On Monday, students at a St. Louis elementary school held a moment of silence for their 8-year-old classmate, Jurnee Thompson, who was shot and killed outside a restaurant after a football game. Over the weekend, other children attended the funeral of Xavier Usanga, a 7-year-old who died after a bullet pierced his throat while he was playing with his sisters in their backyard.
Since April, at least 13 black kids and teenagers in the city of St. Louis have died as a result of gunfire in what has been one of the deadliest and most violent summers for young people in the city in years.
So many children have have been shot and killed in such a short time that police are offering $100,000 — $25,000 for four cases involving a child under 10 — until Sept. 1 for any information to help solve some of the cases.
Officials have arrested only one suspect in the string of killings, with police begging the community for help at a press conference Saturday. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson explained that the short time window in which tipsters could claim the reward money "expresses the urgency of the situation."
“This is urgent,” said Mayor Krewson, telling the crowd how "reckless gun violence" claimed the life of 8-year-old Thompson, who was shot in the head while standing next to her family, waiting for their food.
"We are all at risk when these suspects remain on the street," she urged. "If you are as outraged as I am ... please help."
Federal data ranks St. Louis as one of the most violent cities in the US, with a murder rate that has hovered between 186 and 205 since 2015, one of the highest in the country. As of Monday, police had recorded 134 homicide cases in 2019; guns were used in nearly all of them.
The murder rate in East St. Louis, which has a population of about 26,000, is 19 times higher than the national average. More than 95% of the residents are black and the majority of families live in poverty. The Belleville News Democrat compiled data from 2000 to 2018 and found that 83% of 410 murders with a cause of death were gun-related. More than 90% of the victims were black and 75% of homicides were never solved.
However, experts say that because the victims are black and lower-income, their stories do not permeate the national conversation when it comes to gun violence. "When looking at coverage of issues like gun violence, we can't ignore the systemic issues that disproportionately affect black and brown people," said Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute, which advocates for diversity in the news media.
Ignoring how race, socioeconomic status, and lack of opportunity have lead to "disproportionate amounts of gun violence in communities" like St. Louis is part of the problem, Reynolds told BuzzFeed News. "How would this series of horrific shootings of children and teens be covered by journalists if this violence happened in a white, middle class neighborhood?" he asked. "It would be cast, as it should be, as a public health crisis and a system in need of structural change."
As gun violence has intensified, ripping through barbecues, family gatherings, and football games, more and more children have been caught in the crossfire. In 2016, 12 children in the St. Louis metro area died in shootings. In 2017, that number jumped to 19. So far this year, 18 kids are dead as a result of gunfire, according to data compiled by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"Ask anyone in this city about this and they will tell you that we are going through an extreme time," Meredith Pierce, a spokesperson for the St. Louis Public Schools, told BuzzFeed News on Monday. "This has been a more violent time than I can ever remember, and I've been at this job for six and a half years. It's been horrible."
The school district has lost nine current and former students this year: football players, second-graders, first-year high school students, 16-year-olds. It has three crisis teams that it sends to campuses to help students and teachers process losing a child to gun violence. Counselors visited two separate schools to provide comfort and mental health resources Monday, Pierce said.
The victims range in age. Six of the victims died before their eleventh birthday. Five others will never graduate from high school, according to data from St. Louis Police, which classifies a "juvenile" as under the age of 17.
They have been shot playing outside, sitting on their front porches, eating pizza, walking home, standing near a restaurant. They had different hobbies and family histories.
But, police confirmed, they "are all black."
Twenty-four hours after announcing the award Saturday, police responded to yet another report of a teenager who was found dead with a gunshot wound to his head. His name was Sentonio Cox and he was 15.
On April 30, 2-year-old Kayden Johnson and his mother, Trina'ty Riley, were shot to death while hiding in a closet after an intruder broke into their home, police said.
Elijah Johnson, Kayden's father, told KMOV-TV that the pain "is unbelievable."
"He was uplifting, he was always smiling," Johnson said of his son.
Not even a month later, authorities found Kristina Curry shot to death in Roosevelt High School's parking lot. She was a junior, about to turn 17, and she loved to spend time with her family and garden, her mother, Christian Curry, told KSDK-TV.
"Her spirit was always high ... I can't wrap my brain around when did it become OK to hurt our children. When did it become OK to just hurt each other," her mother said.
No arrests have been made in either case.
The shootings intensified as summer loomed. June was particularly deadly — four children were fatally shot in just five days that month.
Around 10:30 p.m. on June 8, Jashon Johnson was found near a park with multiple gunshot wounds. The 16-year-old later died at the hospital.
The next day, 3-year-old Kennedi Powell was shot while standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, eating pizza, when a white car pulled up, police said.
After the gunfire stopped, her mother, Nyeshia Haymore, told the Post-Dispatch that her daughter was lying on the sidewalk, still holding her slice of pizza. She had a "big personality," her family told local media, and loved to "run off and pinch you." A 6-year-old girl was also wounded in the shooting, according to police.
