The shootings started in April and accelerated as summer approached. First it was a 2-year-old, killed beside his mother. Then a 16-year-old girl, left in a high school parking lot. By the end of June, seven children had died, more than all of last year.
But they didn’t stop. Next came the teen at the gas station. Then the 10-year-old with the smile. Most recently, it was second-grader Xavier Usanga, killed on Monday in his backyard, playing with his sisters.
The toll is now 10, on pace for the worst summer in years.
Police have made an arrest in just one of the cases. And the mayhem has left brass begging for leads, politicians promising change, and parents at wits’ end: frustrated by lackluster investigations, pointing fingers at neighbors, and crushed by the loss of their children.
“In a way I’m kind of happy he died at 7,” Xavier’s mother, Dawn Usanga, said Thursday at her home, near a memorial built with candles and teddy bears. “These streets didn’t have a chance to ruin him. He could have just as easily been swept up in this war, and the boy who shot him could have been my boy someday.”
Across the region — from Franklin County to the Metro East — 17 children have been shot and killed this year. But nowhere has there been more than in St. Louis. And it’s never worse than now, in the heat of the summer.
Since the start of June, eight St. Louis children, instead of hopping through sprinkler spray or slurping down Popsicles, have been shot dead. In the same period last year, just two died. Five the year before.
Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration has worked since her inauguration two years ago to crack down on criminals, curb violence and shake the reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in America. The police department has paired with federal agents to target gun crimes. Krewson is working to recruit more police officers. She has even asked for help from the State Highway Patrol.
St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden said in June that the department is redoubling efforts to hunt down “nests” of criminal activity. He said the city is adding officers in affected neighborhoods, increasing the visibility of officers and squad cars citywide, and asking for help from social service organizations to calm potential retaliation.
But the shootings haven’t stopped. And the crimes — even last year’s — aren’t getting solved: Over the past two years, 16 children have been shot and killed in St. Louis, yet police have made arrests in only three cases. In comparison, metro-area police departments outside of the city have made arrests in half of the 20 child-shooting deaths over the same span.
Mayor Lyda Krewson says city police are working as fast as they can.
“They want to make arrests as quickly as possible,” she said on Wednesday. “There is no foot-dragging on these cases. There is nothing casual about them.”
Hayden declined to be interviewed for this story. But his statements after Xavier’s death echo the chief’s most public concerns:
“This case should be solvable,” Hayden said at a press conference then. “This can’t be, ‘I’m afraid to talk to the police.’ I’m hoping people will listen to my plea.”
Several family members said they know who shot their children, and have told police.
Others said they haven’t.
“Around St. Louis, we don’t snitch on people,” said one victim’s brother, who refused to give his name. “We keep it in the streets.”