared by his paternal grandmother after his father took him from his mother's house when he was about 2 weeks old, according to the father. Midway through yesterday's funeral, Thomas's maternal grandmother came to the front of the church. Wearing a black suede coat, black leather pants and wide-brimmed black hat, Ernestine Chase told the crowd that although she was not in Thomas's life -- "not by choice," she said -- and although "we do not know why things happen . . . we know God does not make mistakes."

Behind her, Thomas's 16-year-old half-brother, Dale Thomas, who said he had never seen Thomas until the funeral, told the crowd, "My mother" -- Thomas's mother -- "was not able to make it today. He will be missed."

A cousin came to the microphone and spoke to Thomas: "You were everything. You had heart. You were smart. . . . You had a personality you couldn't get mad at." His hands shook, and the lined notebook paper on which he'd written his words trembled, too. He finished, "Rest in peace."