For a long time, Sharnez Hill had wanted to have a baby more than anything.
She had waited and waited. Finally the day arrived early this year and she became a mother.
“She said her baby was her best friend,” said her cousin, the Rev. Donte McCutchen. “She was so excited. Her siblings, her sister, her mom, her dad — they all were so excited.”
The 30-year-old Hill, whom everyone knew as “Shy-Shy,” was only a mother for a few short months before she and her 3-month-old daughter, Neziah Hill, were fatally shot as they were outside enjoying a beautiful evening at an apartment complex in South Richmond. Three other people were wounded in Tuesday’s hail of gunfire at Belt Atlantic Apartments, formerly known as Midlothian Village.
The police said all five victims were bystanders, not intended targets.
“They were just outside playing, taking advantage of the weather,” said McCutchen, pastor of Love Cathedral Community Church, also in South Side. “This is what’s making it so sad right now. All she wanted to do was have a baby and be a mother, and finally she gets to be a mother — and this happens.”
The shooting also wounded a 29-year-old woman, a 15-year-old girl and an 11-year-old girl, said Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith at a news conference Wednesday, adding that all three survivors were in stable condition.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the Richmond police said they arrested three men and charged each with conspiracy to commit murder. The suspects are Donald Hemmings, 22, of Chesterfield County, and two Richmond men, Shyheem Martin, 23, and Shamondrick Perry, 19.
The gunfire erupted about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the complex in the 4000 block of Midlothian Turnpike. One of the victims was holding 3-month-old Neziah, but Smith could not immediately say which one.
Smith said a group of gunmen opened fire and then another group returned fire. Police believe the initial gunmen are responsible for shooting all five victims, and investigators do not think the second group struck anyone.
“They were shooting across those courtyards,” Smith said, describing the scene. “That courtyard was filled with kids at the time.”
Most of the gunfire was directed at a single apartment, Smith said, which has led police to believe that it was the shooters’ target.
It was unclear whether the five victims lived at Belt Atlantic Apartments.
At least three types of guns were used: an assault rifle and two handguns, based on the shell casings recovered from the scene, Smith said.
“But that doesn’t mean there were only three guns used,” he added. More guns of the same calibers could have been involved.
Smith couldn’t say exactly how many shots had been fired or how many shell casings had been recovered, but he estimated the number would top 50.
Residents of Belt Atlantic recalled seeing people running in all directions after the gunfire started and Shy-Shy Hill lying in the grass near one of the apartment buildings.
“People were crowded around her trying to make sure she was all right until the paramedics got there,” said Jean Holloway. By Wednesday afternoon, red heart-shaped balloons, stuffed animals and flowers had been placed at the spot. Directly behind the makeshift memorial, six bullet holes were visible in an apartment window.
Dozens of family members, friends and neighbors gathered Wednesday evening near where Hill fell. The backdrop was the memorial that had grown throughout the day.
“This is our time to mourn,” McCutchen said, adding that there is no one way to do so. The reverend joked that one of his family members asked him to walk away because he might cuss. “You go on and cuss. I’m not here as a reverend. I’m a cousin today. I’m pissed off. I’m mad.”
He asked one of his cousins for a water bottle, and for anyone with a drink to join him in a ritual. As he poured three streams from the bottle, he said: “We remember because they are now amongst the ancestors. This is for our people. This is for our family. This is for our community.”
Other community members said they hoped change would come from the senseless killings.
Inez Christian-Clarke of Atlanta said she got the news last night that her granddaughter had died and, later, her great-granddaughter. More than 20 years ago, she lost her own son to violence in Gilpin Court and out of it came a lifelong ministry.
“Don’t let her memories just be memories,” the family’s matriarch challenged the rest of them. “We did great things through my loss. We can do some great things out of this.”
Earlier Wednesday, Evelyn Brown described a chaotic scene after the shooting started.
“They was running, screaming, crying, running into anybody’s house,” she said of the crowd outside. “You couldn’t see who was shooting.”
She said she had been sitting with a neighbor when a teenage girl approached and asked for help. She had been shot in her side and her hand, Brown said.
One Belt Atlantic resident, Scheila Rhone, said that a bullet entered her apartment and went through a plant, and that a bullet also landed on a couch. She said gunfire struck a majority of the units in her building.
Tori Jenkins, a 23-year-old mother and a friend of Hill’s, broke into tears as she recalled how excited Hill had been to be a mother.
“It’s sad that she and her girl are gone,” she said.
Jenkins added that she and her 2-year-old daughter might have been shot if they had been out there, but she was out getting her nails done and her daughter was with her godmother.
“There was a reason that God had me doing what he had me doing,” she said.
Brown, Jenkins and other residents said security in the complex is too lax.
“They just need to lock this whole apartment complex down and do something else with this property,” Holloway said.
A phone message left at Belt Atlantic’s office late Wednesday afternoon was not immediately returned.
Fifth District Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch visited Belt Atlantic to speak with residents on Wednesday.
“We need funding for programs,” Lynch said. “We need grassroots community nonprofit programming.”
“We’re not fighting a war on crime,” she said. “We’re fighting a war on poverty and trauma. And social media fuels all of it. We’ve lost too many community members.”
Lynch added that the virtual learning environment has removed “some of the systems of care that would typically be in place for kids during a regular school year.”
Mayor Levar Stoney also spoke about the tragedy at Wednesday’s news conference.
“That’s exactly what it is, a tragedy,” Stoney said. “When a mother, and now a child, is gone because of indiscriminate gunfire without any regard for human life.”
“The story is reoccurring too many times in our community,” Stoney said. “That our children can’t simply go out and play and enjoy themselves.”
He begged those who live in the apartment complex, who witnessed what happened or know something, to come forward.
“We can’t get these individuals off the street without your help,” Stoney said.
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning: “To my knowledge, we haven’t lost any students to COVID. Thank god. But in same timeframe, we’ve lost nearly 10 to gun violence. Number goes up to many dozens since I became [superintendent]. I’m well past heartbroken. I’m angry. We have to figure out how to stop this.”
Neziah Hill is the fifth child under age 18 to be killed this year in Richmond. All but one were killed with guns.
This year, 28 people have been killed by violence in the city. (Richmond police are counting 21 of them as homicides, as they are not required to count death investigations or justified shootings among their total.)
In 2020, the city had nine homicide victims under age 18, the largest number of any year since 2017. Another teenager was killed, but police stopped short of calling it a homicide.
“Every day it seems there’s another firearms tragedy somewhere in America,” said Rep. Donald McEachin, whose district includes the apartment complex, in a statement Wednesday. “We must catch the person who did this and do something about the senseless epidemic of gun violence. Those who are violent or dangerous must not have easy access to firearms because too often, those situations end up like this — with innocent civilians dead and injured.”
“These tragedies must stop. Innocent lives are now lost and more people ... are in the hospital fighting to survive,” McEachin said. “My heart goes out to the families and to those in the community of Belt Atlantic who lost loved ones and were in fear of their lives.”
A police officer was also involved in a collision while responding to the scene. Both the officer and driver of the other vehicle are OK, Smith said, though he added that the officer was “banged up.” Smith said he hadn’t read the crash report yet so he couldn’t say what had happened.
Anyone with information is asked to call Detective Russell at (804) 646-7715 or Crime Stoppers at 780-1000.
You can also submit tips by going to www.p3tips.com or using the P3 Tips app for smartphones.