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They Were Killed by a Gun: Faces of the Child Victims

The Year After Sandy Hook, 173 Kids Were Killed With Guns 1:25

The massacre of 20 first-graders at a Newtown, Connecticut, school three years ago outraged the nation and spurred calls for new legislation, but it did nothing to slow the firearm deaths of young Americans. Each year, hundreds of kids under 12 are shot and killed, either by accident or on purpose.

NBC News looked at cases in which children under 12 have been killed by guns since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and counted 554 deaths.

The victims are black and white, Asian and Latino. They live in cities, suburbs and rural areas. They die in hunting mishaps, get caught in street crossfire, are targeted by murderers and intentionally or unintentionally shoot themselves. The circumstances and blame vary. The only thing that ties them together is the cause of death: gunshot wound.

Here are some of their stories:

Ja’Quail Mansaw

They called him “Smoothie.”

Every day, Ja’Quail Mansaw woke up with a smile. His mother didn’t even know his teeth were coming in because he so rarely cried.

“He was a very happy child,” Balethia Washington said. “He was crawling and he was trying to talk. His words were ‘Dada’ and ‘no.’”

His milestones ended there. Smoothie was just 7 months old when a spray of bullets came crashing into his family’s Kansas City, Kansas, home on Jan. 4.

Ja'Quail Mansaw was killed Jan. 4 in a drive-by shooting in Kansas City. Courtesy of Balethia Washington

“We just started throwing kids on the floor,” said Washington, who has five other children. “When I picked up Ja’Quail to protect him, I think that’s when it happened. I fell on the ground on my side and I noticed he was bleeding.”

The bullet went through the baby’s back and into his leg. At the hospital, “they brought him back three or four times” before he died, his mother said.

Nearly a year after he was laid to rest in a tiny white casket, the drive-by shooting remains unsolved, though Washington suspects her son was caught in the crossfire of a drug dispute in her high-crime neighborhood.

Since the shooting, Washington had to leave her house and lost her bullet-pocked car. Her surviving kids are traumatized, she said.

“The other day, my 3-year-old was crying. I asked her what was the matter. She said, ‘I just miss my baby brother. I just want to go get him.’”

Nathaniel Hitt

Not long after Henry Bartle, 18, bought a shotgun at the Mohawk Sport Shop in Rome, New York, he used it to bag a deer. About a month later, he killed a turkey with it. And just a day after that, he accidentally shot his girlfriend’s baby.

Seven-month-old Nathaniel Hitt was sitting in his walker while Bartle cleaned the Mossberg 500 12-gauge pump shotgun and installed a pistol grip on Nov. 28. He laid the weapon across his lap, leaned forward and went to get up, he told police.

“The gun just went off,” Bartle said. “There was blood everywhere.”

Image: Nathaniel W. Hitt
Photo of Nathaniel W. Hitt. Family

Nathaniel was killed instantly.

“My baby’s gone,” his hysterical mother, Selena Hitt, 19, kept saying, according to a witness.

The investigation determined that before the tragedy, Hitt, Bartle and a friend had been smoking marijuana, and Bartle admitted he had not put the safety on the shotgun, which he legally possessed. He was charged last month with criminally negligent homicide, which carries up to four years in prison.

Selena Hitt’s estranged father, Gary Muntz, said that while he is a supporter of gun rights, “My feeling is this kid should not have had a gun. Guns can’t fall into the hands of irresponsible kids.”

He had not seen Nathaniel in four months because of a falling-out with his daughter but remembered him as a newborn.

“He was a sweet little baby and didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” he said.

Makayla Dyer

It was a spat over a puppy.

Eight-year-old Makayla Dyer was playing with friends outside her White Pine, Tennessee, mobile home when an 11-year-old neighbor perched at his window asked to see her new pet. The third-grader laughed and said no and the boy, according to police, got his grandfather’s 12-gauge shotgun and pulled the trigger.

In an instant, one young life was snuffed out and another was changed forever.

MaKayla Dyer via WBIR

Makayla, nicknamed BooBah by her family, had big brown eyes, a shy smile and lots of friends in her neighborhood. “Makayla was a good friend and she was sweet and she loved to play with me,” one of them wrote in a condolence book. “RIP makayla i will love you forever and always.”

The boy, whose name is not being released because of his age, was held in juvenile detention on a first-degree murder charge. The facility’s superintendent told reporters that he’d never had such a young murder defendant come through — and that the child’s attorney asked that he be allowed to keep a teddy bear in his cell.

