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Police search for killer of 6-year-old girl remembered for her energy and smile

Nyiah Courtney, the 6-year-old girl who was fatally shot on July 16 in the 2900 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. (D.C. police)

She liked to mimic her grandmother, so a week ago, Nyiah Courtney got her hair braided.

“We twins now,” the smiling 6-year-old told Andrea Courtney.

It was one of the last times the two talked.

Nyiah was fatally shot Friday night while walking to her nearby home with her mother, father and older sister in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast Washington.

Police said the shots came from a gray, four-door sedan passing the commercial corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues, striking Nyiah, her mother and four others, among the latest victims in a city struggling to curtail gun violence.

A 6-year old girl was killed in a drive-by shooting on July 16. D.C. police are asking the public to help identify the vehicle caught on video. (Video: D.C. police)

Family members said the 27-year-old mother, a store clerk, remained hospitalized Saturday. The others who were wounded, all adults, were recovering from injuries police described as not life-threatening.

Nyiah, an outgoing little girl with an infectious smile, who loved to learn and to dance and was eager to begin first grade at Ingenuity Prep Public Charter School this fall, was the youngest victim of a fatal shooting in D.C. this year.

“She put a smile on everybody’s face,” said Courtney, Nyiah’s 52-year-old maternal grandmother.

On Saturday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Robert J. Contee III joined other city officials and the heads of the local offices of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to address the latest killing in the nation’s capital. Federal authorities promised to help with the case and added money to a reward, pushing the total to $60,000.

A day after a 6-year-old girl was killed in Southeast Washington, D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) spoke about gun violence in the city. (Video: D.C. Police)

With homicides in D.C. at levels not seen in 16 years, officials condemned the shooting while highlighting a new program called Building Blocks DC that concentrates police and health programs on the 151 blocks where gun violence is most common.

Bowser said that the government must work to “prevent the next murder” and that police must do everything to arrest a suspect in the case. “We don’t let people get away with murder in our town,” the mayor said. “We have to stand up against them.”

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Contee said police officers were near the block when they heard the gunshots about 11:10 p.m.. “I’m heartbroken,” the chief said, stressing that police are determined to identify the person “responsible for killing this young child.”

D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), which includes Congress Heights, warned that killings “will keep happening until it’s one of us.” He implored residents to take personal responsibility. “No one is coming to save us but us,” he said.

Nyiah was the 102nd homicide victim in D.C. this year; the exact number of people had been killed as of the same date in 2020. The homicide count has risen in each of the past three years and show no sign of abating as the hot summer wears on.

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Nyiah was killed on the third anniversary of the shooting death of 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson, who was struck by a stray bullet as she walked to an ice cream truck clutching a $5 bill, and seven months after 15-month-old Carmelo Duncan was fatally struck by bullets as he sat in a car seat in a vehicle driven by his father.

Nyiah was impatient to start the first grade at Ingenuity, an elementary and middle charter school in Southeast Washington near the Maryland border.

Dayna Hudson taught Nyiah in prekindergarten and kindergarten, and remembers her as a pre-kindergartner in dramatic play. That’s when her students could play with toys in the classroom and use their imaginations to be anything they wanted to be.

Nyiah — a bubbly, energetic and compassionate student — would throw herself into it. She’d be a veterinarian. A hairstylist. A dancer. A doctor.

“She was thinking of the things she wanted to do in life,” Hudson said. “She had so much potential. There were so many things she was interested in in life and wanted to do.”

Nyiah loved school, she said. She focused and worked hard and was proud of herself when she made progress. When she figured out something new with numbers or letters, she’d smile and ask the teacher to take a picture to send to her family.

Her 10-year-old sister would drop by Nyiah’s classroom in the morning and afternoon to make sure her little sister was okay and had all her belongings. Their mother volunteered to chaperone field trips to a pumpkin patch or museums.

“She was so internally motivated to do well. She loved learning, and it was so apparent,” Hudson said. “She was always so proud of her accomplishments because she worked so hard to do it.”

The 6-year-old spent about a third of her schooling years in virtual learning. It was frustrating at times, Hudson said, but Nyiah remained engaged. She would unmute herself to let the teachers know she knew an answer and was following the lessons.

Staffers at Ingenuity Prep said she had been excited to return to the school building in March for the last part of kindergarten.

“She was so kind and compassionate and considerate. Other students wanted to be around her,” Hudson said. “She shined in the classroom, and we will miss her very much.”

Friday night’s shooting occurred along a strip of shops that includes a liquor store, a minimart and a chicken-and-fish takeout a few hundred feet beyond the southwestern edge of the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus. On Saturday morning, the street was littered with remnants of the previous night’s chaos: police-drawn circles marking bullet casings in the street; broken wine bottles; overturned chairs; strips of discarded crime scene tape.

“We need this whole street cleaned up,” said Victoria Akinseye, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area. She gathered with residents Saturday to demand that D.C. leaders do more. “We need better grocery stores, sit-down restaurants. We need something that is going to stop loitering and polluting. When the environment is not clean, people are not safe.”

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The night before Nyiah was killed, a man was shot and critically wounded a block from Friday’s shooting. And on May 30, a man was fatally shot inside a vehicle on the same block.

“The mayor needs to call a state of emergency at this point,” Akinseye said.

Later Saturday afternoon, the beginnings of a memorial for Nyiah appeared.

A balloon in the shape of a princess’s crown floated with other pink and blue ones tied to the streetlight outside the liquor store. At the base of the pole, four Capri Sun juice packs sat next to a pot with purple flowers.

“I just wanted to do something,” said Rhonshea Harris, who lives in the neighborhood and tied a giant polka-dot balloon in the shape of the number six to the pole.

Nyiah’s aunt Carletha Cunningham described her niece as an “outgoing young lady” who liked school so much that every class seemed to be her favorite. She embraced every activity as well, as long as it involved her family.

Hip-hop was her music choice, though Cunningham said she bopped to any beat she found on YouTube. “Any new dance that came along, she tried to pick it up and share it with her family,” Cunningham said.

Andrea Courtney said she last saw her granddaughter a week ago when she showed off her new braids. They parted as they always did, with an “I love you” from Nyiah, a hug and a kiss.

“She was looking forward to being in the first grade,” Courtney said. “She never made it.”