Crime

Kids in the crossfire: Kansas City searches for answers amid nonstop killings of children

Top row, from left: Jamie Zubia-Hernandez, Angel Hooper, Amorian Hale and Alexis Kane. Bottom row: Machole Stewart, Lorenzo Orozco Estrada, Ja’Quail Mansaw and Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein
Top row, from left: Jamie Zubia-Hernandez, Angel Hooper, Amorian Hale and Alexis Kane. Bottom row: Machole Stewart, Lorenzo Orozco Estrada, Ja’Quail Mansaw and Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein

Nearly a year has passed since Machole Stewart died from a bullet to the head while watching television in her Kansas City, Kan., home. She was 10 years old.

A drive-by shooter sprayed bullets at her house five days before Halloween, her favorite holiday. Machole had planned to dress up as a vampire, as she had many times, because the character gave her room for comedy and showing off.

“Machole was the life of the party,” said her grandmother Krystal Stewart. “Love your grandkids when you’ve got them because you don’t ever want to walk in my shoes.”

Stewart echoes the grief of many families that lost children to violence in the past year.

At least 16 children have died in area homicides since last October. Statistically, this year does not appear much worse than most in the past decade, police say.

But the revulsion some of these killings inspired speaks to something more than numbers, recalling for community activists a litany of small children murdered and houses shot up with reckless gunfire.

Shootings killed many of the children, who ranged from 6 weeks to 16 years old, in their homes, on their neighborhood streets or walking beside their parents. Others allegedly died at their mother’s hands.

Five died in drive-by shootings. Five fell victim to extreme cases of child abuse, according to prosecutors. At least two got caught in the crossfire of domestic violence.

Of the 16, five cases remain unsolved.

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As in past years, the common denominator in most of these deaths is parents who either are perpetrators of the violence or the target of gunfire that instead claims their children, police said.

“It’s just sad,” said Sgt. Kari Thompson, a Kansas City police spokeswoman. “This is family violence. There are not armed, unknown perpetrators coming after children.”

‘The horror that this happens’

Each time a new killing occurs, Rosilyn Temple’s phone rings.

Temple drives out to a street corner or a house where she has never been before and meets a mother or father crying over a dead child. She hugs them. She can’t tell them that it will be OK, or even that she fully understands their personal loss. Instead, she tells them that they are not alone.

As founder of the Kansas City chapter of Mothers in Charge, an anti-violence group, Temple routinely goes to homicide scenes to help grieving families. Temple started the group after she lost her son to homicide. She feels fortunate to have had him for 26 years — more than some.

Temple, like others, has been dismayed to see so many small children shot in the past year.

In her mind, a dark cloud has hung over Kansas City since the slaying of 3-year-old Damiah White and her mother, Myeisha Turner, two years ago at their home in the 5500 block of Wabash Avenue. Mothers in Charge canvassed the neighborhood with police from Turner’s home as far as 58th Street and Swope Parkway, but witnesses did not come forward. That case remains unsolved.

“When we allowed that to be OK, we opened up the door to let (more of) it happen,” Temple said. “I said to my mother then: We are going to have more babies killed. And there have been more.”

Damiah also weighs on the mind on Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. Like others, she turns any discussion of child homicides back to that case. Baker keeps a photo of Damiah in her office.

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Whoever killed Turner and Damiah left a younger child, nearly a year old, to wander alone among the bodies for hours. Damiah would have turned 4 a few weeks later.

“That one was hard for us,” Baker said. “I think there’s a greater community injury when the case is unsolved.”

Authorities always seek a witness to identify a child’s killer. Complicit in some children’s deaths are witnesses who know the killers’ names but don’t speak up, as police suspect in Damiah’s case.

Baker sees cases of murdered children every year, in a variety of circumstances. Most frequently, police quickly identify a parent or other caregiver as the killer. A few children die at the hands of other youths, still fewer by assailants who remain unknown.

Many cases defy understanding even when they are solved. Alexis Kane’s family found solace in their faith after the 14-year-old died in January.

The family last saw her on a Saturday night when she left with friends to go to the movies on the Country Club Plaza.

Police found her the next day, beaten and shot to death behind the property of The Bay Water Park at 7101 Longview Road. Friends said that she had gone to see someone she met on Facebook, according to court documents. Prosecutors charged three teenagers with murder in the case.

Four months later, relatives and loved ones gathered at Alexis’ gravesite to wish her happy birthday. They prayed for a sign that the middle school student was safe in heaven. When a streak of sunlight broke through the clouds, the family took that as their signal and released 15 colorful balloons into the sky — one for each year since her birth.

“We just started screaming for joy,” said her aunt, Shanaya Kane.

The year could have been worse. Some children survived extremely violent episodes, such as a September rolling gunbattle that killed a 35-year-old woman and injured six children when a vehicle involved in the shooting crashed into their SUV.

In July, a drive-by shooting injured a 5-year-old girl in Kansas City, Kan. She was just one of the victims of a series of shootings that killed people in Kansas City, Kan., and Overland Park.

So far this year, at least 11 children have been killed in the area.