No decision has been made on whether to charge the boy as an adult for the Oct. 3 shooting. His family says he shouldn’t even be locked up, that he didn’t fire the shot that killed Makayla. They claim that he was simply showing his grandpa’s weapons to a friend, who accidentally fired it.

"He said, 'Why am I going to jail when I didn't even do this?'" his grandmother, Dianna Houchins, said at a press conference last month.

Cylie and Caden McCullum

The call came in shortly after midnight — a woman reporting that her sister was distraught, had a gun and was threatening to kill herself and her two small children. Police searched through the night for Michelle McCullum and her kids, 3-year-old Cylie and 5-year-old Caden, before sending out a public alert in the morning.

Just an hour later, they learned that McCullum — who had recently lost her job, according to neighbors — had carried out her threat. The bodies of all three were found in her car parked in a remote area in east New Orleans; each had been shot once with her .40-caliber pistol, which she legally owned, police said.

Caden, left, and Cylie McCullum via WDSU

The program for the siblings’ funeral service described them as inseparable.

“Caden was fearless, inspiring and although small in stature, his will and determination was that of a giant,” it said. “The angel named Cylie … wherever Caden was Cylie wanted to be. She loved her ‘brudda’ unconditionally. Without thought, he was her world and she was his.”

Police never released details about what drove McCullum, described by neighbors and relatives as a devoted mother, to the depths of despair. The funeral program echoed the question.

“These two angels were called way too soon,” it said. “We don’t know why and we cannot rationalize it.”

Olivia Stoffel

It was a warm spring evening in Menasha, Wisconsin, and the Stoffel family was out for a walk with the dog on a pedestrian bridge on a recreational trail. Suddenly, there was a loud bang.

Within moments, the family was in the middle of a rare kind of crime. Army veteran Sergio Valencia del Toro, angry after a fight with his girlfriend, had just fatally shot a stranger, police said. And now he turned his gun on the Stoffels.

Jon, the dad, was mortally wounded, along with 11-year-old Olivia. “May God forgive you,” he told the gunman, according to an investigative report.

The mom, Erin, was shot three times but survived and managed to get Olivia’s siblings, Ezra and Selah, to safety while del Toro shot himself dead.

Olivia and Jonathan Stoffel WMTV

When police looked into the shooter’s background they found a dangerous scenario: He had a long history of psychiatric problems and suicide threats, a drinking problem — and a big arsenal. He brought a Taurus revolver, a .9mm semiautomatic pistol and extra ammunition to the Trestle Trail Bridge that evening; he had eight more guns at home, all legally bought because he had no criminal record.

An obituary for the victims focused on their life, not their violent death. Olivia was in the drama club. She made bracelets to raise funds for the Fox Valley Jail Ministry and dreamed of being an author when she grew up. Her father, a Sunday school teacher, had baptized her and taken her on a mission trip to Honduras.

Hank Bollen

The pictures of Hank Bollen on his mother’s Facebook page pay tribute to his love of the outdoors. There’s a photo of him catching a frog, another holding two fishing poles and yet another that shows him in hunting gear straddling a dead deer.

Hank Bollen, 9 Lewis Funeral Home via NBC12

So it's not surprising that when the 9-year-old had a day off from school on Feb. 17, 2014, he took his youth .22 rifle and went out to look for squirrels in the woods of Arkansas, near his home in Magnolia. When he didn’t come home, sheriff’s deputies were summoned to look for him and a police helicopter found the fourth-grader’s body the next morning.

Police did not release specifics, saying only that it appeared to be a hunting accident. Hank’s mom, who did not return calls for comment, has written about “faulty” youth rifles on her Facebook page.

“I miss my son!!!!” she wrote. “I hope what I've been doing will help others. I don't want anyone to have to go through this. It can be prevented. What I would do to hold Hank right now.”

Payton Benson

What she wanted most in the world was to start school, but a bullet that ripped through her Omaha, Nebraska, home on Jan. 15, 2014, ensured that dream would never come true.

Payton Benson, 5, loved makeup, fancy dresses and Barbie dolls. She spoke in a voice so soft it sounded like she was whispering, and followed her mother around the house all day with a smile on her face.

A photo of five-year-old Payton Benson is displayed at her funeral. WOWT

She was eating breakfast with her mom when gang members opened fire on rivals on the street with a semiautomatic rifle and handguns, according to police. The bullets missed their targets, but two from the rifle came flying into Payton’s house, and one of them killed her.

Five of the gang members eventually went to prison on charges ranging from murder to weapons possession.

Payton’s mother, Tabatha Manning, marked what would have been her daughter’s sixth birthday by calling for an end to gun violence.

