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St. Louis Leads America in Child Murders — and It's Getting Worse 

Clifford "Nunu" Swan III.

FAMILY PHOTO

Clifford "Nunu" Swan III.

He was just thirteen, but Clifford "Nunu" Swan III was afraid of death. Three of his cousins had been murdered in the past two years, and, unwilling to be next, Nunu told his older brother Donald about plans to obtain a gun.

An ex-weed dealer who'd spent his teenage years dodging north-city trouble, Donald, then twenty, rebuked him. "You don't need a gun," he counseled. "You got your hands. You can fight."

Donald always strived to protect Nunu, the soft-hearted prankster of the family. Neither of their fathers was physically around, although Nunu's dad Clifford Swan Sr. says he had a relationship with his son through the phone and Facetime. In St. Louis, the older boy helped raise the younger, orchestrating bowling and go-kart outings. When Nunu had questions — like when he wanted to mess around with a girl for the first time or needed a new joke for school — a conversation in Donald's bedroom ensued. As his kid brother's rapping skills developed, Donald pledged to be his manager.

Their mother toiled as a nurse to support the boys and three siblings, but the family rotated through about ten homes, propelling Donald into robbery, a source for clothes and other sundries. He did his first stickup at age twelve with a BB gun before graduating to handguns. After another family funeral, Donald retired his bulletproof vest and abandoned street life. At nineteen, he felt he'd beaten the odds of St. Louis adolescence.

That attitude might seem hyperbolic, if not for the realities surrounding him. Since 2012, St. Louis has led America in per-capita child murders by county, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Put another way, Americans under the age of eighteen are eight times more likely to be killed in St. Louis than in the rest of the country. In 2019, the city witnessed thirteen child homicides, the most in a decade — until the tally spiked to seventeen last year. And though it's only March, eight St. Louis children have already been killed in 2021, including a nine-year-old boy gunned down in a car on Sunday in LaSalle Park and a teen shot in the back of the head less than 24 hours later in the West End neighborhood. In St. Louis County, where Nunu's family recently moved, the situation is similarly grim; the percentage of Black kids killed there ranks twelfth in the country.

The local situation mirrors an alarming national pattern: Youth homicides in America have stubbornly risen each year between 2013 and 2019, the last year on government record, save for a slight dip in 2018. And according to the Gun Violence Archive, a well-regarded if less-official national database, child gun killings surged last year.

A sense of consternation befell St. Louis two summers ago, after seven children younger than twelve were fatally shot, including a two-year-old and three-year-old. All were Black. Mayor Lyda Krewson offered $25,000 rewards for information on child killings, while presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke tweeted his concern about dead St. Louis kids. The collective mourning reached another crescendo this past January when a seven-year-old girl was fatally shot while sitting in a parked car in the Central West End. None of the 30 child murders in 2019 and 2020 has been prosecuted.

Despite that bloody backdrop, Donald's reassuring message seemed to resonate with Nunu during their sober conversation in the summer of 2019.

"As long as you got me, you safe," Donald promised. "You're not gonna die."

Three weeks later, Nunu's mother, Trina Houshmand, got a call from her panicked daughter: "There was a shooter. Can't no one find Nunu."

Houshmand was confused; her eighth-grade son had just called from her mother's Spanish Village apartment complex asking permission to walk to the store for a cupcake. But there had been gunshots, her daughter explained, and Nunu wasn't answering his phone. By the time Houshmand arrived at the complex, police had cordoned off the pavement. Later, at the hospital, a doctor appeared with grave news: Nunu had been fatally shot in the head. Houshmand's blood pressure rose to dangerous levels, prompting medical staff to sedate her in a room next to Nunu's.

Just beforehand, Donald was speeding to the hospital. If Nunu can just see me, he'll stay alive, he thought. Upon hearing the news, he dropped to the ground. For months afterward, he had flashbacks of Nunu lying lifeless on a hospital bed. It wasn't supposed to be my little brother. I grew up protecting him. Two days after the murder, St. Louis organizers staged a Mothers March, honoring the local children killed so far that year. When Nunu's name was read aloud, Houshmand wailed as her body quivered on the ground.