Most happened in Kansas City, where the seven child homicide victims recorded to date in 2015 are two more than all of last year, but only half the number slain in 2006.

Without exaggerating the rate of killings, Baker sees some good in seizing on the more awful cases to draw attention to the larger problem of violence.

“I don’t know if it is a number or just the horror that this happens,” Baker said. “Children do seem to crystallize it for all of us.”

In the case of Damiah and her mother, Baker still hopes to bring the killer to justice. But better than convictions, she said, is preventing future murders. To that end, she depends on efforts such as the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.

The NoVA program, which is run out of the prosecutor’s office by Kansas City police, seeks to identify violent criminals and focus law enforcement efforts on them.

When it works, Baker said, NoVA can sometimes stop cycles of retaliatory drive-by shootings that kill children sleeping in their beds, as happened in May to Amorian S.L. Hale, 3, at his Kansas City home.

“We will have fewer Amorian Hales,” Baker said. “This is a solvable problem. Collectively, we can do better.”

Machole Stewart, killed in a drive-by shooting last October, was one of 16 children to die in homicides in the past year. Her grandmother keeps Machole's memory alive and hopes for justice.

Unsolved cases

The killings have swelled the ranks of anti-violence neighborhood activists holding vigils and releasing balloons on city streets to draw attention to unsolved homicides. The majority of victims are black children.

Simple child abuse cases most often result in charges being filed quickly. Drive-by shootings, or other cases with no cooperating witnesses, more often frustrate police and prosecutors.

In Kansas City, police continue to investigate the death of Deleisha Kelley, 16, found near an abandoned building in the 3600 block of East 24th Street on Dec. 21.

Amorian’s case also remains open after prosecutors filed charges against a Kansas City man in June. SirTerry L. Stevenson, 22, accused as the driver in the drive-by shooting that killed the 3-year-old, said another man fired the shots. But that man has not been charged.

Four cases remain open in Kansas City, Kan., where activists with the Latino Advocacy Task Force work to remind people of 16-year-old Jamie Hernandez-Zubia. Missing from the foster care system since 2012, she died in the middle of a late-night shootout on May 30.

Three deadly drive-by shootings also stymied investigators in Kansas City, Kan.

The youngest of those victims, 7-month-old Ja’Quail Da’Juan Lee Mansaw, died Jan. 5 after he was wounded in a drive-by shooting that targeted his family’s home in Kansas City, Kan. The shooting was the second at the house in the 2700 block of North Early Street since early December. In the first incident, someone fired shots into the house but hit no one.

That killing came less than a month after 16-year-old Khalif L’Ron Hampton died in a hail of bullets at his home. Turner High School received increased police protection against rumors of retaliation, but the shooters remain unknown.

Also awaiting justice is the family of Machole, the 10-year-old who wanted to dress up as a vampire on Halloween. She had plans.

Just two weeks before the shooting that killed her, Machole had toured her grandmother’s new house, where Machole expected to move in for a while. She chose new colors to paint her bedroom: purple and pink.

These days, Machole’s grandmother, Stewart, still thinks sometimes of painting that room, though it remains unused.

“Now it’s nothing,” she said. “We just hate that her life was so short and ended so violently.”

Stewart believes she knows who is responsible for Machole’s death. The shooters meant to target Machole’s older brother, Stewart said. The house has been shot up three more times since Machole died.

For support, Stewart leans on Temple from Mothers in Charge and has thought of starting a new chapter of the group in Kansas City, Kan. Stewart is uniquely well placed to do so, as she knows other families who have lost children to gunfire. It sometimes seems that violence is like a small town.

Stewart goes to church with the family of Ja’Quail, the 7-month-old boy killed in a drive-by shooting in January. Her younger son used to celebrate birthdays with Velik L. Henderson, 18, who was killed in a double homicide in Overland Park in July.

And Stewart knows the family of Shannon Rollins Jr., one of the victims in a September triple homicide that claimed 1-year-old Joseph Fletcher and his mother, Bianca.

On the phone with her friends who have lost children, Stewart gives hard-earned advice.

“Keep them close because you don’t know when you’re not going to see them again.”

The Star’s Glenn E. Rice contributed to this report.

Editor’s note

Increasingly, child homicide victims in Kansas City go unnamed to the public. This year the Kansas City Police Department stopped identifying juvenile victims of homicides.

The Kansas City Star independently verified most victims’ names. But two remained unnamed even after the arrest of their alleged killers. Court documents identify them only by initials.

Missouri’s Sunshine Law generally requires that homicide victims’ names be open to the public. To justify obscuring them, Kansas City police cited a 2003 decision by the Missouri attorney general’s office and a state statute on juvenile criminal records.

But Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for the Missouri attorney general, said the 2003 decision did not apply to these cases and the relevance of the state statute on criminal records was not clear.

Police also cited Capt. Erik Holland, an attorney for the Platte County sheriff’s office, as an authority who recommended withholding the names. But Holland said he did not advise anyone to withhold homicide victims’ names and he could not point to a statute allowing police to do so. The Kansas City Star has asked the Kansas City Police Department to clarify its policy on not naming juvenile victims.

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