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Even as St. Paul’s police chief sought to reassure residents Wednesday, the city was rocked by two new shootings, one of which left a star high school football player dead. The second, during a gas station melee, ended only when U.S. marshal who happened on the scene opened fire, wounding a suspect.

About 3:30 p.m., officers were called to a house in the 100 block of E. Annapolis Street on a report that a juvenile had accidentally shot a friend in the torso, according to emergency dispatch audio.

Neighbors gathered at the scene said the shooting involved teenagers. Two boys were brought out of the home and placed into a police squad vehicle. A third was wheeled out on a stretcher covered by a white sheet.

“They weren’t fighting,” said a neighbor who watched them being hauled away. “I think they understood the gravity of the situation.”

Distraught relatives soon gathered outside the house, huddling together in grief. As of late Wednesday, police said they were questioning at least two people, but no arrests had been made.

Da’Qwan Jones-Morris, 17, was a co-captain of the Sibley High School football team.
Da’Qwan Jones-Morris, 17, was a co-captain of the Sibley High School football team.

Sibley High School

Family and friends identified the victim on social media as Da’Qwan Jones-Morris, 17. He was a senior at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights and co-captain of the school’s football team.

A lawn sign near the front steps of his mother’s house reads: “A Warrior Lives Here” — marking a proud reference to his No. 21 football jersey and the school’s mascot.

Shortly afterward, across town, a U.S. marshal who was at a Holiday gas station on E. 7th Street and Kittson Street reportedly shot an armed man in the shoulder after the gunman opened fire on a car full of people. No officers were hurt in that encounter, which is under investigation by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

The shootings occurred as Chief Todd Axtell sat in his office giving back-to-back media interviews in which he sought to calm a city plagued by gun violence.

So far this year, the city has tallied 29 killings — the most in 25 years. If the gunfire doesn’t stop, the city is on track to surpass the 1992 high of 34 homicides.

“The record number of homicides isn’t what keeps me up at night,” Axtell said. “It’s the thought of another family being ripped apart by gun violence.”

Homicidal violence is often concentrated in areas of high poverty and is “tragically and unfortunately unpredictable,” he said, adding that more than half the city’s homicides have been gang-related.

Young people too often reach for stolen or unlawful firearms to settle petty disputes — usually started on social media and continuously fueled by retaliatory acts, Axtell said.

“A lot of this is based on disrespect,” he said. “Yesterday’s fistfights are today’s gunfights. People become very brave when they’re using their phone or using their computer screen to threaten other people.”

Twenty-five of this year’s deaths were committed with firearms, including one involving an officer. Axtell characterized those numbers as the some of highest he’s ever seen related to gun violence.

Visibly tired and frustrated, Axtell called on citizens to notify police when they’re aware of people harboring illegal weapons, acknowledging, “That can be a scary thing to do.”

The department is now turning to the FBI for assistance in tackling the problem. Axtell is expected to meet Thursday with U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald, and local and federal law enforcement partners.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Several St. Paul officers are to be temporarily reassigned from the local FBI Safe Streets Task Force to help inside the homicide and special investigations units, where detectives are “absolutely exhausted,” Axtell said. The FBI, ATF and U.S. Marshals Service all plan to provide extra resources in the city in hopes of apprehending “people on a federal level for some of these gun crimes.”

Each homicide investigation costs the department an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 in overtime.

There have been recent successes. Officers have recovered more than 530 firearms from the street this year and made arrests in more than half the homicides.

On Tuesday, police arrested two brothers on suspicion of murder in a shooting late last month in the Summit-University neighborhood.

They are suspected in the death of 28-year-old Shawn Jones of St. Paul Park, who was killed Oct. 27.

Although Axtell declined to comment on a report by the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Ramsey County and St. Paul officials left $100,000 in grant money on the table for a gang-violence intervention initiative, he said City Hall has provided adequate support.

Mayor Melvin Carter “and I are equally committed to stemming the current trend,” he said. “I believe there are better days ahead.”