Federal authorities filed charges in the 2014 shooting death of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, who was struck by an errant bullet nearly three years ago and captivated the attention of a city besieged by gun violence. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)
Federal authorities filed charges in the 2014 shooting death of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, who was struck by an errant bullet nearly three years ago and captivated the attention of a city besieged by gun violence.
Terrell Plummer, 28, was charged with use of a firearm resulting in death for allegedly firing at rivals and striking McKenzie, who was playing on her porch in the Waverly neighborhood. Six other members of Plummer's North Baltimore gang, Old York Money Gang, were also charged with drug-related offenses.
Outgoing Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said Baltimore Police and federal agents had worked "tirelessly and creatively" to charge those responsible for the girl's killing.
"These cases do not solve themselves," said Rosenstein, in one of his last acts before heading to Washington to be sworn in as the second-in-command of the Justice Department. "They get solved because of extraordinary work by honorable, decent, diligent law enforcement officers. I believe if we support police officers who are out there working for the community every day, we'll be able to turn the tide on violence in Baltimore City."
Mayor Catherine Pugh hailed the charges as an example of what can happen when local police and federal officials work together to combat crime. She said she has asked for additional federal resources to help police tackle a murder rate that has soared to record levels.
"It sends a signal to those committing crimes in our communities that you can no longer continue to do this. You will be found. You will be caught," the mayor said.
The indictment alleges Plummer and the other members sold heroin, cocaine and marijuana in "shops" throughout the neighborhood, and attacked outsiders who ventured onto their turf.
The day before McKenzie was shot, authorities say Plummer, Davonte Rich and others jumped three people who had entered their territory, stabbing one of them. The victims returned on Aug. 1, and Plummer fired shots at their vehicle. One person was struck in the head but survived.
McKenzie was on her porch playing when she was struck.
McKenzie's case struck a nerve in Baltimore, and led to outcries in the community about violence and promises of change from city officials.
Within days of her killing, then-Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts declared the shooter would be caught within a week. At one point, police announced they had a suspect in the shooting in custody — a claim they later had to walk back, when they said the man was "not the person" responsible for her death.
That man, Tyrone Jamison, was among the seven charged Wednesday, though not with shooting McKenzie.
Nearly a year after McKenzie's death, for what would have been her 4th birthday in May 2015, officials gathered to rename her street after her and again call for community tips in her shooting. Then in October 2015, another young girl was struck and wounded by errant gunfire in Waverly.
On Wednesday, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said McKenzie's death in 2014 "rocked not only the Waverly community, but the entire city of Baltimore."
"It's never been a cold case ... this city remembers. Law enforcement remembers. The BPD remembers McKenzie Elliott, we always will, and we're just really proud to stand here today and make this announcement," Davis said.
Daniel L. Board Jr., Baltimore chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said agents were pleased to help solve the case. But he lamented a lack of tips from the community.
"McKenzie's homicide should not have gone unsolved for that long," Board said. "If we could've gotten more help from the public, more help from the community, even small bits of information, that's the kind of help we need in the law enforcement fight against violent crime."
Officials would not discuss how they advanced the case to bring charges, but court papers outlined a series of undercover drug purchases by police starting in October 2016 and continuing through April 13.
Rosenstein also said it's typical for federal prosecutors to pressure defendants facing steep prison sentences to cooperate in exchange for reduced sentences.
Rosenstein, who spent 12 years as the top federal prosecutor for Maryland, met with McKenzie's mother Nina Epps to inform her of the charges. He said he had been inspired after seeing her in news accounts asking for justice for her daughter.
At Wednesday's news conference, Rosenstein stood next to a poster board with a picture of McKenzie. He said he planned to take the poster with him to Washington in the afternoon before his swearing in as deputy attorney general, and bring it to a meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions has pledged to take on violent crime and has expressed misgivings about federal oversight of police departments, such as the consent decree entered against the Baltimore Police Department.
"I'm going to talk with him about the extraordinary work being done by our front line officers in Baltimore City," Rosenstein said.
Pugh said she's requested additional FBI help – both in manpower and equipment – to fight Baltimore's surging murder rate. She said she expected to have an announcement about more federal assistance next week.
"We're grateful to the federal intervention in the city of Baltimore," Pugh said. "We are looking for all the help we can get. Murder is out of control. There are too many guns on the streets. Domestic violence is increasing in our city. We have asked for federal help."
Pugh declined to provide specifics about what she's requested from the FBI, but said it would involve more agents and better technology.
"Being able to close cases like this is good for the city, but we want to get beyond closing cases. We need to get the murder rate down," Pugh said.
Plummer could not be reached for comment. Recent court records in another criminal case in the city list Plummer's address as being in the 700 block of McKewin Ave., the same short street that city officials renamed the first block of "McKenzie Elliott Way."
Prosecutors identified the other six men indicted in the drug case as Davonte Rich, 22; Trevon Beasley, 23; Tyrone Jamison, 23; Davin Lawson, 25; Calvin Watson, 26; and Tyron Brown, 26. None had attorneys listed in court records.
Late Wednesday morning, Carolyn Williams, 70, sat on her own porch, across the street and in view of the porch where McKenzie was shot.
"I'm overwhelmed," the resident of 20 years said of the charges being filed. "I'm very, very, very pleased. I hope they get them all. I hope the charges stick."
She thinks there should be a block party to celebrate the charges, as something positive, she said.
"I knew that the police never gave up," she said. "People may say, 'Well they don't care,' but no. They never gave up."
Constance Yarborough, 58, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, said resources poured into the neighborhood three years ago to help McKenzie's family after her killing – they've since moved, she said – but then quickly dried up, leaving other longtime families to continue dealing with violence, illegal dumping, and squatters crashing in the vacant homes.
"You still have families here that are tax paying," she said.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said in an interview that Davis called her about the arrest in McKenzie's killing on Wednesday morning. It "doesn't bring this darling child back to us, but it brings some closure," she said. "The city should take heart."
Clarke said McKenzie had become a symbol for "all innocent children playing on the front porch in broad daylight" and who deserve safety.
Her death "just rang out as an exceptional tragedy to experience, for the family, for the community and for the city itself," Clarke said. "It just rang out as such a tragic crime and loss, that it created its own focus on the need to protect our children."
Clarke said now, the "aching wound in the heart of the city has not been healed, but has been assuaged."
The Rev. Joe Muth, pastor of St. Matthew and Blessed Sacrament Churches, has for years sought to keep McKenzie's death in the minds of local residents and law enforcement officials. He said Wednesday that he was so pleased federal prosecutors "never gave up on this little girl."
"We didn't know the behind-the-scenes maneuverings, and sometimes we wondered if anyone was doing anything," Muth said. "This is just really a relief that behind-the-scenes work has been going on."