When he died, Nunu became part of a numbing national narrative. Not only are child killings rising across America, but the ages of victims are trending younger. Between 2015 and 2019 there was a 19 percent increase among thirteen-, fourteen- and fifteen-year-old murder victims compared to the previous five-year period, according to an RFT analysis. For Black Americans, the increase was 35 percent. (Black children are eight times more likely to die from homicide than white children.) After decades where the leading cause of death for thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds was a car crash, gun deaths (including suicides) eclipsed them in each of the last four years on record.

Assessing the root causes, many experts cite a lack of national research funding. In the decade beginning in 2008, the U.S. government spent just $597 per death in child firearm injury prevention research, through a paltry 32 grants, according to a recent Health Affairs study. "A thirtyfold increase ... or at least $37 million per year, is needed for research funding to be commensurate with the mortality burden," the study concluded.

"We've abandoned children to this disease," says University of Michigan Professor Rebecca Cunningham, a physician and the study's lead author. "We spend billions of dollars on cancer funding for children, which has led to cures, but we have chosen not to address this problem, and that's led to devastating consequences."

Last year, St. Louis Children's Hospital treated 150 kids for severe gunshot wounds — far exceeding recent history's previous record of 97 in 2008, according to Dr. Martin Keller, the hospital's trauma medical director. The situation, he says, has led burnt-out colleagues to quit. "The number seems to be rising each year. It's frustrating, it's exhausting, and in our minds it's something completely unnecessary.

"These are not children getting cancer or being born with a defect that can be fixed," he adds, noting that female victims are increasingly common. "We're just fixing holes that bullets are creating. We're not preventing anything."

Just as gun victims are getting younger in St. Louis, so too are kids who possess firearms, through purchase, trade or diversion from a legal owner — a clear cultural shift that's occurred within the last decade. "The youngest I had contact with was ten years old," recalls Andre Smith, a former St. Louis police detective who retired in 2018 to become a political science professor at Harris-Stowe State University. In poorer neighborhoods, he adds, "it's easier for these young kids to get a hold of a gun than a computer."

Most often, children obtain guns out of simple fear. James Clark, vice president of public safety and community response for the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, sums things up with an anecdote. While guest lecturing in a fourth-grade classroom, he asked how many students heard regular gunshots at night.

"All their hands went up without hesitation," Clark recalls. "I might as well have asked, 'Who here likes ice cream?'" One child told Clark, "When I hear shooting outside, my mama come lay on top of me." Then two other students said their mothers did the same.

The day before Clark recounted that story, a thirteen-year-old boy's body had been discovered in East St. Louis. "If you're a thirteen-year-old boy," Clark says, "you look at that and say, 'I'm thirteen. I could get killed. I gotta get me a gun.'"

Judge Sandra Farragut-Hemphill, who presides over juvenile cases for St. Louis County, summarizes the sentiment succinctly. For many thirteen-year-olds who come through her courtroom on gun charges, "their childhood in many ways has been stolen from them."

Teshawn Ford (left) with his mentor Eric Harris of the Urban League. - COURTESY ERIC HARRIS
  • COURTESY ERIC HARRIS
  • Teshawn Ford (left) with his mentor Eric Harris of the Urban League.

That observation applies to north-city resident Teshawn Ford. Four years ago, when he was eleven, a cousin was locked in a car and murdered, Teshawn recalled in an interview. That led to a retaliation, which prompted another retaliation, and Teshawn's house was riddled with bullets. At age twelve, he watched one victim stumble inside his house after getting shot twice in the stomach. "That ain't nothing no kid want to grow up around," he said. "Every little noise had me jumping. It shows you how fast you could straight be gone."

Asked if it was normal for thirteen-year-olds to have guns, he seemed astonished by the question. "Half of St. Louis have guns! It's so pitiful how anyone can get a gun. And it ain't no little guns. It's assault rifles."

Eric Harris of the Urban League, who became Teshawn's mentor, called him a kid "with a good head on his shoulders" who was forced to adapt to the "war zone" surrounding him.

Not long ago, Teshawn purchased a Glock 17 and a Taurus 40 from friends. "I used to play sports," he reflected. "Now I look over my back every five or ten minutes. I'm only fifteen. Why do I have to look over my back?"

Teshawn's interview with the RFT occurred last year. Last month, while trading guns with another teenager, he was shot dead.

