When classes resumed this week at public schools in St. Louis, some desks were noticeably empty as grief counselors greeted students returning from one of the deadliest summers for children in the city's history.
Xavier Usanga, a 7-year-old student at Clay Elementary School, was killed by a stray bullet while playing near his home Monday, a day before he was to begin the second grade, his family said.
The boy's death marked the seventh child under the age of 17 killed by gun violence in St. Louis this year, police said. All but two of the victims were slain since school let out in June, and police have expressed frustration about the unsolved killings.
Four children were killed by gun violence in St. Louis in all of 2018, according to police data. In 2017, there were nine children under 16 killed and in 2016 and 2015 there were six and five respectively.
"We need to teach our children when they hear gunshots don't run, get down, get behind something," Xavier's grandmother, Mary Norwood, told reporters Tuesday. "It's really bad now that we're in times when we have to teach our children that. It's like teaching them to be afraid."
St. Louis police said Thursday that a suspect was in custody in connection with Xavier's death. However, police said, "charges were not issued." Prosecutors cited insufficient evidence.
Just days before, Maj. Mary Warnecke, deputy commander of investigative services for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, expressed frustration during a news conference that police were not getting enough cooperation from the community to solve the homicides.
"We are here ... because we have a 7-year-old who will not be starting school today," Warnecke said. "We have a 10-year-old murdered not that long ago in the city of St. Louis who will not be starting school today. We have a 2-year-old murdered ... not so long ago. We have a 3-year-old who was murdered ... not so long ago."
She said that despite detectives working around the clock to solve the homicides, the lack of help from the public is "aggravating."
"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 that we need. We are not getting people knocking and demanding that we arrest these people. We need people to step it up. We need the community to call us," Warnecke said.
"I am saddened, saddened that we haven't had cooperation and the information that I would have thought would come forward on this type of violence," said Warnecke, a 40-year veteran of the police department. "I've been doing this a long time and there's a line that used to be that you don't hurt a child and that line has been crossed too many times and people I know have information and they're not coming forward and it's shocking."
Police said that Xavier was playing with his two older sisters when gunfire erupted about 5 p.m. Monday near the youngster's house, police said. The boy was fatally struck in the neck, while one of his sisters was shot in her arm, his family said.
An 18-year-old man was also shot in the episode, police said.
Norwood said that while Xavier's sisters didn't see him get shot, they watched him die.
"They're traumatized," she said. "They're going to need counseling. They saw their little brother killed. They remember vividly every detail of his passing."
St. Louis police detailed other fatal shootings of children this year:
-- Kayden Johnson, 2, and his 18-year-old mother, Trina'ty Riley, were found shot to death in their St. Louis home on April 30. The case remains under investigation and no arrests have been made.
-- Kristina Curry, 16, was found shot to death in the parking lot of a high school on May 23. Her homicide remains unsolved.
-- Derrel Williams, 15, was discovered on a street suffering from gunshot wounds on June 25. He later died in a hospital. No arrests have been made.
-- Jashon Johnson, 16, was found shot multiple times on a street on June 8. He was taken to a hospital, where he died. His slaying remains unsolved.
-- Kennedi Powell, 3, was shot to death on June 9 when she was standing on a sidewalk near her father's car with other children and a gunman drove up in a vehicle and opened fire. Four other children and three adults were injured in the incident. No arrests have been made.
-- Eddie Hill IV, 10, was killed in another drive-by shooting on July 17 as he sat on the front porch of his home with his father. No arrests have been made.
"We have to stop this," St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner told those gathered Wednesday for a vigil for Xavier Usanga outside the boy's house, where relatives had laid out his toys and Spider-Man blanket on the front porch. “Let’s give these kids hope.”
Warnecke blamed the spike in deaths of children by gun violence on firearms being "readily available." For example, between 2010 and 2015, 8,424 firearms were seized in the city, police said.
"And when you have them readily available, this is the result," she added.