Hearing gunfire, the four boys inside the two-story house on Colfax Avenue N. stopped their dinner and headed for the safety of an upstairs closet. They had gone there before, after hearing gunshots on other nights, so maybe it seemed normal to 3-year-old Terrell Mayes, Jr. He brought his plate of spaghetti.

Ezra, 11, went first, leading his younger brothers upstairs. Terrell, who had just begun speaking this summer and was sad he couldn't use his new sled this brown Christmas, was second in line.

Someone shooting in the alley a block over and around the corner had already fired at least twice, hitting a garage. The shooter pulled the trigger again and the bullet missed its target but sailed on, crossing a street, a yard, another street and then an empty lot before it pierced the blue-painted exterior of Marsha Mayes' home. It bore into the stairwell, striking Terrell in the back of the head.

Seventeen hours later, at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Terrell died at North Memorial Medical Center. He is the city's youngest homicide victim this year, even after a summer that saw a shocking series of killings of three boys ages 11, 13 and 15.

"You keep 'em in, you keep 'em in, but yet and still that bullet, that devil, came right through the wall and took my baby," said Marsha Mayes, who came home Tuesday afternoon while city leaders were holding a press conference outside her house at 2644 Colfax Av. N.

Mayes lamented how her search for safety brought her to the Hawthorne neighborhood this year, in part after separating from Terrell's father, who is incarcerated.

Violent crime has been falling in Minneapolis, with another slight decline recorded this year over last. Homicides are also down this year, and south Minneapolis has seen more killings this year with 15 than north Minneapolis, which now has 11. Still, the city's ShotSpotter gunfire detection system routinely records gunshots in some neighborhoods. Terrell was killed three blocks west of Farview Park, where gunfire is reported nearly every week and, where, less often, someone gets hit by a bullet, according to the city's crime maps.

"It's hard for us over here to live," said Oradell Winters, who lives three doors down from the Mayes family and who said she sometimes played with Terrell. "I've been over here for five years and every time I hear gunshots I just hit the floor."

She's heard plenty of gunfire, she said, and this summer saw a man running for his life as a gunman chased him down the street, firing.

Brian Finstad, a member of the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council board, said he heard gunshots around 5:30 p.m. Dec. 8 in front of his house on the 2600 block of 4th Street N. His partner, who was driving home, saw several people running away.

Finstad said police found 15 bullet casings on the sidewalk in front of his house.

"My neighbor's [parked] car got shot up in the deal," he said. "It wasn't the target, just stray bullets."

Public's help needed

On Tuesday, hours after Terrell died, city leaders gathered at his mother's home to denounce the shooting and the culture of violence behind it.

"What have we been living with?" asked Don Samuels, the City Council member who represents Mayes' neighborhood. "What's normal?"

Mayor R.T. Rybak called Terrell's killing an "outrage" and a "reckless act," and appealed to the public for help finding who fired the bullet.

"Sitting on this information can only make it worse," said Minneapolis police Inspector Mike Martin. "This family needs justice."

The city's ShotSpotter system notified police of gunfire on the block at 6:50 p.m., said police spokesman Sgt. Steve McCarty. The family believes the intended target was someone walking past the home, said Karla Hopkins of Los Angeles, a cousin of Terrell's father. A bullet hole on the side of the wood-framed, two-story house was identified by police as the single shot that was fired from perhaps 100 yards away.

There's no evidence that people inside had been targeted, McCarty said.

The police want anyone with information to call the department's TIPS line at 612-692-TIPS (8477). Crime Stoppers of Minnesota is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information. Anyone with tips should call 1-800-222-8477(TIPS), text TIP674 plus your information to 274637(CRIMES) or go to the Crime Stoppers website at crimestoppersmn.org and click on "Give a Tip."

Not the first time

It isn't the first time a child in Minneapolis has been struck by a stray bullet. In 2002, 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards was killed as she did homework in her south Minneapolis home. And many children have been injured. In summer 2005, the Star Tribune documented the accidental shootings of five children in Minneapolis in less than two months. None was killed.

The Mayes family, including Ezarenta, 10, and Marrell, 2, plans to hold a vigil in Terrell's honor on Friday, according to V.J. Smith of MAD DADS of Minneapolis, an anti-violence group.

The vigil will remember a boy who had loved playing Xbox 360 and eating baked beans, said his mother. He loved to be outside, playing sports with his brothers and who was learning his ABCs, she said.

"Ezra is feeling like it's his fault," said Mayes. "Usually when Ezra and Ezarenta hear shooting, they collect their brothers and run to the closet. He didn't make it quick enough. My baby keeps saying, 'Momma, it's my fault, it's my fault.' I keep telling him, 'It's not your fault. When the Lord picked that flower, he picked that flower.'"

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747 mckinney@startribune.com Randy Furst • 612-673-7382 rfurst@startribune.com