A Woodbury graduation party turned tragic Saturday night when a 14-year-old boy was fatally shot, the latest child to die by gun violence in the Twin Cities in recent weeks.
Demaris Nathan Hobbs-Ekdahl, who just finished his freshman year at Oakdale's Tartan High School, was struck by bullets that police believe came from people who fled the scene in SUVs. Nearby houses were also struck by the gunfire that sent party guests fleeing.
His mother, Trisha Ekdahl, said three males pulled guns on her other son, 16-year-old son Davion, as he and Demaris were trying to leave the party. They shot at the back of the car, she said, striking Demaris.
"He's such an innocent boy," she said. "They killed my baby."
The heartbroken mother clutched a photograph of her family as loved ones came up to give her hugs at a vigil Sunday night at Richard Walton Memorial Park in Oakdale.
The nearly 200 people at the vigil were dressed in blue, Demaris' favorite color, and custom "Long Live MarMar," his nickname, and "RIP Baby Boy" T-shirts. The group released blue balloons into the bright, sunny sky, collectively sobbing as they shouted out "I love you!"
"If you can shoot a 14-year-old kid driving away in his back, you're a coward," said uncle Bob Humphries.
Aunt Valerie Reynolds pleaded with the crowd of young men to "please put the guns down."
"This is ridiculous," she said. "We're burying too many of our kids. And it's time to stop."
No arrests had been made as of Sunday evening in the shooting, which took place in the 6100 block of Edgewood Avenue. Officers responded around 10:45 p.m. to 911 calls of people screaming and one person asking for help.
Hobbs-Ekdahl, of Maplewood, loved mechanics and watching his uncle race cars. On Friday, he spent the hot summer day on White Bear Lake with his family, including sisters Ameria, 9, and Analaya, 1, being pulled behind a boat on a water tube.
But the teenager's greatest love was playing on his school's Titan football team, which is grieving the loss of their running back and close friend. The team starts training Monday morning and will be missing a key player. At the vigil, they huddled together with tear-stained faces to chant "1, 2, 3 — Mar! 4, 5, 6 — family!"
Sequoya Ashley, a behavioral health specialist at Skyview Middle School, said Hobbs-Ekdahl was the class clown, an amazing athlete with good grades.
"I know y'all hurt," she said to her former students. "He wasn't in the streets. There's no reason."
Aunt Katie Ekdahl said she'll remember Demaris for his big smile, even with braces. "He was so happy about getting his braces off finally," she said tearfully.
The fatal shooting is the latest gun crime against children in the Twin Cities. In Minneapolis, Trinity Ottoson-Smith, 9, was shot May 15 and died two weeks later; Ladavionne Garrett Jr., 10, was shot April 30 and critically wounded; Aniya Allen, 6, died May 19, two days after being shot.
Saturday's violence extended beyond Woodbury, a St. Paul suburb of about 70,000 residents. In Minneapolis, three people were fatally shot overnight in different parts of the city, two of them struck by stray bullets while watching illegal street racing.
Woodbury Police Cmdr. John Altman said in a news release that investigators are working to identify and locate suspects.
"We believe that the shooters knew each other and that this was not a random act," Altman said.
Witnesses told officers that a white SUV fled the area, as did a dark SUV or truck, and both vehicles are believed to be involved in the shooting. Altman said the vehicles were also involved in "other scenes in neighboring Maplewood and Oakdale" but did not respond to questions about what happened at the other locations.
Altman said residents whose homes were struck by gunfire were believed to be unharmed. Detectives were canvassing the neighborhood and interviewing witnesses.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is assisting the investigation along with the Washington County Sheriff's Office and police departments in St. Paul, Oakdale and Maplewood.
"Our hearts go out to his family," Altman said.