LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Navy veteran Christopher Bastean makes a home in Las Vegas, but his heart is with the military.
"The military is a community. And a family."
Which makes what happened to Michael De Leon that much harder to understand.
"For me, he was not just my friend," Bastean said. "He was not just one of my sailors. He was... He was my brother."
The two bonded over their love of motorcycles, Star Wars and life in the desert.
"I was planning on getting a Harley and riding out to Twentynine [Palms, Calif.], and just him and I hitting the coast." said an emotional Bastean. "I'm still gonna do it, though. I'm gonna do it and I'm gonna do it with him in mind."
Last week, hundreds of servicemembers in San Bernardino county attended a memorial on base at Twentynine Palms to honor HM3 Michael Vincent De Leon.
It's been almost three months since the corpsman died, but investigators still won't say how or why it happened.
"It still hurts me a lot because I want to know... because we had that relationship," Bastean said, holding back tears.
Bastean isn't the only one who wants answers.
"I gathered my emotions and asked them why or what happened. They couldn't give me anything," said Michael's father, Jose De Leon, who can't stop reliving the August day when he and wife got the call that their son was suddenly dead.
"I just kind of looked at her and she broke down right there, because she knew..." Jose De Leon said in an interview over Skype from his home in Texas.
Since their son's death, the family says they've largely been kept in the dark.
But, our sister station in San Diego learned from a source with close military ties that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service confirmed Michael's death is now being investigated as a homicide.
It's a very different story than what Jose De Leon was led to believe in the hours just after Michael died, when he says the word "suicide" came up from servicemembers on base.
He didn't buy it.
"He was an extrovert," Jose De Leon said of his son. "He could walk into a room and make friends..." he trailed off, overcome with emotion.
After digging, Jose De Leon learned something from a servicemember close to the case.
"I begged him, 'Just tell me, did Michael pull the trigger or did someone else?' There was a long pause and he goes, 'Mr. De Leon, someone else pulled the trigger.' "
Jose de Leon says other servicemembers who knew Michael De Leon said he was shot on base at a corpsman's going away party in the military housing area.
The base at Twentynine Palms wouldn't provide any details about Michael De Leon's death, but a spokesperson did explain that all firearms in military on-base housing must be in a secured location in the home.
NCIS released a statement saying in part, "Out of respect for the investigative process and to protect witnesses, NCIS doesn't comment on ongoing investigations."
Bastean can't make sense of any of it.
"It was Michael! It was 'The Duck!' He was always smiling, willing to help out anybody, to put others first."
Michael De Leon's love for ducks permeated his memorial service, where rubber ducks were handed out to all as a remembrance.
"Michael was special. He thought that life was water and whatever life would throw at him he was going to act like the duck and the water -- it would fall right off," said Navy Corpsman Michael Joseph Navarro at the memorial.
Jose De Leon attended the memorial against the backdrop of his own ongoing investigation into the death of his 30-year-old son. He says the military continues to stonewall him from getting answers.
"We're not a vengeful family. Not vengeful at all. But we do want justice."
Back here in Vegas, Bastean reiterates, "There's still questions that are unanswered, that need to be answered."
Bastean is working to support the De Leon family's search for justice while preserving his friend's memory.
As he has this message for his fallen friend: "[Michael] De Leon, you're my brother. You'll always be my brother. I will, no matter what, always have your six."