But it may have been Payton’s brother Latrell who said it best. At a press conference soon after his sister’s death, the grade-schooler pleaded: “This is not fair people are dying — not fair at all.”

Samuel Epps

An argument over doing chores sent 11-year-old Samuel Epps running into his parents' bedroom on Sept. 3, 2014. A shot rang out and his father forced his way into the room to find the boy on the floor with a fatal wound to his head.

Samuel Epps, 11, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. via Facebook

Police said the youngster had gotten his hands on a 9mm pistol that belonged to his father, an Arizona State University police officer. Arizona does not have a child access prevention law that holds adults liable if a child uses a gun.

While a fund-raising site for the family referred to the tragedy in the rural San Tan Valley, southeast of Phoenix, as an accident, the Maricopa County Medical Examiner listed the manner of death as suicide, though police said it not appear the boy had any history of depression or mental illness.

In an obituary, his family said he was "proud member" of the Mormon Church who played the cello in the orchestra at his charter school. "He loved his legos, super hero movies, and his music," it said.

Jacob Hambaugh

Mourners were asked to honor Jacob Hambaugh by wearing the color red. Just 9 months old, his favorite thing was the "Sesame Street" character Elmo.

On Oct. 22, 2014, he was crawling in the kitchen of his family's Kokomo, Indiana, home when his father decided to clean his .38 caliber handgun. A round had inadvertently been left in the weapon, and when the dad, John Hambaugh, tried to remove the slide, it discharged. The shot went through the father's leg and into the baby's head.

Nine-month-old Jacob Hambaugh died two days after an accidental shooting. Family photo via WTHR

Jacob died two days later.

The elder Hambaugh, whose Facebook page was full of gun-rights posts before the tragedy, did not face any charges. And a Change.org petition started by his sister-in-law noted that meant that that he could continue to own and purchase firearms.

"This is wrong, and I want to change it," read the petition, which called for the passage of Jacob's Law for Responsible Gun Ownership.

"What happened to Jacob was avoidable," it continued. "We will never get to see Jacob grow up. We will never watch him have a first day at school, drive a car, graduate, get married, or have children of his own, all because of someone's carelessness.

"I am not trying to punish anyone. I am trying to prevent another family's heartache."

Antonio Smith Jr.

Even in a city hardened by gun violence, the shooting death of Antonio Smith shocked the conscience. He was just 9 years old, an honor-roll student and had no ties to the gangs that took his life.

On the afternoon of October 30, 2014, Antonio, nicknamed "Fat Baby" by his family, rushed out of his family's South Side Chicago house in a temper because he was told he couldn't have any cake.

Hours later, he was found dead in a backyard; he had been shot six times. Police said gang members hunting for their rivals thought Antonio yelled a warning to the targets and purposefully gunned him down.

Image: Antonio Smith
A photo of Antonio Smith. NBC Chicago

"I love my city but the city took something from me I love even more," his father, Antonio Sr. said. "Chicago hurt me today."

Four men were eventually charged with his murder and are awaiting trial. And a .380-caliber pistol recovered from a sewer near the crime scene was traced to two other shootings earlier in the year, one of them fatal.

Determined that the fourth-grader's death not be in vain, a group of community activists formed a nonprofit, Antonio's Response, on the anniversary of his murder. It aims to assist families of innocent youngsters killed by guns.

"These are our neighborhoods and our lives," the group's mission statement says. "We have children who represent Antonio; we all are Antonio."

Alton and Ashton Perry

The day was supposed to be a celebration. Feb. 26, 2013, was Alton Perry’s second birthday, and his mother arranged for him and his 6-month-old brother, Ashton, to leave early from daycare in North Stonington, Connecticut.

“I wanted him to come home and play with his new toys and have a good day,” Brenda Perry told local NBC affiliate WVIT.

Perry’s mother, Debra Denison, offered to pick them up. She suffered from mental illness and had a contentious relationship with Perry, but things had improved in recent months. So Perry, 24, called ahead to make sure Denison was on the daycare’s pickup list.

Image: Image: Alton and Ashton Perry
Alton and Ashton Perry Courtesy of Connecticut State Police

Denison left with the boys at 2:30 p.m. When they failed to show up for the birthday party, Perry called police. Hours later, an Amber Alert went out. At 9:30 p.m., someone reported seeing a car parked near Lake of Isles. Three people were inside, and they looked hurt.

Police arrived, and found Denison, 47, and her grandsons dead of gunshot wounds, victims of a murder-suicide. Near the bodies was her husband’s revolver.

Denison , who’d reportedly attempted suicide many times before, left a note saying Perry and her husband didn’t deserve to have the children, police said.

