ST. LOUIS — Seven children under the age of 17 have been killed by gunfire in St. Louis since June, police told CNN.
The most recent victim was Xavier Usanga, just 7 years old, who was shot and killed Monday, Aug. 12 while he and his sisters played in the backyard of their home in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, police said.
Xavier, Dawn Usanga’s youngest child, was supposed to start second grade at Clay Elementary the next day, his mother told CNN affiliate KTVI. Her only son’s illuminating smile will be missed.
“He affected a lot of people in the community,” she said, through tears. “He was a really great little boy.”
Two men were shooting at each other in the street when her child became another of the city’s innocent victims of gun violence, she explained.
“The bullet went through my son’s throat, and then grazed my daughter’s elbow,” Usanga told KTVI.
An 18-year old was also critically wounded during the summer night gun battle, according to Major Mary Warnecke, deputy commander of investigative services for the St. Louis Metro Police Department. Warnecke did not conceal her anger when she took her message to the streets on Tuesday, Aug. 13, holding a news conference in Xavier's neighborhood. She said that four children under the age of 10 died in the area in 2019 alone, and noted that the questionable deaths of other children were still under investigation, so that number could be even higher.
"Been doing this a long time, and there's a line that used to be -- you don't hurt a child," she said. "And that line's been crossed too many times. And I know people have information and they're not coming forward. It's shocking."
Children dying in the streets is "not the norm," said Warnecke. "I don't want our region to be desensitized to this."
An unwanted ranking
According to statistics, St. Louis is currently the "murder capital" of the United States. Located on Missouri's western shore of the Mississippi River, the Midwestern city has led the nation from 2014 to 2017 with the highest rate of big-city murders, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics.
In 2017 (the FBI's most recent statistical year), St. Louis had 66.1 murders per 100,000 people. By comparison, the overall nationwide statistic was 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2017, according to the FBI.
This familiar story is being told once again by the most recent crime statistics published by the St. Louis Police Department. Murder and assault rates have increased in the first seven months of 2019 in the city, as compared to the same period in 2018.
Homicides in St. Louis year-to-date number 114, compared to 105 at this same point in 2018 -- an 8.6% uptick. A 6.4% increase in aggravated assaults also occurred over the same time period: 2,327 gun, knife, and other assaults happened year-to-date compared to 2,188 in 2018. Rape, including attempted rape, decreased by 22.7% from 2018 in the first seven months of 2019.
Overall, though, the St. Louis Police Department reported total person crime increased by 3.6% so far in 2019.
Not just a statistic
Numbers are meaningless to the mother of a child who's been killed. Dawn Usanga said she wants the person responsible for Xavier's death brought to justice.
Clay Elementary School students brought a letter home Tuesday evening to inform their parents of Xavier's death. St. Louis Public Schools spokeswoman Meredith Pierce told CNN that a crisis team was at the school Tuesday.
"A crisis team is sent to a school whenever a tragedy occurs," said Pierce. "The team provides services to students, staff and family. The team is made up of counselor, social workers, and nurses. Unfortunately, we've had a violent summer."
President of the St. Louis' Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed said in a statement on the day following Xavier's death that he would be drafting a "local ordinance relating to gun purchases" in the city.
"Today, another family in the City of St. Louis woke up having to face the reality that they will have to plan a funeral for their child," tweeted Reed. "I am outraged that we are still holding on to the same old ways that no longer work to address the issues of crime."
Warnecke also blamed gun violence for the child homicides, yet her focus, for now, was on Xavier's death.
"It's a small neighborhood," said Warnecke. "People know each other. They know who come and go more than we do. I know people know who shot and murdered these children. I know for a fact people know who is responsible, and we are not getting the calls we need. We are not getting people knocking and demanding that we arrest these people."
While it's clear Xavier "was murdered in front of his siblings... we're still piecing together what happened," said Warnecke.
Asked whether the children should not have been outside after the city's curfew, Warnecke reacted angrily:
"None of these children are to blame. We can enforce a curfew, and one is in place, but the children are not to blame," said Warnecke.
Instead, the community needs to step up, she said.
"I am saddened that we haven't had the cooperation and information we need," said Warnecke.