In the days following Nunu's murder, police charged local eighteen-year-old Jabari Lowery with the killing. According to Houshmand, Lowery mistook Nunu for another teenager with whom he had a beef and Nunu was an innocent bystander. Lowery pleaded not guilty. (In a phone call from jail, Lowery confirmed that Nunu was innocent, but he maintained that he wasn't the killer. His next court date is April 12.)

Inside Houshmand's home four months after the killing, her five-year-old daughter, Jasmine, bounces around the kitchen wearing pink stretch pants and a giggly smile. Jasmine was at the scene of the murder, and her brother's death confused her. During meals, she'd set a plate of food in front of Nunu's empty chair — "We gotta call God and tell him to wake him up." Once, Jasmine summoned Houshmand to the TV, where a video portrayed a scene of a mother crying over a dead son. "Mama, you're on TV," she declared. Houshmand explained to Jasmine that her brother was living with angel wings in Nunuland.

On an afternoon last spring, Houshmand, who is 39, is preparing for a visit from Valarie Dent, the leader of a support group called St. Louis Mothers in Charge, which she founded after her two sons were fatally shot in 2014. Her organization provides outreach to mothers grieving murdered children, found through news reports and law enforcement referrals. She makes house calls to help women communicate with family members; find therapists; manage prosecutors, detectives and court delays; schedule nail-salon appointments; and simply get out of bed. "We can explain there's life after losing a child," she says.

Dent and a co-member, Sharon, arrive at Houshmand's house wearing Black "Mothers in Charge" T-shirts. Dent had prepared a gift bag containing bath sponges and bombs, body wash, foot pads, a scented candle, a resource directory, a journal and a therapeutic eye mask.

"What a cutie!" says Sharon as the women pass around photos of Nunu. When Houshmand begins to cry, Dent sits next to her, hip to hip, and rubs her back. "Your body just goes numb," says Dent, dabbing her own eyes.

The women discuss minute details only they can know: the daytime apparitions; the still-hanging clothes in their sons' bedrooms; the misplaced guilt they put on themselves; the emptiness of holidays; the small, daily reminders of lives lost.

"I could go up to the third floor and still smell Steve's scent," says Dent.

"Oh my God, exactly," says Houshmand, noting that whenever she sees a boy on a bike, she thinks it might be Nunu.

From left: Nunu, Donald and their mother Trina Houshmand - FAMILY PHOTO
  • FAMILY PHOTO
  • From left: Nunu, Donald and their mother Trina Houshmand

As the women chat, Donald appears through the front door. Since his brother's killing, Donald has adopted Nunu's dream of becoming a rapper, hibernating in Nunu's room to scribble lyrics. "When I rap," he says, "I feel like I'm in a box with my brother." His first video, "Not Alone," garnered a million YouTube views in 45 days.

Donald offers to play a couple of his videos for the visitors on the living room TV. "I hold my mama when she cryin'," he raps in "Not Alone." "Some say she trippin', she see visions, Nunu in that kitchen."

Donald composed his second song, "Die Today," specifically for Houshmand, with hopeful lyrics meant to ease his mother's sadness: "Heaven my home, so y'all be strong; ain't gotta cry no more."

And yet, as Donald watches the screen, a tear streams down his own cheek.

The issue of child killings is complicated by the fact that there are two categories of victims: those who are targeted, and those who are innocent bystanders. The latter category, which incites more collective outrage, might be the result of higher firepower of guns on the street, resulting in errant bullets fired through barriers like walls and car windows.

Semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines "are becoming distressingly common," says University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld. "They can spray an area of bullets in a matter of seconds. And children in the area become collateral damage."

Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, a military veteran who represents the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood, echoes that assessment: "Kids have AR-15s and semi-automatic rifles with 40 and 50 rounds in a clip. If you got a nine-round clip, you're gonna be deliberate with your aim. If you got 50, all you're gonna do is spray. And that's why these kids are getting killed. They get caught in the spray."

But it's the other category — the targeted victims — that some have become inured to, opening a debate on the root causes of youth-on-youth shootings. Steven Ohmer, chief juvenile judge of St. Louis, believes many of these shootings are impulsive, perhaps even accidental. Some incidents might begin as common disputes between teenagers, "But put a gun in that scenario, and it fires, well, there's no tomorrow," he posits. "I don't think kids realize this. My gut feeling is that they don't really know what a gun can do. I doubt they've shot it. They might not even know it's loaded. They think, 'Oh, I just got to point a gun at someone and that's all I got to do.'"

