'Unfathomable grief': Houston parents describe the moment their 9-year-old was killed in a case of mistaken identity

Arlene Alvarez, in an undated photo provided by her family.

(CNN)Nine-year-old Arlene Alvarez, sitting in the backseat of her parents' car, wore headphones to watch a movie on the way to a Houston restaurant for Valentine's Day dinner.

The girl's father, Armando Alvarez, made a stop at a drive-thru ATM, where he witnessed a robbery underway. Gunfire suddenly rang out and Armando told his family to take cover -- but Arlene couldn't hear him, her father said during an emotional press conference on Wednesday.
The child was struck by gunfire and was transported to a nearby hospital, where she died the following day from critical injuries.
      "Duck down, Arlene," her mother, Gwen Alvarez, recounted in tears at the press conference as she explained the moments before her daughter was shot. "I didn't scream loud enough. I didn't know she had her earphones on."

        Shooting was a 'case of mistaken identity,' police say

          Arlene was allegedly shot by a man identified as Tony D. Earls, 41, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, according to the Houston Police Department. Earls is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, the department said.
          CNN has been unable to determine whether Earls has obtained legal counsel and has reached out to the public defender's office.
          According to CNN affiliate KHOU, Houston police said that Earls was unaware that someone had been hit by his gunfire. He left the scene to call police and report the robbery, KHOU reported.
          The police department said Earls opened fire at a suspect who robbed him at gunpoint at a drive-up ATM at a Houston-area Chase Bank branch. The suspect fled the scene, police said, but Earls then fired at a vehicle that he mistakenly believed belonged to the man who robbed him.
          Arlene Alvarez's parents, Gwen Alvarez and Armando Alvarez, are seen during a news conference on Feb. 16, 2022, in Houston, Texas.
          Instead, the Alvarez family occupied the vehicle. Armando saw the shooter just 10 feet away as the man continued to "spray the vehicle," he said. One of the shots struck Arlene in the head and he watched his child "go down immediately," Armando added.
          "I immediately stopped, pulled her out of the vehicle," Armando said during the press conference. "I hope nobody ever has to go through this."
          Rick Ramos, an attorney for the Alvarez family, said Earls does not have a valid case for self-defense because there was no "immediate threat or fear" for his safety when he opened fire because the robbery suspect had already fled the scene.
          "At that point in time, you lose your right to self-defense," he added.
          The identity of the robbery suspect, who remains at large, is still under investigation, said Houston Police Executive Chief Matt Slinkard. "Anytime that there's guns involved, the danger to innocent bystanders is extremely high," Slinkard said.

          9-year-old was a 'warrior,' mother says

          Arlene's mother described her as a "warrior" and said she was told that her daughter was brain dead as a result of her injuries.
          "We just had our 4-month-old son," Armando told KHOU. "She always wanted to be there to change his diapers. She was a mom."
          Ramos said at the press conference alongside Arlene's parents that the child was a fourth grader but described her as an "old soul" who took care of her two younger siblings, both of whom were also inside the vehicle at the time of the shooting.
          "She got along with everyone, she loved to make TikTok videos, she was as happy as could be," he said.
          Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner responded to the fatal shooting in a statement on Twitter, saying: "The precious little girl was an innocent victim caught in the crossfire of an incident that had nothing to do with her or her family."
          "My heart goes out to Arlene's mother, father and siblings following her tragic death this afternoon. We cannot imagine their unfathomable grief," the statement reads.
          A witness who pulled up to the drive-thru described the scene he witnessed in an interview with KHOU.
          "I could hear her talking real low to her dad and her dad was talking to her trying to comfort her," Joe Maldonado told KHOU 11. "The mom was really, she was hysterical, she was basically just running around in circles around the dad and the daughter just looking up at the sky. It was pretty scary to see that."

          Houston sees a 17% increase in homicides this year

          Earlier this month, Turner announced his plan to fight crime in the nation's fourth largest city through One Safe Houston, an intersectional community initiative, after a troubling increase in homicides this year.
          Homicides increased by about 17% in 2021, compared to 2020, according to the Houston Police Department.
          "Since the beginning of the year, our city has felt anything but safe," Turner said in a press conference announcing the plan.
          This was the second recent shooting of a 9-year-old girl in the area. Last week 9-year-old Ashanti Grant was shot in an alleged road rage incident while watching cartoons in the back seat of the family car, according to her family.
            Grant is in critical condition, her family told CNN.
            No suspects have been identified in that shooting. Police continue to investigate.