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City officials, police urge public to help solve murder of 3-year-old girl

Devastated parents and distressed police and political leaders took to the streets Saturday to plead with the Waverly community to help catch the killers of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, whose shooting death has galvanized the city to stop a surge of violence in the past week.

In a city where residents are often reluctant to cooperate or fear intimidation, their mantra was: "Say something."

"She meant a lot to everybody, especially me," the toddler's mother, 21-year-old Nina Epps, said Saturday. "So, if anybody know anything, just say something. I'm here. I'm always open to listen to anything. But just let me know something. I just want to know."

As the recent violence played out across the city, it claimed not only the toddler's life but also a 20-year-old standout lacrosse player who was attending college and working at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

City police responded with increased patrols, pulling officers off desk duties, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake personally canvassed McKenzie's neighborhood to hand out fliers asking residents to come forward with information.

McKenzie was on a porch in the 3600 block of Old York Road on Friday afternoon when she was struck by a stray bullet from a gunbattle down the block. Lacrosse player Devin Cook was killed Thursday night in Park Heights while dropping off teammates after a summer league game.

The spike in violence threatened to set back Baltimore's progress in fighting crime. Though homicides and shootings have declined this year by double-digit percentages, more than 35 people were shot between Saturday and the week prior, at least six of them fatally.

Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said commanders in the field were supervising stepped-up patrols in areas that have seen recent violence. Police are also looking for links between the episodes and trying to target repeat violent offenders whom police blame for most of the city's serious crime.

Kowalczyk declined to be more specific about the department's strategy, saying officials did not want criminals to be able to adapt to the changes.

A somber Rawlings-Blake called the shooting "the most heinous act of cowardice that someone could do on a city street." As she handed out fliers that advertised a reward of up to $2,000 for information, she spoke in a hushed tone with dozens of neighborhood residents and argued that they had a responsibility to help bring the shooters to justice.

"We cannot be silent," Rawlings-Blake said. "There's no way in the world that a 3-year-old child should die in the streets of Baltimore and we remain silent."

Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who noted that he had three young daughters and granddaughters, called McKenzie a "true victim" and said the entire Police Department was "outraged and heartbroken."

He said investigators had "good leads" but also said: "We're begging the community to help us."

"We will solve this crime. We will solve it sooner rather than later, and we will bring everyone responsible for this young girl's death to justice," he said.

At one point he spoke directly to the suspects, saying, "We are going to find you," eliciting applause from the crowd.

Rodriguez declined, however, to speak about other cases.

"We look at our crime daily, sometimes more than once a day, and we adjust quicker than ever before. Based on what we have seen over the past week, we have to do a better job," he said.

Across town in Park Heights, where Cook was fatally shot in the 4700 block of Wilern Ave. late Thursday, there were no politicians, police officials or news cameras.

But a crowd of more than 100 gathered, some holding lacrosse sticks and dressed in green Maryland Zoo T-shirts. Cook, of Mount Washington, worked there for three years in visitor services.

"I want it to be known that they took away someone special," said Kenny Brown, 36, an area lacrosse coach.

Cook was active with the BlaxLax league and was described as one of the top players on his team at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, where he was attending school. After sharing stories and praying, the mourners released green balloons into the sky.

Friends and relatives said he was soft-spoken and small growing up, earning him the nickname "Pocket." But he was also known for giving hugs and firm handshakes, being good-natured and reliable. He had become a leader in his role at the zoo, said Steve Rosenfeld, an assistant vice president at the zoo.

"Kids like him, doing good — especially African-American — it's overlooked," said Yolanda Jones, an aunt. Of the crime, she said: "We don't know if it was a robbery or a wrong-place, wrong-time situation, but we know it shouldn't have been him."

Lacrosse coaches Anthony "Merc" Ryan and Donnie Jones called Cook an outstanding young man.

In Waverly, Sarah Smith, 56, sat on her porch with tears in her eyes, thinking of young McKenzie's death. She has granddaughters ages 3 and 6. She hasn't stopped thinking about it since hearing the news Friday night, she said. It's all the more troubling because she doesn't consider her neighborhood unsafe.

But others said they have concerns. A 35-year-old woman, who said she has two children and didn't want to give her name because she's scared, stood across the street from the shooting, looking on with sadness as McKenzie's mother and father were greeted by well-wishers.

"We all got kids. It could've been any of our kids," she said. She has lived in the neighborhood for two years and said there has been too much violence. She was skeptical of pledges of increased vigilance from the mayor and police.

"This is right now because it happened. Next week it won't matter. When it's over, what does it matter?"

James H. Moore Jr, 67, stood with his wife, Felicia, chatting up a neighbor and discussing the idea of a neighborhood watch. He said the neighborhood needs cameras, too.

"This is too much," said Moore, who has lived in Waverly for more than two decades. "It's never been like this. It's out of hand, and something needs to be done."

He said the neighborhood wasn't "bad bad." That's why residents need to step up and prevent backsliding, he said.

"This is the first time in 22 years I've heard of a drive-by," Felicia Moore added. "Never. Not here."

Rodriguez said Waverly is a "good community" and in July saw no incidents of violence.

Two others were also injured in Friday's shooting there — a 21-year-old woman who had graze wounds and a man who turned up at a hospital with a gunshot wound. Police said that man was "not a victim and is not a suspect" but labeled him as a "person of interest." Investigators believe they also recovered a car that was involved.

"We do have a person of interest, but that doesn't mean we've stopped investigative measures," Kowalczyk said. "We're going to follow every lead as it comes in."

McKenzie's mother said she believed someone in the neighborhood could have information about her daughter's shooting.

"I'm pretty sure somebody on this street knows who it was," Epps said. "I know they seen them, I'm pretty sure they talked to them, I'm pretty sure they probably sat on the porch with them. Somebody knows something. Somebody do."\

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

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