More than 100 people turned out Thursday night for a prayer vigil near 45th and Emmet Streets in memory of Payton Benson.
Mayor Jean Stothert and City Councilman Ben Gray spoke of their resolve to change Omaha for the better after the shooting of Payton, who died Wednesday after she was hit by a stray bullet in her home.
Gray, a relative of Payton's, called for people to cooperate in the police investigation into the killing.
"We recognize that this community is tired and ready to move forward." Gray said. "Make the call."
The family of the 5-year-old Omaha girl killed by a stray bullet wants justice – not retaliation.
Payton Benson's mother, father, siblings, relatives and friends thanked the community Thursday for its support in the wake of the slaying.
They said they wanted to celebrate the life of the little girl who loved Barbies and eating peanut butter with a spoon.
Payton was shot Wednesday morning inside her home as she ate breakfast.
Family members asked that people angry about Payton's death let police do their jobs, rather than take matters into their own hands.
"I ask our community to help me in forgiving the people who are responsible for this," Tabatha Manning, Payton's mother, said at a press conference. "We need some love, everyone. This needs to end for the safety of everyone. ... This is not fair."
A memorial fund benefiting the family has been established. To make a contribution, visit any American National Bank branch in Omaha.
When the bullets stopped flying, the wailing began, and Mnongerwa Moalim rushed outside to find the mother next door soaked in blood and tears.
“I asked her what happened,” Moalim said Thursday. “She said my daughter got shot.”
At that moment Wednesday morning, Tabatha Manning's 5-year-old daughter, Payton Benson, was dying. She had been hit inside her home by a bullet that police say was fired during a gunbattle about one block from the family's duplex at 3328 N. 45th St.
Manning had carried her wounded child to her minivan outside the duplex, Moalim said. The van had a flat tire.
“The (van's) sliding doors were open, and the baby was down there in the car.”
When Moalim walked outside, police were there. An ambulance arrived, too.
But there was no saving Payton from a crime that stunned and outraged Omaha and its leaders.
One moment, Payton was eating breakfast about 9:45 a.m. Wednesday with her mother and little brother. The next moment, she was mortally wounded by an apparently stray bullet fired in a street gunfight that police believe had nothing to do with the family.
Within minutes, the little girl was a homicide victim, Omaha's first of the new year.
“Bullets know no boundaries, they know no target, they are going to land where they land,” Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said at a press conference Wednesday evening.
“Enough of the gang violence, and enough with the random shootings.”
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, appearing with Schmaderer, said, “In our city, every life matters, and every violent death is unacceptable. When a child becomes a victim of such an unthinkable act, we must all stand together to support the family and then we must be part of the solution.”
Schmaderer and Stothert promised to find the person who killed an innocent girl. Both leaders expressed their sympathy for Payton's family members.
“I promise this family and I promise this community that my homicide investigators, my gang investigators, will work around the clock, leaving no stone unturned to solve this homicide,” Schmaderer said.
Shell casings indicated that gunfire broke out at the intersection of 44th Avenue and Emmet Street, a block from Payton's house. Multiple people exchanged gunfire, Schmaderer said.
Police were looking for three black men who fled in a black Jeep Commander. Initial 911 reports described one as having a handgun, one armed with a high-powered rifle and the third wearing a bandanna.
Police found a Jeep matching that description at St. James Manor Apartments, 3102 N. 60th St., but they had not determined whether the vehicle was involved.
A blurry surveillance image of three men standing next to a black Jeep also was released. CrimeStoppers is offering a $25,000 reward for information related to the slaying. Schmaderer asked anyone with information to call 402-444-STOP.
The chief said he had a message for the assailants: “You know who you are, and law enforcement will find out who you are. It may not have been your bullet that struck this little girl. So do the right thing and do yourself a favor in the process. Come down and talk to law enforcement and tell us what you know.”
Moalim, a Somali immigrant, said he had just sat down to work on his living room computer when he heard what he thought were two or three gunshots outside his heavily curtained windows.
“I heard, but I did not see,” he said. “I was afraid.”
Moalim thought they sounded close, and he was right: One struck the wall outside his living room.
Moalim ran to an interior bedroom for safety, then raced outside when he heard screaming and what sounded like police.
Officers had arrived, and police and maybe paramedics were tending to the girl from next door, whom Moalim knew as a nice little kid who played outside when the weather was good and tried to get neighbor children to play with her.
“My neighbor (Tabatha Manning) was there, crying,” Moalim said. “Her chest was all bloody. She cried so much. She cried so much.”
Massey Allen III, 33, who identified himself as a relative of Payton, said he was stopped at 45th Street and Bedford Avenue when he heard gunfire and ducked under his steering wheel.
Allen estimated that about 20 shots were fired. Several neighbors called 911, and officers patrolling the neighborhood heard the gunshots and responded, Schmaderer said. Payton was pronounced dead at Creighton University Medical Center.
Allen said Manning, 31, had recently moved to Omaha from Chicago. She wanted to earn a nursing degree, he said.
Payton's father, Marvin Benson, 35, of Lincoln, is a relative of City Councilman Ben Gray.
Earlier Wednesday, Stothert, Gray and Councilman Pete Festersen were at 50th Street and Ames Avenue for the opening of a new Walmart.
“A day of extreme highs and extreme lows. We celebrated 300 new jobs for north Omaha and a couple of hours later, we had this tragedy,” Festersen said in a phone interview. “The new jobs are symbolic of the progress we're making, and the senseless violence is an indication of how much more we have to do.”
Other community members also expressed outrage after learning of Payton's death.
Willie Barney, head of the Empowerment Network, and other community leaders spent an hour during an Omaha 360 meeting talking about the randomness of Payton's death.
Omaha 360 meetings were begun to provide community groups a platform to discuss ways to reduce gun and gang violence in the city. Barney and other leaders demanded Wednesday that the girl's killer be brought to justice.
“It's totally unacceptable,” Barney said. “We cannot sit back. We need to send this message very loud and very strong.”
Stothert said she would make sure that detectives have the financial resources to crack this case. She told the Benson and Manning families that their loss was the community's loss. As a mother, Stothert said, “Payton's death hurts deeply.”
World-Herald staff writers Emerson Clarridge, Kevin Cole and Maggie O'Brien contributed to this report.