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Gunfire, deadly shootings near St. Louis day care lead owner to close for the day

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ST. LOUIS — The violence close to Tess Trice’s day care center in St. Louis was so overwhelming Tuesday that she busily called parents to say she would close for the day.

A man shot dead across the street Tuesday morning, and a second homicide three blocks away. A bullet through her center window the day before.

“It’s sad,” said Trice, owner of the Little Explorers Learning Center, 1397 Arlington Avenue. “We need help out here.”

Trice said, thankfully, none of the children was hurt when the bullet sailed through the window about noon Monday and lodged in the ceiling. She said the stray bullet was the result of two men quarreling outside, not connected to her business.

And she was confident that the children in her care didn’t see anything of the homicide scene Tuesday. Most of the kids aren’t tall enough to peek outside the front window. The man’s body was some 50 yards away, in the 5300 block of Ridge Avenue.

Demetrius Whitt, 30, died on the sidewalk about 10:40 a.m. Tuesday, at the corner of Arlington and Ridge avenues, in the city’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood. 

Three blocks away, also on Tuesday, Trey Neal was fatally shot about 7 a.m. in the 5300 block of Martin Luther King Drive. Neal, 31, was found on a sidewalk with gunshot wounds and died later at a hospital.

Trice said she was calling parents.

“We’ll be closing early,” she said. “Just for the day.”

Police haven’t released the names of either homicide victim or a possible motive for the violence. Police also haven’t said if the shootings Tuesday were linked.

‘I was shook up’

At the day care center, the staff spun into protective mode as soon as the gunfire erupted. They ushered the children into a back room away from the front window, said Tawanda Brand, 37, assistant director at the center.

From that front window, through the blinds, workers could see a man on the ground dead, Brand said. The window is decorated with the children’s Thanksgiving artwork: tiny handprints turned into turkeys.

The day before, the top of their front window had been broken by a bullet that lodged in the ceiling. Brand said she was working at the day care center when she and other workers heard the shooting outside. The children were involved in free-play at the time.

“We instantly pulled the kids down to the ground,” she said. “I was shook up.”

Stray bullet hits daycare center

Tawanda Brand, an assistant director at Little Explorers Learning Center, shows a reporter on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, where a bullet lodged in the ceiling the day before. Photo by Kim Bell of the Post-Dispatch

Brand cradled a baby in her arms as she talked Tuesday. A little boy was asleep at her feet, and two more children were drawing at a table. She said parents had been alerted about the violence, but not every parent could pick up their child on short notice so the center stayed open longer than they expected Tuesday.

“We make sure to do our best to keep them safe,” she said.

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Brand was happy about one development Tuesday: Shortly after the homicide on Ridge, police parked portable cameras across the street from the day care center. The cameras are monitored by the St. Louis Police Department’s “real time crime center” detectives.

“It means they have an eye on you,” Brand said, and she felt safer.

The brick day care center with a blue awning and orange door is fenced in, and a sign posted in the front yard says, “We must start loving each other.”

Little Explorers Learning Center

Little Explorers Learning Center, at 1397 Arlington Avenue. A man was gunned down on the sidewalk across the street from the daycare center on Tuesday. Photo by Kim Bell of the Post-Dispatch

The Ridge and Arlington intersection is in the city’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood, on the city’s northwest corner. Total crime there is down about 8% compared with the same six-month period last year. Martin Luther King Drive there is the dividing line between the Hamilton Heights and Wells-Goodfellow neighborhoods.

Hamilton Height’s per-capita crime rate over the past six months is 50.24 per 1,000 residents, which is higher than 49 of the city’s 77 neighborhoods, according to crime statistics. Between May and October, there were two homicides in that neighborhood and 52 assaults.

Citywide, St. Louis has seen at least 172 homicides so far this year, according to a tally released by police on Monday morning, compared with 163 over the same period last year.

Hamilton Heights neighborhood

The boundaries of the Hamilton Heights neighborhood, displayed on Google Maps.

David Carson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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