Hours before two masked assailants chased down and fatally shot Gerald Watson with nine bullets in an apartment building stairwell, the ninth grader was at Anacostia High School helping a classmate deal with a personal crisis.

That was how a school counselor knew the 15-year-old student, who played recreational league football and seemed to be someone to whom his contemporaries gravitated in times of trouble.

Gerald’s name adds to the District’s growing list of homicides — now at 156 for the year, a more than 40 percent increase over this time in 2017. He was one of nine victims between the ages of 10 and 17.

“I try to read between the lines and try to understand what is going on behind the facade of people,” said Nathan Luecking, a social worker at Anacostia High School who knew Gerald. “I got a strong, decent, helpful presence about him.”

Gerald was shot about 3:40 p.m. on Thursday in the 2900 block of Knox Place SE, just off Alabama Avenue and so close to the 7th District police station that the district commander heard the shots and rushed to the scene. Police said as the attackers chased Gerald, he tried to escape by running into an apartment building next to the one in which he lived.

He made it inside a stairwell, where a police report says one or both of the assailants fired nine shots at him. He died 35 minutes later at a hospital. Police said on Friday they knew of no motive.

The police chief, speaking to reporters at the crime scene, said Gerald had been targeted. He described the shooting, 12 days before Christmas, as “heartbreaking.”

Several neighbors and D.C. officials said Gerald’s mother and grandmother lived in the building next to the one in which he had been shot in Garfield Heights. The front door was decorated with gold Christmas wrapping paper and a red-and-white checked bow. Relatives did not respond to interview requests.

Grief emerged on social media, with postings pointing to Gerald’s promise on the football field. He played for a D.C.-run youth league run out of the Fort Stanton Recreation Center, a mile walk from his home through the Woodland Terrace public housing complex. The Fort Stanton Generals won the title this fall.

He also was a member of a late-night basketball league called Shoot Hoops Not Bullets, and the group honored “Lil’ G” through tweets. “Young man could play some ball too!” one read, noting the community “lost a jewel.” It added, “no matter what he did or didn't do, he did not deserve to die like a dog in a city as prosperous as DC! Sad indeed!”

Jimmie Jenkins knew Gerald from helping with efforts run by the Cure Violence program, which works with at-risk teens. He said Gerald was not among the teens seeking help, but was often at Fort Stanton when meetings were held and would talk with those seeking counseling.

“It’s troubling, all these kids who get caught up in violence,” Jenkins said. “It’s perplexing in this case because Gerald was not one of those types of kids. It’s an everyday fight.”

Luecking said Gerald often helped him in his in-school studio, where he began an innovative program for students to write and produce their own rap music to deal with personal loss — such as a death of loved one or a friend, or someone they know going off to prison.

The sessions are intensely personal, but Luecking said students seeking help often showed up with Gerald, asking if he could stay. That happened again on Thursday.

Luecking first told his story on Twitter, saying “My grief is anger now. We live in the one of the wealthiest areas in the country, and our kids are dying in the streets.”

In an interview, the social worker described Gerald as “a very social guy” and said he was able to mediate disputes between classmates without taking sides. “He was the kind of kid who would break up a fight or stand up for somebody being bullied,” he said. “He was never judgmental and he was always encouraging.”

Luecking said he refuses to dwell on a motive. “You will just fall into a spiral of not having any of your questions answered,” he said.

Maria Angala, a reading intervention teacher at Anacostia, had her students write and read poems about their friend Gerald. She posted a brief video of a reading on Twitter; a school system spokesman confirmed it was authentic.

One student wrote, and read: “What you got to know is they watch us from the sky; the ones they kiss are the ones we forever miss; it’s crazy how stuff goes that no one really knows; we forever love you; if I can describe you in three words — amazing, calm and cool; just know we will miss you at our school.”

Clarence Williams and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.