ST. LOUIS — Every time Shennetta Stewart has heard about another child dying due to gunfire in recent weeks, thoughts about the safety of her own son would race through her mind.
Her heart would start pounding. And she would reach for her phone, hoping the 14-year-old would tell her where he was.
She said she filed a missing person’s report on her son, Ien Coleman, on July 5, after she hadn’t seen or heard from him in two days.
He texted and called her a few times since then, but would never tell his mother where he was, she said.
“He knew I would come get him if he did,” she said.
So she would drive around her neighborhood, looking for him. Try finding his friends on social media.
On Thursday, he told her he would be coming home. Again, she asked where he was. Riverview, he told her. A town about 15 miles from his home.
On Saturday, one of his friends sent her a series of sad face emojis through social media. She called the 16-year-old friend. He told her that Ien had been shot. He hung up before she could get much more information. She called police, and asked if they had any shootings in Riverview.
An hour before, about 11 a.m. Saturday, someone called police asking if an officer could do a welfare check at a vacant apartment in the 10000 block of Toelle Lane.
There, they found Ien dead from an apparent gunshot wound.
A detective called Stewart back and asked her to come in to talk. He described a tattoo he had on his chest of his mother’s name.
That’s when Stewart knew the oldest of her four children was dead, she said.
“I tried so hard, but I just couldn’t save him,” she said, catching her breath through her sobs Sunday. “I feel like I did all that I could do.”
Ien is among a growing list of children younger than 17 who have died from gunfire this year. On Friday, 10-year-old Eddie Hill IV was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in St. Louis.
Friends and family members who gathered at Ien’s house in the 2100 block of Chippewa Street on Sunday also spoke about Eddie, and how some of them knew his relatives as well.
“All of these kids are just babies,” said Maria Rupp, a friend of Ien’s father, Ien Coleman Sr.
St. Louis County police have said Ien was inside an apartment with a group of teenagers when he was shot.
Police have not said whether they believe the shooting was accidental or intentional, but Stewart said she believes her son was murdered.
“Why would they shoot him like that and not call for help?” she asked.
Coleman Sr., 33, agreed. Stewart sent Ien to live with Coleman Sr. in Maryland Heights after Ien served time in juvenile custody last year. She wanted him to get away from the group of kids he had started getting in trouble with in her neighborhood.
Coleman Sr. said he enrolled Ien at Parkway North High School, and watched his failing grades begin to rise. He was respectful, the type of kid who would see a full trash can and empty it without having to be told to do so. He helped a family friend work on a car engine for a few months.
Everything seemed to be on track, so Coleman Sr. let his son spend the summer with his mother.
Ien was always helpful with his two little brothers and sister when he was home, Stewart said.
But he started sneaking out of the house. And she feared he was slipping back into the wrong crowd.
The last time she saw Ien, Stewart had taken him and a friend shopping.
“Even though I didn’t care for (the friend) all that much, I wanted to do something nice for them,” she recalled.
They asked her to drop them off at her house in the Marine Villa neighborhood so they could use the bathroom while she finished an errand.
When she came back, they were gone.
But she believed he would come home Sunday, which would have been his 15th birthday. He would have known his mom would buy him an ice cream cake and put up balloons. That his friends and family would be there to celebrate.
Instead, they gathered and released the blue star-shaped balloons into the sky.