Charnija Keys died June 10. St. Louis police, who say they are handling her case as a "suspicious death," found the 11-year-old in her home with a gunshot wound to her head. The Post-Dispatch reported that the fifth-grader had picked up her mother's pistol and accidentally shot herself in the head.
Police are also treating Myiesha Cannon's shooting as a "suspicious sudden death." The 16-year-old was found with a gunshot wound to her head right after midnight on June 12. Neighbors told the Post-Dispatch that there are "many stories" about how she died, and though residents have suspicions, no one will come forward out of fear of retaliation.
Residents' decisions to stay silent — perhaps to protect friends or family, or because they are afraid to go to authorities — are why St. Louis officials put together the reward money in an attempt to collect tips.
"What would happen to little children if you don't [come forward]?" St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden asked his community Saturday.
On June 24, Michael Henderson Jr., a sophomore at East St. Louis High School, died in a shooting at a convenience store. An employee told KSDK the 15-year-old had come in to buy some food and walked about a block away when a gunman opened fire. The teen ran back to the store and then collapsed, the station reported.
Around 3 a.m. the next day, police found another sophomore, Derrel Williams, lying in a street on the north side of the city, alone and with multiple gunshot wounds. He had been shot in the head and died a few days later at the hospital, police said.
Ten-year-old Eddie Hill IV was sitting on his porch with his dad and a few family friends on July 19 when a dark SUV drove by and opened fire with an assault rife, local media reported.
Nearly a week later, nearly 200 people gathered at a vigil, one of many this past summer, wearing red hats and shirts with the sixth-grader's nickname, "Whogi," imprinted in cursive, Facebook Live videos showed. Community members, his family, and preachers shared stories about what a funny, energetic, smart, and joyful kid he was.
“He was amazing. He was brilliant. He was smart. He was energetic,” Rashida Chatman, his teacher, told Fox 2 News. “He’s going to be missed in our classroom. He was definitely a core piece at our school.”
Not even a month later, residents gathered at another vigil to honor another child who died in a shooting. Xavier Usanga was playing with his sisters in his backyard Aug. 12, the day before he was supposed to start second grade, when two men got into an argument nearby and started shooting at each other. A stray bullet struck the 7-year-old in the neck, killing him.
One of the men admitted to firing the gun that killed him, but said he was acting in self-defense, officials said.
Usanga was the youngest of six children and the only boy, the Post-Dispatch reported. He was born smiling and could really sing.
Reading a letter to the crowd, his 10-year-old sister sobbed that she could not believe her brother was gone.
“I miss your smile, your laugh, your hair,” she said.
On Sunday, Aug. 18, Jason Eberhart Jr. was gunned down around 2 a.m. in the city's Carr Square neighborhood. The 16-year-old was a talented football player, his family said on Facebook and to local media, and had dreams of making it to the NFL. He was about to start his junior year at a new school and had a lot of potential. He had a "golden smile" and was going to be something, his uncle, Bryan Kimble, told Fox 2 News.
On Sunday, members of the community again gathered for another vigil. They wore red, lit candles, prayed, and launched balloons to remember the teen. His death is still under investigation, and as in so many other cases, police are searching for an explanation.
On August 24, Nyla Banks was shot to death with her parents in a loft downtown, according to police and family members, who started a GoFundMe. Nyla was 10 and had just started her fourth-grade year at the Biome School. She was "sassy" and wonderful, according to teachers and other parents.
"I will miss Nyla so much she was such a wonderful kid and the sadness and pain of losing her will not go away anytime soon," said Myles Keough, who teaches second grade. "Nyla was apart of our Biome family since the beginning and finding the right words to describe how much she was loved and how much she will be missed is next to impossible for me now."
Callie Wood, whose children went to school with Nyla, wrote on Facebook that she helped comfort some of the 10-year-old's classmates, who were trying to grasp why she died.
"Her best friend died and all I could do to console her was hold her," Wood shared.
Sentonio Cox was the third child to die due to gun violence last weekend. His mother found him lying face down in a yard two blocks from their home, the St. Louis Dispatch reported.
"He was awesome kid, very respectful," Anaya Bliuett, a family friend, wrote on Facebook. "[He] helped others when they had difficulty in school, like my son."
Jurnee Thompson's mom, Sharonda Edmondson, is still posting on Facebook, asking for anyone with information on who killed her "baby" to come forward. The 8-year-old had attended a football exhibition Friday night with her family, police said, when numerous fights broke out.
“Little Jurnee Thompson was shot to death as she stood in front of a restaurant with family members awaiting their food order," Hayden, the police chief, said at a press conference Saturday. Three other people were wounded, including her two teenage cousins.
Jurnee went to Herzog Elementary School. Her father told Fox 2 News that his daughter was a "caring and loving girl."
Her mother shared photos of her daughter growing up, making "kissy faces" and eating candy with the caption, "why you baby."
"Jurnee I tried so hard baby but the system failed me," she wrote on Facebook.