ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. – Police in a North Carolina town are searching for a man who sprayed a church playground with gunfire, striking four youths and leaving a 12-year-old boy gravely wounded.
The Rev. James Gailliard at Word Tabernacle Church in Rocky Mount said the shooting happened shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, as about two dozen neighborhood teens played basketball on courts behind the sanctuary.
Gailliard was in his office when he heard more than 15 gunshots and ran outside. Among those hit was 12-year-old Nyreek Horne, who the preacher said was shot in the head. He cradled the bleeding boy until help arrived.
"In our community, we do hear gunshots from time to time. But what was different this time was that it was so close and it was so many," Gailliard said. "I held him in my arms until the paramedics got there. He was shot in the eye and the bullet went out the back of his brain. He was struggling to breathe, but he was fighting."
Police said Tuesday that Horne remained in critical condition.
Three other young males shot — ages 13, 17 and 19 — were all treated and released.
Witnesses could provide only a vague description of the shooter, who ran away and was seen getting into a small, light-colored SUV. Rocky Mount police are asking members of the public to come forward with any information that might help lead them to a suspect.
It was the latest shooting in a small Southern city dealing with violent crime on a scale typical in more urban areas. The shooting at the church happened days after a funeral for 15-year-old Brian Freeman, who was walking home with a friend when a car pulled up and someone started firing.
A city of nearly 60,000 located about 50 miles east of Raleigh, Rocky Mount sits along Interstate 95 — a primary north-south corridor for moving drugs and illegal guns between major East Coast cities. In 2012, the most recent year for which FBI crime statistics are available, the homicide rate in Rocky Mount was more than twice that of New York City.
The Rocky Mount police force has a robust gang awareness and prevention program. The city council has instituted anti-graffiti measures and a local "Youth Protection Ordinance" that includes a nightly curfew barring those under 15 from gathering in public places without adult supervision.
"We're experiencing many of the problems many other communities are experiencing with gang violence, and we are addressing that," said Cpl. Michael Lewis, a police spokesman. "There's age groups from middle school on up through high school involved in this type of activity."
Lewis said it is too early in the investigation to know whether the latest shooting involved a gang-related dispute, but Gailliard said there is a widespread suspicion in the community that Monday's shooting was in retaliation for the recent drive-by killing. Those involved are from different neighborhoods engaged in competition for turf, the preacher said.
Gailliard moved south from Philadelphia nine years ago to start the church. Part of his congregation's ministry involves reaching out to young people who live nearby.
Gailliard said he had never seen Horne before he was shot, but he has since met the boy's family at the hospital. He organized a vigil on Tuesday to pray for the boy's recovery and an end to the violence. He said people there are often distrustful of the police, but he was encouraging people to tell the detectives what they know.
"Unfortunately, in my time here I have funeralized a lot of young African-American males who died in violent situations," the preacher said. "We put the basketball goals up and took the fence down specifically so the community could just walk on the premises and have a safe place to play. That trust has been violated."