Aaron Vu

Aaron Vu liked to entertain the clients at his parents’ Miami nail salon. The 10-year-old boy danced for them, played his recorder, let them pinch his cheeks.

“Very playful, very nice,” a friend told local affiliate WTVJ.

On the night of Nov. 22, 2013, Aaron was inside the salon when two robbers burst in, demanding cash and valuables. On their way out, they opened fire, hitting Aaron and his father, Hai Vu, 41. The boy died; the father survived.

Image:
Aaron Vu Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Department

“We hope my son’s death will not be in vain, that something will come out of this in the future that will greatly reduce senseless acts of violence in our community,” Hai Vu said from Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“The question I ask every night since I’m in the hospital is, why? Why? Why did this have to happen? Why couldn’t it just have been me? They killed an innocent child.”

Police arrested 19-year-old Anthawn Ragan Jr. for firing the deadly shots. He remains in jail and is expected to go to trial in February 2016.

Sebastian Swartz

It wasn’t very difficult for Sebastian Swartz to find his father’s gun.

The Glock 9mm pistol was in plain view in his parents’ bedroom in Decatur, Ohio, on Feb. 18, 2013, according to police.

Sebastian’s father, an Army veteran who neighbors said had been injured in Afghanistan, was at work. His mother was in another room when Sebastian began fooling with the weapon, police told local NBC affiliate WXIX.

Image: Image: Sebastian Swartz
Sebastian Swartz WLWT

An older sister tried to take it from him. Then the gun went off.

"One of the kids yelled, ‘My brother's been shot'," an off-duty firefighter at the scene told the station. "I didn't see anybody at the time. Then the mother came out carrying the young child."

Sebastian, hit in the head, was flown to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where he lingered a week before his parents took him off life support.

Sebastian’s parents, Chris and Shanna Swartz, were charged with felony child endangerment. The father pleaded guilty and served two years' probation and is no longer allowed to own a gun. The case against the mother was dismissed. The sister who handled the gun just before it went off ended up facing charges in juvenile court. The result of that case was unclear.

“Obviously, you need to secure your firearms inside your residence when you have small children running around," a police detective told NBC affiliate WLWT.

Tiana Ricks

Tiana Ricks’s father brought her to a Saturday night house party in Moreno Valley, California, to celebrate a cousin headed off to college. At one point, Tiana, 6, told her dad she was thirsty. He walked her to the open garage, where a crowd had gathered.

Just then, two men charged up the driveway from the street, KNBC reported. One of them started firing a gun.

Image: Image: Tiana Ricks
Tiana Ricks via KNBC

The father, Tyrell Ricks, was hit in the pelvis. In the chaos, Tiana, who’d been holding his leg, kept asking if he was OK, a relative told the station.

She didn’t seem to realize that she’d also been shot.

Hit in the back, she died three hours later, just after midnight on Sept. 8, 2013.

Her grieving 24-year-old father said he couldn’t understand why someone would have opened fire on them. Though police suspected the attack was gang-related, Tyrell Ricks said he'd just moved to California from Indiana and had no beefs or ties with local gangs.

"I could care less about my well-being," Tyrell Ricks told KNBC. "I loved her so much, and now she's gone."

A member of the Moreno Valley-based Edgemont Criminals gang, Keandre Narkie Johnson, was arrested for her murder, and remains in jail. He could face the death penalty.

The Year After Sandy Hook, 173 Kids Were Killed With Guns 1:25

Londyn Samuels

Londyn Samuels was just learning to walk. On Aug. 29, 2013, a baby-sitter scooped the 1-year-old into her arms as they walked home from a New Orleans park. A gunman approached from behind and shot the 18-year-old in the back. The bullet tore through her body and hit Londyn in the chest.

The young woman, who survived, called the child's father in anguish. "She said, 'Kee, we got shot — me and Londyn,'" the dad, Keion Reed, 20, told NBC News.

Police have not said what they think motivated the shooter.

Londyn Samuels, 1, was struck by a bullet fired into her 18-year-old nanny's back Friday in New Orleans. Courtesy of Keion Reed

Londyn's mother was working at a nonprofit cafe dedicated to anti-violence when the shooting happened. Choking back sobs at a news conference, Andrea Samuels said she cried every time she looked at her daughter’s picture.

"I'm hurt," Samuels, 22, said, "because that was my baby."

Reed recalled Londyn trying to make him smile when he was down. And he seethed at her killer, later named by police as 19-year-old Darnell Ramee.

"My daughter didn't do anything to him," Reed said. "Why did she have to die?"

Ramee remains in jail on charges of second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. If convicted, he faces life in prison.