Nykerah Strawder made dinner for her family Saturday evening, including cheesy fries for her oldest daughter, who was headed to the beauty store and would be hungry when she got home.
As Nykayla Strawder, 15, returned from the store, she paused on the front porch, where a few of her friends were hanging out. She never made it inside.
The high school sophomore was shot to death by a younger child whose family lives around the corner, according to her parents. Police said the shooting was accidental. They said the shooter, a 9-year-old boy, would not face charges because of his age.
Two days after losing their daughter in a senseless act of gun violence, Nykerah Strawder and Dontay Jones are questioning how a child so young got ahold of a loaded firearm. And they're calling on Baltimore police and prosecutors to bring charges against any adults responsible for keeping the gun secured.
"How do you not notice your gun was missing? There is no excuse - knowing there's a child in the home and not keeping your gun hidden," Jones said during an interview Monday at the family home on Linnard Street in West Baltimore. "Our daughter is never coming back. We'll be looking down at our daughter in a casket. I'll never see her smile again."
He said the 9-year-old boy had come to their house a couple times to play video games with Nykayla's younger brother. But Jones said he didn't know the boy's family well. The Baltimore Sun tried unsuccessfully to reach that family Monday.
Immediately after the shooting, police said, the boy dropped the gun and ran away.
Detectives later ran the gun's serial number and learned it was registered to a female relative of the boy who works as an armed security guard. Officials declined to specify her exact relationship to the shooter.
Potential criminal charges are pending, Baltimore Police said Sunday afternoon. Officials said the department is working closely with the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office on a charging decision. They declined to say what the potential charges are.
Maryland law says an adult cannot leave a loaded firearm "where the person knew or should have known that an unsupervised child would gain access" to the weapon. But the statute is relatively minor - a misdemeanor whose maximum penalty is a $1,000 fine.
State lawmakers have tried repeatedly to strengthen the statute. A bill failed to pass the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year that would have given it sharper teeth, including by adding jail time to the possible penalties.
Jones said he believes the consequences should be significantly more severe, especially in cases where the unsecured gun results in injury or death.
"We're just seeking legal justice," he said. "I don't care how long it takes. I want justice for my daughter and every other child lost to gun violence in recent years. It's ridiculous."
'The life of this family'
Nykayla was a typical teenage girl in some ways - she loved doing her hair and makeup, posting dance videos on TikTok and playfully giving her parents a hard time. In other ways, she was "an old soul," her mom said.
Nykerah Strawder was a teenager when her oldest child was born, and the two grew up together.
"She was bossy like her mom," Strawder said with a smile. "She was my best friend."
Strawder and Jones were watching television upstairs when they heard the gunshot. Moments later, a friend of Nakayla's came running through the house screaming that she was dead, the parents recounted in interviews Monday. Strawder momentarily hoped it was all a prank.
Then she got outside. Two days later, Strawder said, she can't shake that horrific image of her daughter lying on the porch, the life draining from her body.
Jones demonstrated how Nykayla was sitting cross-legged on the porch, cooling down in the shade after walking to the store - then boom, he said, she fell back against the front wall of the house.
"I've been reenacting this in my head over and over again for the past two days," he said.
When medics arrived, Nykayla still had a pulse. She was transported to a hospital by ambulance, but her parents said Baltimore police wouldn't let them go with her because of the active crime scene. Other relatives rushed to the hospital while Strawder and Jones remained in their house, praying for some kind of miracle.
Then came news of her death.
After being mostly unable to eat or sleep, Strawder said she awoke Monday morning from a vivid dream in which her daughter was comforting her from above, telling her not to worry anymore. Strawder said she felt some sense of peace.
"Now I know I have to bury my daughter," she said. "Her soul has gone. Her body is just a shell."
But still, she can't stop looking back just days earlier, when Nykayla was still full of life.
She recently attended prom, wearing a bright red dress with flawless hair and makeup. Her favorite color was purple. She doted over her little dog Daisy, goofed around with her younger siblings and laughed with her friends.
"She was the life of this house, the life of this family," Strawder said. "She was just coming into her own. And she loved her family. She brought us all together."
Outside the Linnard Street house Monday, Jones and Strawder received a steady stream of visitors, including family members, news reporters and outreach workers from the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.
Among the visitors was James Price, who recently had been trying to get in touch with Jones, his nephew, after the two lost touch. Then, on Monday morning, he saw Jones on television news talking about the shooting.
About an hour later, Price arrived at his nephew's house on Linnard Street and gave him a long, heartfelt embrace on the sidewalk.
"You should always keep your gun locked," Price said a few minutes later. "Somebody should be held responsible."
Price, 59, said his teenage cousin was killed under similar circumstances in February 2021. The teen and his friend were playing with a gun belonging to the friend's father when it discharged, killing 16-year-old Ervin Talley. The friend, who was 17 at the time, was charged initially with involuntary manslaughter and possession of a firearm, though online court records don't show an outcome for the case.
The father was not charged because the state statute pertaining to children accessing unsecured handguns applies only to kids 15 or younger. Some lawmakers have advocated unsuccessfully for raising the age.
But one issue that often comes up in discussions about firearms access laws is whether a stronger statute would result in more grieving parents being charged in the accidental deaths of their children.
David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said he's skeptical that prosecuting such cases more aggressively will have the desired effect: getting people to be more careful about storing their guns.
"There are times when I feel like everyone is suddenly eager to punish someone because a terrible tragedy has occurred," he said. "And I don't know that we're not adding a tragedy on a tragedy when we seek a criminal conviction and punishment against, for example, the parents who have just lost a child."
In Baltimore so far this year, police have recorded 15 homicides involving juvenile victims - including shootings, stabbings and blunt force injuries - and 38 nonfatal shootings.
Baltimore police also reported another shooting this past weekend in which a 14-year-old boy accidentally shot himself in the leg. And last week in Idlewylde, an 8-year-old girl was fatally shot and Baltimore County police charged an unidentified minor in the case.
"This is another reminder that we must change the culture that makes it all too easy for our children to have access to deadly weapons," Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said in a statement Monday.
On the question of criminally charging a child who gets ahold of an unsecured gun, state lawmakers passed a juvenile justice reform bill earlier this year that sets minimum age requirements for criminal charges. Under the new law, which went into effect June 1, a child under 10 cannot face charges, including serious felonies. For less serious crimes, the minimum age is 13.
While the 9-year-old in the Linnard Street shooting theoretically could have been charged under the old law, experts said, questions likely would arise about whether a child that young could be considered competent to stand trial.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson and editor Reed Williams contributed to this article.