Marsha Mayes keeps a mother’s lonely vigil on behalf of the son who will always remain 3 years old, even as her hope begins to flag that his killer will be identified.

Terrell Mayes Jr. was shot the day after Christmas five years ago. A stray bullet tore through the vinyl siding of the house his mother rented in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Minneapolis and struck him as he scrambled up the stairs. He died the next day.

For the first four years, Mayes pushed fiercely to keep her son’s memory alive in the hope that persistent publicity would persuade a witness to come forward. She held an annual vigil in July on his birthday. She repeated her pleas in a police news conference a year ago that may have been the last best shot at a break in the case.

Now she fights to stay optimistic even as the oldest of her three surviving sons urges her to face up to her dwindling chances of learning the truth.

“I keep my faith about it, and pray about it, but on the inside, I don’t think that they’re going to find him,” Mayes, 37, said recently. “It’s been too long.”

Billboards offering a $60,000 reward for information leading to the killer haven’t brought an answer. Neither did the news conference plea, the dozens of posters posted in the county jail or the sign in a City Hall window facing the light-rail stop outside police headquarters.

Fifteen of the city’s 26 homicide cases in 2011 have been closed. But not Terrell’s.

Police said a year ago that they consider the shooting gang-related.

“It was clear to me that they didn’t mean to shoot Terrell,” Lt. Richard Zimmerman said.

But he still wants to resolve the case.

“Somebody out there knows what happened and we need that person to come forward to us,” Zimmerman said. “Do the right thing, that’s all I’m saying, the right thing for that child.”

Mayes did not hold her annual July vigil this year on the grassy lot next to the house where “Junior” was killed. She said the North Side’s streets were too unsafe. She’s moved across Interstate 94 from what she considers the North Side, trying for separation from people she believes let her down.

But she decided after Thanksgiving that the streets are safer in winter. She’s holding a candlelight vigil at 5 p.m. Monday on the city-owned vacant lot at 2650 Colfax Av. N., next to the murder site.

Mayes has tended a bunch of fake flowers there, at the base of the house she rented, since her son’s death. She put them there, she said, so her son knows she still cares. She sees signs of him in everyday life.

“I believe if a butterfly just mysteriously pops up, it’s Junior telling me, ‘Hey Mom, I’m still here,’ ” Mayes said.

Even five years after his death, she asks, “What if?”

What if Junior had been able to stay with his father? They were inseparable before Terrell Mayes Sr. went to prison. What if the house next door had still been there to absorb the bullet? It was razed as derelict not long before the shooting.

What if she’d made the younger boys walk to the store with her that day instead of leaving them behind with her sister? What if she’d taught the boys to flee to the basement when they heard gunfire, rather than flee up the staircase to a closet between two bedrooms? And what if the shooter had aimed any other direction?

Mayes said she has long battled depression, and her son’s death made it worse. Their family has also seen other tragedies since then. She said her sister, who was with Terrell when he was shot, died earlier this year after a drug overdose, and her oldest son overheard the murder of his girlfriend’s mother last year.

‘You know what you did’

The day Terrell died wasn’t the first time Mayes had to confront gun violence at the house she rented on Colfax Avenue N.

Earlier in 2011, she and her four boys were out doing yard work when a teen ran through her yard while being pursued, dropping a handgun and his red hat. Mayes reported the incident and called police to retrieve the gun.

And she said she would call police if she knew something about other crimes, especially the death of a child. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to her that no one has come forward in her son’s killing.

“How can you let a baby-killer run this long without saying something?” she said, urging anyone who knows something to call police, even if it’s an anonymous tip.

“If it was an accident, I understand that,” Mayes said. “I can take an accident.”

But she needs closure. It’s difficult to imagine the killer home playing with his own children while the Mayes family suffers.

“I’m going to keep his name out here because somebody did it and you know who you are and you know what you did,” Mayes said.


Twitter: @brandtmpls