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Cop killed in River North shooting always ‘knew he wanted to be a police officer’

John Rivera | Provided by Neko Castillo

As a teenager who dreamed of becoming a police officer, John Rivera often could be found down the street from his Hegewisch home, hanging on the words of neighbor John Sanchez.

The U.S. Navy veteran and retired Chicago police sergeant would regale Rivera with war tales, and the honest reality of what it’s like to be a cop in Chicago.

“He knew he wanted to be a police officer early on,” Sanchez said Saturday afternoon, hours after the 23-year-old Rivera was killed in an apparently random shooting following his patrol shift and a night out with friends in River North.

John Rivera | Provided by Neko Castillo
John Rivera | Provided by Neko Castillo

“He wanted to talk about it, what to expect, what to do. Very respectful. He’d walk by, stop, ‘Mr. Sanchez, you got a minute?’ It’d wind up being half an hour, an hour.

“Regardless of if I told him bad things, [Rivera would say] ‘No, I gotta still be the police,'” Sanchez said.

As the nephew of a high-ranking CPD official growing up in a neighborhood full of cops, Rivera — known to friends as “J.T.” — was naturally drawn to the idea of a police career.

RELATED: 2 charged in fatal shooting of off-duty Chicago cop

John Rivera as a teenager. | Provided by Elizabeth Zuccarelli
John Rivera as a teenager. | Provided by Elizabeth Zuccarelli

So even before he was eligible to be hired, an eager Rivera passed the police exam at 18 and then waited until he could join the department at 21 to finally become an officer.

A Gresham District beat officer, Rivera would have marked two years with the department in May, according to CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson, who called Rivera “the kind of officer that we want in Chicago, a hard worker who loved going out on patrol and solving problems.”

A police officer was posted Saturday afternoon outside Rivera’s childhood home, where his mother and stepfather still live. Rivera recently bought his grandmother’s home about two blocks away.

John Rivera’s childhood home in Hegewisch. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times
John Rivera’s childhood home in Hegewisch. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

David Zuccarelli, 24, grew up with Rivera and attended school with him from pre-kindergarten through their days at Mount Carmel High School, where the pair played football together.

The two would ride their bikes around the neighborhood and “endlessly” spent time together playing sports and video games. Rivera was always cracking jokes and trying to make someone laugh, Zuccarelli said.

“If he wanted to do something, he put his mind to it and he would do it,” Zuccarelli said. “We both wanted to go to Mount Carmel and make the football team and play. We’d practice forever to do that, and he wasn’t the best, but damn he would try. And he made the team.”

Though the two friends didn’t stay in touch as much when Zuccarelli moved away for college, Zuccarelli said he remembers the time Rivera first set his sights on becoming an officer.

“We’d read silly books like Captain Underpants and comic books, and one day he just started reading this book about Cabrini Green,” Zuccarelli said. “And ever since he started reading that, he’s like, ‘I need to be a cop. I want to be a cop.’

“And we’d make fun of him for it and stuff, but he was dead set,” Zuccarelli said. “And to see him actually achieve that and become a cop was amazing. He’s always had that type of hero mentality.”

A neighborhood friend, Fred, who asked to be identified only by his first name, recalled Rivera as “a really giddy, upbeat goofball … who kind of lived life on a whim.”

He said Rivera liked to talk shop with other current and aspiring cops in their close-knit group of friends.

“It’s just totally out of the blue,” Fred said of the shooting. “Really unfortunate. Senseless.

“I was expecting he’d be a guy I’d see my whole life,” he said. “I didn’t plan on selling this property, and he’s set in stone [at his house]. So I was always thinking this is a guy that’s going to be a lifelong friend who I’m always going to know.”

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