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ST. LOUIS COUNTY — The 13-year-old was a budding actor with a successful recent audition. The 3-year-old was, until Thursday, his sister’s best friend.

On Friday, county prosecutors filed charges against suspects in both boys’ deaths.

Three-year-old Rodney March III found a gun in a bedroom in his family’s apartment north of Jennings and, before noon Thursday, shot himself in the head, police said. His father, Rodney March II, 28, was charged Friday with endangering the welfare of a child. Police say he left his .40-caliber Glock within reach.

Barely six hours after Rodney’s death, 13-year-old Clifford Swan III was gunned down while walking with friends in a Spanish Lake apartment complex after helping his grandmother move in. Prosecutors charged two teens Friday: Jabari Lowery, 18, faces charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action; Montez Eskew, 17, was charged with third-degree assault of a police officer and interfering with an arrest.

Rodney and Clifford bring the total to six children dead from gunshot wounds in St. Louis County this year, one more than this time last year. And they mark a hard reality: The uptick in gun violence is not limited to St. Louis city, where at least 13 children have been killed by gunfire this year, more than double that of last year.

“This constant narrative has to stop,” County Executive Sam Page told the Post-Dispatch in a statement. “We, as a region, have to come up with solutions to these violent crimes that are plaguing some of our communities.”

Page said he is meeting with officials, including the governor, planning safety boosts for MetroLink, the region’s rail system, and holding “a true collaborative discussion on crime” starting next week in the county. Solutions are complex, Page said.

“I can’t do it alone,” he continued.

In total, 22 children have died in shootings in the St. Louis metropolitan area so far in 2019, compared to 13 at the same time last year.

‘Everything I could’

Robin Bryson, 26, has lived next door to the March family for two years and is a good friend of Rodney’s mother. She sometimes watched Rodney and his 5-year-old sister when their mother had to work at her home health care aide job at night.

“This is a really good family,” Bryson said. “You never hear any arguing over there.”

The two kids were like an old married couple, Bryson said, always trying to keep track of each other. When they visited Bryson’s apartment, if his sister would stop to talk, Rodney — whom Bryson called RJ — would call for her. “Like, ‘Come on! Let’s go,’” Bryson said.

“I just can’t live here anymore,” she said late Friday, moving cardboard boxes into an SUV.

Friend and neighbor Ariel Terry, 26, said Rodney’s father should not have been charged.

“Accidents really do happen,” she said. “It’s not like he has it (the gun) out all the time.”

“That,” added Bryson, “was his baby boy, his junior. That little boy…”

She trailed off.

As the women talked, Rodney’s mother, who declined to give her name, walked down the building’s steps and into Bryson’s arms. The two cried and hugged for several minutes.

Family members with her were carrying belongings — bags, juice boxes — out of the apartment.

“I did everything I could,” Rodney’s mother said, sobbing. “I did everything I could.”

‘He was happy’

Thirteen-year-old Clifford went by the nickname NuNu, a moniker his dad gave him as an infant. Clifford was an eighth grader at Ackerman School in Florissant. He lived with his mother, Trina Houshmand, at a home in the 4200 block of Christus Court in north St. Louis County.

Houshmand said her son was ecstatic last week after an acting audition went well in St. Louis; the audition’s organizers texted them to say Clifford had made the callback list. He wanted to work for the Nickelodeon television network.

Clifford liked to dance, play soccer, play basketball with his big brother, and tell jokes, his mother said.

“He was outgoing, he was happy,” she said.

Clifford’s father, Clifford Swan Sr., said the family was planning a funeral.

“I’m just confused,” he said. He grew quiet, then added: “This hurts.”

Swan said he and Houshmand exposed Clifford to God as a little boy and took him to church. He said he warned his son to stay away from guns and those who carried guns.

“I always told him, ‘Don’t be around nobody with no gun. They might turn on you,’” Swan said.

The shooter “took my baby boy away,” Swan said.

Charges filed Friday did not give a motive for the killing. Police said detectives thought Clifford was the intended target and were investigating whether the shooting stemmed from a previous dispute.

But Clifford’s parents said some detectives they spoke with made it sound like Clifford was an innocent bystander. And Houshmand said the 13-year-old boy her son went to play with had an older brother, 17, who resembled her son — same haircut, same complexion.

Houshmand said Friday she had no answers for her son’s killing — or for any of the violence directed at young people across the St. Louis area this year.

“Everybody seems to have a gun,” she said, “and they’re picking on babies.”

Janelle O’Dea of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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