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8-year-old PJ Evans, fatally struck by a stray bullet, remembered for gentle soul and NFL ambitions

Peyton John Evans, 8, was fatally struck by a stray bullet in the Landover area Aug. 24. (Antoine Dotson)

Peyton John Evans, a big-hearted 8-year-old known as “PJ,” was particularly happy earlier this week at an apartment with family in the Landover area. His team had just won a football scrimmage, and it was time for Taco Tuesday.

But while he was sitting at the living room table playing video games with his cousin around 8:20 p.m., a man in a white sedan pulled into the complex’s parking lot. Moments later, gunfire erupted. His mom, sitting on the patio, screamed to grab the kids.

It was too late. A bullet had torn through the glass patio door. PJ was slumped over at the table.

The rising third-grader, who loved to snuggle with his mom on the sofa, was fatally wounded.

“He was a gentle soul, a big old teddy bear,” said his uncle Antoine Dotson, a spokesperson for the boy’s family who detailed the account of the shooting. “And he didn’t even have the opportunity to experience life.”

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Prince George’s County Police Chief Malik Aziz said police are looking for the shooter and sedan. He said the department had not identified a suspect but vowed to “leave no stone unturned.”

Police did not offer a motive for the shooting, but Aziz said the 8-year-old victim was not the intended target.

PJ’s killing is part of a disturbing surge of violence in the Washington region that has left multiple children slain.

In July, 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney was fatally shot while walking home with her family in Southeast Washington. Seven months earlier, 15-month-old Carmelo Duncan was in a car seat in his father’s vehicle when he was struck by bullets and died.

And last summer, 11-year-old Davon McNeal was caught in crossfire while walking to get his ear phones after an anti-violence cookout in Anacostia.

Older children have died too, including two teens in separate shootings earlier this month in Prince George’s, and 13-year-old King Douglas, who police say was fatally shot by a 12-year-old outside Dave and Buster’s in the Capitol Heights area.

At funeral for 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney, a call for an end to the ‘bloody city’

Tony Barr, a 41-year-old who lives in Brandywine, Md., was PJ’s first football coach. He remembers 3-year-old PJ sprinting through grassy fields, already developing the intense work ethic and love of football that would define the rest of his years.

“PJ just worked hard,” Barr, who coached the boy until he was 6, said. “He was always smiling, but on the football field, he could get real serious.”

He practiced hard and often, regularly hitting the gym and consistently asking his coaches what he could do to be better. He spent days training at the Gibson Performance Training Center in Capitol Heights, where his trainer Martin Gibson said the boy’s confidence grew.

At first, PJ would show up to the facility in big T-shirts and wait in the back of the line for drills. But as he focused on improving his footwork both at the gym and on his own time, PJ began arriving in tank tops and inching up in the line.

“He was the type of kid who just wanted to get it right,” Gibson said.

He was also the type of kid who made others feel welcome, his coaches said, always spotting the new trainee and helping them acclimate.

“PJ was always encouraging, always ready to pick the next person up,” said Joshua Rascoe, a 26-year-old in Landover who also coached PJ from ages 4 to 6. “He was one of them kids who you just had to love.”

PJ was driven in part by his dream to play for the National Football League. One day, while working out at the center, he met Chase Young, a defensive end for the Washington Football Team. After they posed for a picture together, PJ went home and declared that the Washington Football Team was his new favorite team and that Young was his favorite player, Gibson recalled.

For the next year, PJ would periodically shout to Gibson mid-workout and say, “Look coach. I’m just like Chase.”

On Wednesday, Young posted a photo with PJ on Instagram and wrote, “violence has to be stopped. RIP young superstar!”

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At the core of PJ’s ambition, those who knew him say, was his best friend — who also happened to be his mom. PJ’s Instagram account is full of photographs with her.

“I love you mommy,” he wrote under one selfie of them smiling together.

“My mommy and I being safe,” he wrote beneath another image, this time of the two in masks.

Friends and family say they rarely saw him without Tiffani Evans, who was at every football game and involved in the Parent Teacher Association at his school.

Evans bought her first house last year and made sure it had a yard where her children could play, said Markita Bryant, who is part of the boy’s large and close-knit extended family in the D.C. area.

“She worked hard so he could have a stable house and a yard where he could play sports,” Bryant said. “She worked hard for that. That was her baby and jewel.”

Bryant described PJ as a hugger, a child who would just hug everyone he saw. He relished being around people and engaged everyone in conversation. And he loved school, particularly the sciences, and brought home straight As, his family said.

He was a boy who loved to dance to Disney tunes and a Michael Jackson hit that his family would play. A few years away from adolescence, he wasn’t yet into more contemporary popular music. The boy hadn’t even been exposed to lyrics about gun violence, Bryant said, before a shooting ended his life.

An earlier version of this story had the wrong middle name for PJ. This version has been corrected.

Katie Mettler, Dana Hedgpeth and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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