MIDLOTHIAN, Va. – When a stray bullet pierced the top of Brendon Mackey's head, the 7-year-old was on his way to a July Fourth fireworks celebration with his dad and other family members. He died the next day in a Richmond hospital, a bullet lodged at the base of his skull, sparking a methodical, door-to-door search for a most elusive killer: celebratory gunfire.
Police believe someone fired a shot into the air within a 5,200-foot radius of Brendon. Witnesses heard a "little pop," then Bryan Mackey looked back and saw his son's limp body on the ground, Chesterfield County Police Lt. Randy Horowitz said.
Forensic experts at the state crime lab have identified the bullet as a .40-caliber class, and the likely weapon has been narrowed to five types of handguns, Horowitz said. They've appealed for anyone who fired a gun into the dimming night sky or neighbors who might have witnessed someone doing so to come forward. No one has. To date, investigators have knocked on doors at about half of the 1,800 residences within the likely range of where the shot was fired, with no luck.
The area of the canvass includes a dense collection of homes and townhouses, many tucked in woods, and parts around the Swift Creek Reservoir in this fast-growing suburb west of Richmond.
Marie Harris, who played the board game Battleship with her son before he headed off to the fireworks, said Brendon was a high-energy boy who loved animals. She described how he was just beginning to take an interest in girls, and had started to tame a cowlick with hair gel.
"We were waiting for him to bloom, to catch up with the other kids," she said of her slight, thin son.
Harris has a simple desire: an apology.
"That would mean the most, and I would want it to be sincere," she said.
By any reckoning, Brendon's death defied mathematical odds. He was among thousands of people headed to the reservoir for a fireworks show and was walking on a winding road under a thick canopy of trees.
Of the more than 10,000 U.S. gun deaths annually, there are no comprehensive statistics on how many people are killed by random gunfire, according to an FBI spokesman. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman said that agency, too, was unaware of any U.S. data on the incidence of stray gunfire, but cited a Puerto Rican report that underscores that a firearm aimed into the skies can return to earth with enough force to maim and kill.
That study found that 18 people were injured and one killed during 2004 New Year's Eve celebrations in Puerto Rico, based on an analysis by several island agencies.
A widely cited study by doctors at a medical center in Los Angeles between 1985 and 1992 identified 118 injuries believed to have come from bullets falling from the sky nationwide.
On July Fourth, Brendon's death was not the only fatality related to random gunfire in the U.S. In Oakland, a 23-year-old man was found shot and died two days later. Four men have been charged. In St. Petersburg, Fla., a 38-year-old man was injured by a stray bullet. No one is charged.
In the greater Miami area, law enforcement hammers home the message with a "No Stray Bullets" campaign ahead of July Fourth. A 5-year-old Miami girl died in January 1997 after being hit by a stray bullet. Despite the campaign, a teenager was shot in the head this year during a celebration of the Miami Heat's NBA championship win. He survived.
Firing weapons into the sky is a global issue and an accepted expression of celebration in parts of the Middle East and Latin America, among other regions of the world.
In Phoenix, officials have been aggressive in attempting to curb random gunfire, which police attribute in part to a Latin American population that settled in the area. The problem was driven home in June 1999, when 14-year-old Shannon Smith was killed by a bullet fired into the air more than a mile away. She was struck in the head while talking on the phone in her backyard.
Her parents worked with elected officials, and one year later, the careless discharge of a firearm within the city was elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Phoenix Police Sgt. Tommy Thompson said Smith's killer hasn't been found.
"You don't know when you shoot a gun where that bullet's going to come down," said Thompson, a 30-year police veteran.
"Some people believe it goes to the moon, it just goes into space."
Thompson said the tougher law was just a first step. He said education and reaching out to various communities have been critical.
The campaign has been effective, Thompson said. He cites figures that reports of New Year's Eve shots have declined from nearly 1,000 in 1998-99 to 271 in 2009-2010.
In Virginia, state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III is proposing "Brendon's Law" to stiffen penalties for people who randomly fire guns into the air and for injuries or deaths that result. Marsh attended Brendon's funeral and has reached out to his mother.
"I wish everybody could look into the face of that little boy," the Richmond Democrat said. "He looked like a little angel."
Marsh said the proposed legislation is still being researched.
"It would make it clear that random, celebratory shooting is a crime," he said. "If anyone is hurt or anyone is killed, there should be serious punishment."
Investigators decline to speculate on the range of charges the shooter would face. But Harris said a detective has told her that he or she could be prosecuted on a charge of manslaughter if found.
Harris said the five-year term that is possible for such a conviction isn't a fair exchange for the life of her son.
"I can't have my son back," she said. "Five years, and then they go back to their life. "
On the night Brendon was shot, Harris hurried to the hospital in Richmond ahead of emergency workers. She was there when they arrived with Brendon.
"That's when it hit me. It was just really bad," she said. "Then they said Brendon has a hole in his head."
Harris, a nurse, held out hope until she learned how deeply the bullet had penetrated his head.
Horowitz said police who have knocked on hundreds of doors in search of Brendon's killer have found residents eager to help.
"Everyone who knows about this says, 'It could have been me or it could have been my son or my grandson,' "he said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
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