Slain toddler a symbol at National Night Out in Waverly

Emotions were high at National Night Out in Baltimore, where residents offered to help pay for a murdered toddler's funeral while the city's police commissioner promised an arrest in the case by the end of the week.

The death of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, killed by a stray bullet, compelled Tricia Rubacky to attend Tuesday's vigil in Waverly, miles from her home in Roland Park.

"I just want to express my condolences," Rubacky said as she hugged Joann Jones, McKenzie's grandmother.

On the spot, Rubacky wrote Jones a personal check for funeral expenses on behalf of her and husband, Bill Merritt, who couldn't come.

"Everybody's heart goes out to the family," said Rubacky, a fundraiser for the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. "We want to make sure people know that we care."

"I know if it happened to someone else I would want to do the same," said Jones, who sat in a folding chair at the corner of Gorsuch and Ellerslie avenues as a crowd 100 strong gathered, including the girl's parents, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who said she remained "mad as hell" about McKenzie's death.

"Night should not have fallen without that person being in handcuffs," the mayor said.

The National Night Out event was planned as a generic celebration of solidarity against crime, but morphed into a vigil after McKenzie died Aug. 1, an innocent bystander in an as-yet-unsolved drive-by shooting about six blocks away. The girl's face peered from a photo attached to a poster announcing the event, with the words, "Never forget."

"We will bring them to justice before the end of this week," said Police Commissioner Anthony Batts.

Batts said among the many names he has etched in his mind from throughout his career in law enforcement, "McKenzie Elliott is a name I will never forget."

When news of the shooting broke, "Everything stopped," said Sonja Merchant-Jones, a Waverly community leader who organized the event. "I said, we'll make this a tribute to McKenzie — and make a promise that this will be the last child this happens to."

"Love will have the final word," O'Malley told the crowd. "Baltimore will have safer days."

Elizabeth Hines came from Lauraville with her children, Liam, 5, and Owen, 1.

"It just touched a little too close to home," said Hines, a former resident of Waverly. "I'm just so angry. Enough is enough."

Looking at the crowd, she said, "It's good to see so many people out. A lot of people are angry."

Jim Fendler, a Waverly resident for nearly 30 years, recalled a murder in March at 38th Street and Old York Road, overshadowed by a shooting at the Columbia mall the same weekend.

"I'm frustrated," Fendler, 56, said at the vigil for McKenzie. "It continues to happen — and now we have this tragedy."

Katie Alllston, executive director of the nearby Marian House, a shelter for homeless women, and director of operations Peter McIver remembered the much-publicized death in 2011 of another young, innocent bystander in Waverly, Marian House resident Tanise Ervin, 19. She was shot while standing near two men, who police said were the intended targets. A crowd of mourners 100 strong gathered then, too.

"We've got to stand up for goodness, stand up for peace," McIver said. "Somebody's gotta do it."

"Well said," said Allston.

"I want people to know that these neighborhoods are more than shootings," said Sherri Alms, a freelance writer from nearby Ednor Gardens.

"It's a solemn occasion, but it's an important occasion," Rawlings-Blake said. "Are we going to say enough is enough, or are we going to let McKenzie's death be in vain? This could be the last child we lose in Baltimore. But that's a decision we have to make together."

"I just wanted to thank everybody for coming out," said McKenzie's mother, Nina Epps. "It's good to see everybody coming together. It doesn't happen often."

Baltimore Sun staff writer Colin Campbell contributed to this story.

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