WEST ORANGE, Texas — Under the Friday night lights at the West Orange Stark High School football stadium, fans witnessed a unique friendship that was born from an unthinkable tragedy.
City of Orange Police Officer Jason Laughlin escorted Aamiyah Gradnigo during the West Orange Stark homecoming ceremony. She was honored as the West Orange Stark High School Cheer Sweetheart.
The moment was emotional because Officer Laughlin was the lead investigator working to solve the murder of Aamiyah Gradnigo's sister, Aaliyah Gradnigo.
Aaliyah Gradnigo was 18 years old when she and her boyfriend, Thalamus Livings, were shot to death in 2021. Loved ones described Aaliyah Gradnigo as calm and sweet and Livings as respectable and kind.
"This is the first case I've ever worked that actually hit home, and maybe that was a turning point where it became close to my heart,” Officer Laughlin said.
Manka Alonzo Melson, 25, of Vinton, was found guilty of murdering the couple and sentenced to life without parole in February of 2022.
Just two years after the death of her sister brought them together, Aamiyah Gradnigo and Officer Laughlin laughed and smiled at the West Orange Stark High School homecoming ceremony.
Aamiyah Gradnigo believes that along with the Officer Laughlin, her sister was with her as well.
"She'll definitely be excited, and I know she's walking there with me," Aamiyah Gradnigo said.
Aamiyah Gradnigo wanted to thank Officer Laughlin for bringing her sister's killer to justice.
"I've always wanted to find something to show him that we appreciate him for everything that he's done,” Aamiyah Gradnigo said. “I felt like this would be perfect.”
Officer Laughlin was honored to be asked to escort Aamiyah Gradnigo.
"To be asked to escort Aamiyah tonight was actually a very high point in my career, and I'll never forget it," Laughlin said.
Amanda Gradnigo is Aamiyah and Aaliyah’s mother. The family is still in the healing process.
The mother believes Aamiyah Gradnigo's and Officer Laughlin's close friendship is something positive that bloomed from the tragedy.
"Even though the tragedy's definitely been ... something positive has come out of it," Amanda Gradnigo said.
Aamiyah Gradnigo said her special bond with Officer Laughlin inspired her to switch her career path to criminal justice.
"I look forward to her graduating and seeing her go off to college,” Officer Laughlin said.
They both hope to stay in each other lives for a lifetime.
“He's definitely family to us now," Aamiyah Gradnigo said. "I hope to see him, like, every step I take, graduation to my wedding."
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