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Was the fatal shooting of a Houston 7-year-old racially motivated?

Was the fatal shooting of a Houston 7-year-old racially motivated?
Jazmine Barnes was sitting in her family's car, just behind her mother, when a man in a pickup started shooting. The second-grader was shot in the head and died. (Inform)

The sister of a 7-year-old Houston girl shot to death in her family car said she locked eyes with the killer before he started firing into the vehicle holding a mother and four daughters.

Investigators are trying to determine a motive for the attack that killed Jazmine Barnes. The girl’s mother, who was shot in the arm, said she believed the attack on her African American family was motivated by race.

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“This is something I believe was a hate crime,” LaPorsha Washington said Thursday.

Jazmine was killed Sunday as she sat behind her mother on a pre-dawn trip to get coffee at a convenience store. The unidentified white attacker remains at large.

“We’re not ruling anything out,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said at a Wednesday news conference. “We’re not tone-deaf to some of the concerns in our community, where these could be potentially race-related. We’re not going to ignore that issue.”

Jazmine’s slaying has gained national attention at a time when white nationalists have become more outspoken and videos documenting attacks on African Americans have gone viral, including a recent incident in which a man leans over a McDonald’s counter and grabs a female employee.

Investigators have little to go on beyond the family’s account and grainy surveillance video showing the gunman’s red pickup just before the attack. On Thursday, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office released the video and a composite sketch of the gunman based on the family’s accounts.

The man, described as in his 30s or 40s and wearing a hooded sweatshirt, fired from the truck into the car Jazmine was riding in with her mother and three sisters, striking the second-grader in the head, according to officials. Two of the other girls were injured by broken glass and had to be hospitalized.

The family said the man had stopped next to their car at a red light before the attack.

On Thursday, at a news conference held by the family, Jazmine’s 15-year-old sister Alxis Dilbert said she looked directly into the killer's eyes just before the shooting.

“You know how when you’re driving and y’all make eye contact and look back? It was like that,” Alxis said. “He was white and he had blue eyes and that was it, because he had a hoodie on. I couldn’t see his hair.”

Washington has said her 6-year-old was the first to notice Jazmine was unresponsive. “She said, ‘Momma, Jazmine's not moving. She's not talking.’ I turned around and my 7-year-old was shot in the head.”

Washington said she worried about her daughters, especially the 13-year-old, who was sitting next to Jazmine during the attack. “She hasn't dropped a tear. And it scares me — because I don't know what's going on in her head. She saw it all, and she's got to remember that.”

Gonzalez said officers were pursuing tips in the case and reviewing a similar unsolved shooting from 2017.

On Aug. 30, 2017, a white man in a pickup opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle at a group of black people in a car about six miles from where Jazmine was shot, injuring two people, according to the sheriff’s office. No one was killed, and the shooting, which occurred soon after Hurricane Harvey struck the city, remains unsolved.

Gonzalez said that investigators were reviewing the case “to see if we may have missed anything.” He cautioned at a news briefing Thursday that he didn’t want to alarm people into thinking there is “a serial shooter out there” but understood that people of color may fear being targeted. “It’s a reality that it does happen,” he said. He promised to increase patrols.

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The sheriff gestured at the composite of the gunman and said that once authorities find him, they’ll learn the motive. “Our focus, right now, is identifying who this individual is, who this coward is.”

“Let’s get her justice,” he said of Jazmine. “She should be thriving, going back to school, getting ready to celebrate her birthday next month.... We’ll never see her potential realized because she was tragically taken by a cowardly gunman that would shoot into a car full of women and young girls.”

Jazmine’s father, Chris Cevilla, appeared Wednesday with investigators to appeal for the public’s help.

“What if that was your daughter?” he said. “Please step up at this point in time and help me and my family get justice for my baby girl.”

By Thursday, he was more certain: “Justice will prevail and I’m going to be leading the charge.”

Cevilla created a GoFundMe campaign to cover the family’s expenses; more than 1,600 donors had given a total of more than $41,000 by Thursday afternoon.

The family’s lawyer, S. Lee Merritt, and Shaun King, an activist and columnist for the Intercept, have offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the gunman’s arrest.

King said he had found a witness who saw the shooting and chased the gunman in his car, and shared that information with investigators. Gonzalez said investigators were evaluating that tip and others from potential eyewitnesses.

“If you know this murderer, turn him now before he gets you killed or causes you to be an accessory to murder,” King tweeted. “We will find him soon.”

Merritt has said several people called to say they saw the same red pickup in the area before Jazmine was killed; one saw the driver break into a parked car and steal a gun. Merritt also forwarded the tips to investigators.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner appealed on Facebook to residents near the scene of the shooting to share security video with investigators.

On Thursday, DeAndre Hopkins, a Houston Texans wide receiver, vowed to donate his $29,000 in earnings from a playoff game this weekend to help pay for Jazmine’s funeral on Tuesday. “When I see Jazmine Barnes’ face, I see my own daughter,” he tweeted.

Jazmine’s supporters planned a community rally and balloon release at the scene of the shooting at noon Saturday.

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