Another driver of youth gun crime is the underlying trauma of community violence, says Sarah Johnson, director of juvenile defense and policy for the Missouri State Public Defender System. Many of her clients, she says, "recount examples of being victims of gun violence themselves, or witnessing gun violence perpetrated on their friends or family members. This trauma oftentimes goes unaddressed." (Teshawn Ford had said as much in an interview last year. "At first I was doing good. Then at eleven I started getting traumatized.")

All that said, experts say the number-one reason children are shot in St. Louis is the same reason adults are shot: Missouri gun laws, which are among the most lax in the nation. In the past fifteen years, the state legislature has dropped requirements for permits, safety training and background checks.

In the three years following the 2007 repeal of license requirements, Missouri gun homicides increased 25 percent. Now, the state owns the third-highest gun death rate in the country. Every ten hours, a Missourian is killed by a gun, a reality concentrated in St. Louis, where in a recent year 40 percent of the state's homicides occurred. "St. Louis is always on our radar." says Michael-Sean Spence, director of community safety initiatives for Everytown for Gun Safety.

The data become more dire when accounting for race. From 2014 to 2017, the rate of Black Missourians killed by guns increased 64 percent. Black Missourians die from homicide at triple the national average among their American peers, far outpacing every other state.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner calls the combination of gun access and systemic racism "a perfect storm for hopelessness." In the most cutting assessment of Jefferson City, Alderman Boyd adds, "I think it's a conspiracy. I think they want Black people to kill each other. White people aren't doing it in their communities. But the more guns you put in the inner cities, the more carnage. I think it's a social engineering plot against Black people by the state of Missouri general legislature."

Nunu’s mother Trina Houshmand and older brother Donald lean on each other after the murder. - JOHN H. TUCKER
  • JOHN H. TUCKER
  • Nunu’s mother Trina Houshmand and older brother Donald lean on each other after the murder.

Each time Donald steps into a recording booth, he prays for Nunu's guidance. In the year following his brother's death, his music has exploded; he's already released nine songs under the stage name Head, and "Not Alone" has eclipsed 6 million YouTube views. In the process, Donald has learned the concept of universal truth. In the immediate aftermath of Nunu's killing, he felt like no one understood his pain. But in the months that followed, acquaintances told him that they, too, had been haunted by death-dispatched demons. "Not Alone" thus became an elegy on loss and empathy.

"You can be surprised how many lives you can save by saying something they were going through," he says, recounting a story of a suicidal thirteen-year-old from Australia who messaged him to say that his verses helped him persevere.

Houshmand, too, is doing better, though George Floyd's murder last summer — the image of a Back body lying on the pavement — triggered emotions. Throughout last year, she yearned for a new chapter, in another city, one with lots of palm trees. "I feel like everyone in St. Louis got a gun," she says. A few months ago, she made good on her quest, moving with her husband and two daughters to California.

Donald, too, is tired of St. Louis, a place where he feels he's eyed with suspicion, where guns are drawn on him, where his car is searched by police and life is "a punch in the face."

Inside their old kitchen, where Nunu liked to feed his kid sister Jasmine extra-large portions of Fruity Pebbles, Houshmand comments on the emotional tug of Donald's songs: "I can feel his pain and scars," she says. She launches into a verse: "Tomorrow not promised ..."

Donald, seated next to her, joins in unison: "Now I see progress ..."

"You can help heal people," Houshmand tells him.

It's unclear whom she's referring to. Is it her? Other St. Louisans? Suicidal teens in Australia? Or is it Donald himself — a vehicle for his own reconciliation?

During an earlier conversation, Donald summarized solemnly his thoughts on death and fraternity. "I was the one doing all the bad stuff that could have gotten me killed. But it wasn't me. It wasn't me. It was my little brother. He was a good kid."

Even after death, Donald has preserved his instinct to protect Nunu, a fact evidenced during the house visit by Mothers in Charge leader Valarie Dent. After Donald played his music video honoring his brother, Houshmand began to cry.

At this, Donald walked over to his mother and embraced her. "I know he OK," he assured her. "He safe."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include information from an interview with Clifford Swan Sr. after publication.

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