Friends and acquaintances of Leuea Loto, who was killed in Des Moines on Thanksgiving, gathered to recall his achievements and efforts to celebrate his Pacific Island culture and community.
Some people make friends by asking a person to get coffee, inviting someone over for dinner, or bonding over a similar interest.
Not Leuea Loto.
“You got a dollar?” Leuea (pronounced Lu-way-uh) Loto would incessantly ask new faces.
“He was always asking someone for a dollar,” Ginger Lotulelei, adviser for the Mount Rainier High School Pacific Islanders Club said, chuckling at the memory.
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“It was his way of measuring you up, like if you were a giving person,” she said. “It was to get food as well.”
Loto must have gotten a buck from — and made friends with — hundreds of people, because that’s how many showed up at a vigil held at his high school in Des Moines on Saturday, two days after he was gunned down, where they gathered to remember and celebrate his life as a stalwart in the Seattle Polynesian and Pacific Islander communities and co-founder of a competition that used his culture to motivate students.
On Thanksgiving, Loto played a pickup game of football at the Mount Rainier High School campus. He was home for the holidays and was set to return to the College of San Mateo in California, where he was a student and a defensive lineman on the Bulldog’s football team. According to police, a dispute broke out after the game with people from the other team as they were leaving. Two people returned, a shot was fired and Loto, 21, was struck by a bullet.
He was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle where he died, according to Sgt. David Mohr, a spokesman for Des Moines police.
No arrests have been made, and Des Moines police are investigating the incident. They ask anyone with information to call 206-878-2121.
San Mateo football coach Tim Tulloch said the pain was immeasurable when he got the news from Loto’s father at the hospital.
“You just can’t fathom,” he said. “It hurts us and everyone in the community.”
The San Mateo football team rallied to help raise money to help Loto’s family with the memorial. A gofundme.com campaign organized by his coach and teammates nearly reached its $10,000 goal, raising $9,000 in three days.
“That’s just how much of an impact he had here in such a short amount of time,” Tulloch said.
He was skilled in the art of friend-making, Tulloch said, adding that he could always be found in the locker room singing slow jams, making jokes, laughing and dancing with his teammates.
“This kid was just always smiling and had the ability to make everyone around him feel comfortable,” he said.
Loto played football for San Francisco City College in 2015 and then took a year off, resurfacing at the College of San Mateo for the 2017 season.
He stood a little over 6 feet, weighed 320 pounds, could bench press 395 pounds and squat 525 pounds, according to his profile on NCSA.com, a student-athlete recruiting website.
“He is a giant, a big boy, but a teddy bear,” Lotulelei said.
Lotulelei said Loto became like a son to her after he and her son, Chachi Lotulelei, became best friends. She was able to help Loto graduate after he struggled his freshman and sophomore year.
She remembers during his junior and senior year of high school she would stay with him, sometimes until 8 p.m., so he could catch up on his work and continue to play sports and graduate on time.
It was because of his own academic hurdles that Loto decided to co-found the Samoan Arts and Academic Competition (SAAC) during his senior year with friend Jersiah Tafia.
“They would see in study hall how we would hardly get a good turnout, but when it’s down to dance practice everyone would come out,” Lotulelei said.
The concept was simple: students who wanted to compete in singing and dancing had to have a minimum 2.0 grade-point average.
“Kids will work hard to get their 2.0 to play their sports,” Lotulelei said. “They’re very talented at athletics and dancing and that’s just our culture, that’s just what we’re blessed with.”
Only Tyee High School, Federal Way High School and Mount Rainier High School participated in 2015, but the event has grown rapidly since then. Earlier this year, 36 schools participated in the annual competition.
Lotulelei said the event has packed the house every year, forcing the event to move from Mount Rainier to Highline College, and eventually to the Tacoma Dome this year to accommodate the crowd.
The Samoan Arts and Academic Competition has also caused an increase in graduation rates for Pacific Islander students at Mount Rainier High School, Lotulelei said.
The rate at which Pacific Islanders graduated on time was 68 percent statewide for the class of 2017, but at Mount Rainier the rate was 76.5 percent for the same class, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Even after he graduated and went to California, Loto continued to be a role model to younger Pacific Islanders, like Lio Molia, 18, whom he met at church.
“He was my sister’s boyfriend, and I went up to him to introduce myself to him and it turned out he was a good dude,” Molia said.
Loto talked to Molia about his grades and graduation requirements and reminded him to focus. He would sometimes send him academic links to help Molia get through school.
Loto was helping Molia stock up the store shelves where he worked when Loto asked him “do you want to do this for the rest of your life,” to which Molia said no.
“Well you gotta graduate. You gotta focus. Keep pushin’,” Loto said to Molia.
When Molia graduated, Loto leaned in to hug him and told him, “I knew you can do it,” he said.
For Lotulelei, Loto’s legacy lives on in the competition that brings the community together each year.
Loto is survived by his mother, Seia Sopi Loto, his father Sfaleulu Loto, his older brother Alofa Loto and two younger sisters Princess and Precious Loto. A date has not been set for the memorial.
“I think (everyone) should remember him as the big dude with the big heart,” Princess said.