The last time Crystal VanValkenburg saw her son, Austin, they went together to a Taco Bell and Royal Farms gas station in Chesapeake.
It was June 29, 2016. VanValkenburg was leaving for Michigan, where she had lived since January, and was soaking up her last few hours with her son.
Knowing the 18-year-old had been working with a friend cleaning cars at auctions, the mother asked her son to use the vacuums at Royal Farms to clean her car before she started the trip home.
As mothers do, VanValkenburg started to instruct her son for the job at hand — before he stopped her with “Mom, I know how to do this now.”
“It’s funny, he was always looking out for me,” VanValkenburg, 39, recounted Wednesday. “We really did kind of grow up together.”
Two days later on July 1, 2016, Austin Baxley’s body was found miles away, on the side of Crawford Road in York County, with multiple gunshot wounds.
For almost two years, VanValkenburg has spent hours in courtrooms. She has attended therapy sessions and joined groups for parents of murdered children. She has waited as details of her son’s death surface through courtroom testimonies.
But above all, she has found successes and comfort in his memory.
“I think he’s — as stupid as this might sound — he’s guided a lot of good things my way,” VanValkenburg said.
To his own beat
VanValkenburg remembers her son for his humor and eccentricities.
Baxley was not always an easy child — he was “too trusting,” breezed through school tests but didn’t do his homework, and sometimes annoyed people — but he cared deeply about those he loved, VanValkenburg said.
“He had a lot of friends who he would do anything for,” she added. “He was always trying to make people laugh. At his memorial service, there was a huge amount of people who got up and said he could make them smile on a bad day.”
And there was hope for the future.
Baxley, who dreamed of being a rock star and was a self-taught musician, knew he needed a structured path, and planned to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He would move to Michigan with his mother, then enlist.
While he lived in Portsmouth, Baxley also had a group of friends his mother believed were positive influences, who were pushing him forward. One of those friends, Julian Rios, pleaded guilty March 13 to first-degree murder in connection with Baxley’s death.
“I thought Julian was good,” she said. “Julian had given him a job… He was teaching him to drive. Austin would come home and brag about what Julian was doing with him.”
Baxley was found on Crawford Road in York County with multiple bullet wounds in July 2016.
Investigators charged three people, including Rios, in connection with her son’s death.
Prosecutors believe 25-year-old Amina Washington helped plot Baxley’s death. Antionne Hinton, 34, is charged with accessory after the fact in a homicide for allegedly “getting rid of” the guns used to kill Baxley.
Not all details have been publicly released because Washington and Hinton have not yet appeared in court for trial.
As of Monday, only one defendant, Rios, has been convicted in Baxley’s murder.
A mother in court
Many of the circumstances surrounding Baxley’s death have remained a mystery for VanValkenburg as she hangs in the balance between court proceedings.
VanValkenburg moved back to Virginia several months after her son’s death. Since then, she has attended court hearings for Rios and Washington.
Learning the truth behind her son’s murder has been slow going, she said. She learns many details as the rest of the public does, through testimony and court hearings — VanValkenburg had no idea who Amina Washington was until she heard her name in court.
As the mother of the victim, VanValkenburg has been learning about the criminal justice system as her son’s case unfolds.
It took VanValkenburg two hours to leave the courthouse parking lot after Rios accepted the plea deal. Per the agreement, Rios will be sentenced to life in prison with all but 23 years suspended if he testifies against Washington.
“I didn’t know how this stuff worked,” she said, adding she knew a plea agreement was in the works, but didn’t know its specifics. “I just thought if you murdered someone, you went to jail forever.”
The 39-year-old has used another mother’s case as a reference. In April 2016, two months before Baxley died, an 18-year-old was robbed of Xanax and shot outside of an Applebee’s restaurant in Virginia Beach, according to news reports.
VanValkenburg went to school with the mother, and referred to her son’s case to find out what came next.
“I just watched her and thought I couldn’t imagine what she’s going through,” she said. “But then I was in it, too, two months later.”
While she is still grieving for her son, VanValkenburg refuses to let grief consume her life.
“I made a choice not to let it consume me — he wouldn’t want me to,” she said.
VanValkenburg has since found her dream job as an office manager at an architectural firm in Great Bridge, and lives in her own studio apartment just across the North Carolina line.
She has also made many new friends that don’t view her as the “grieving mom,” but just Crystal.
And when times get hard, VanValkenburg listens to a voicemail Baxley left her shortly before he died. In the message, Baxley tells his mother he loves her and apologizes for things he did as a teenager.
“That’s a very comforting voice now.”
Fearing can be reached at email@example.com.