CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. — In 22 years, Armando Mendoza accomplished goals, helped others reach their full potential and made many friends along the way. Many of those friends are now working to keep his legacy alive.
Mendoza, who became a Clayton County police officer, died Monday in a two-car wreck. His loved ones say he lived a short, but full life.
In high school, he met 23-year-old Neil Baptiste. And while at Georgia Military College, where Mendoza went to school, he met his girlfriend, 21-year-old Gabrielle Knowles and another friend 22-year-old Caelan Filmore.
"Growing up I've always asked my mother for a brother," recalled Baptiste, who has known Mendoza for eight years. "She said 'sorry I can't give you one right now'. Mando is that brother I prayed for. Ever since I met him he's been probably one of my biggest supporters."
Baptiste and Mendoza were on the Sandy Creek High School baseball team together. He said Mendoza loved collecting different types of shoes, appreciated a good book - including the Bible - and enjoyed trying new food. Fried chicken happened to be one of his favorites.
"We always talked about, whenever you get to heaven, make sure you get a piece of fried chicken," said Baptiste. "He would always eat fried chicken and never get fat so that was probably one of the biggest things to look forward to. I told him to save me a piece for when it's my time to come."
Baptiste knows his best friend is now doing just that.
Clayton County police say Mendoza died after a wreck at Tara Boulevard and North Main Street Monday morning. Police said they responded to the area around 9:40 a.m. It was there that they learned that Mendoza was seriously injured. Sadly, he did not survive.
"I'm just blessed to have been able to experience him while he was here," said his friend Caelan Filmore. "That's an experience I'll never forget and never take for granted. It changed me forever."
Before he was on the Clayton County police force, he had come to the department alongside his mother to cater an event. That's when, they said, he realized he wanted to become an officer.
His girlfriend said he was an ambitious man who didn't hold grudges. Mendoza was an "old soul" who appreciated Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
"He always told me we're always going to go to bed and not be mad at each other," Knowles said. "In a relationship, we go through ups and downs, but with him, it was smiling. You couldn't even stay mad at him because of the way he was."
The two started dating September 2019 after knowing each other for a couple of years.
"He taught me about true love, how a man should treat a woman," she said. "Him being 22 - I'm just so amazed at how mature he is, how mature we got together. It was just genuine love."
About five years ago, Mendoza also met family friend Tony Barrs, after Barrs said he ordered catering from the family restaurant, Plaza Gourmet.
Mendoza was an only child.
"I know [his mother] tells the story of him being like a miracle child because the doctor told her she wouldn't be able to have any kids and her husband said 'well, I'm Colombian and we're going to have a kid'. Next thing you know, they got Armando," said Barrs. "He's been a miracle ever since. I still consider him a miracle."
He adds that while Mendoza worked for the Clayton County police department for one year, he was an exemplary officer.
"I just can't think of a better person, with the law enforcement climate, with the way things are going, he could bridge that gap and make the relationships better," he said. "His life was full. I don't think Armando had a dull day in his life."
Gov. Brian Kemp, on Monday night, released a short statement honoring the officer's memory.
At this time, the Georgia State Patrol is still investigating the crash. Police haven't identified the other driver involved in the crash but said that person was also taken to the hospital in serious condition.
A viewing will be held for Mendoza on Sunday, April 25 from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. at Watkins Funeral Home, which is located at 163 North Avenue in Jonesboro.
The celebration services will be held on Monday, April 26 at noon at the Light of Joy Church in Riverdale, which is located at 7458 GA-85.