NEWARK, N.J. — Bukhari Washington had resisted the lure of gangs and drugs that derailed the lives of so many in his tough Newark neighborhood.
But that resolve couldn't stop the bullet that tore through the 15-year-old's head on Aug. 14, killing him as he slept in his own bed.
Another teen living one floor down said the bullet accidentally fired as he was "fiddling" with a semiautomatic assault rifle he bought for protection.
Washington's death underscores a chronic problem that New Jersey's largest city can't seem to overcome: Teens keep killing each other with guns even as Newark's overall homicide rate is on pace to fall 40 percent.
Washington became Newark's 12th teenage homicide victim of 2008, a number that surpassed the city's total for all of 2007, according to statistics provided by the county prosecutor's office.
It is a discouraging turn of events for Mayor Cory Booker, who has staked his administration on reducing violent crime and creating programs to help at-risk youth.
"Obviously it is frustrating when guns injure or kill people, but when a young person is hurt, it is a deeper blow," Booker said last week. "We are making strides, but at times your success is punctuated by incidents like this that show how much more work there is to be done."
'Stop the killings'
The circumstances surrounding Washington's death offer insight into the forces at work in Newark, a city of 280,000 that experienced a 50 percent increase in homicides from 2002 to 2006.
The spike in crime led the city's teachers union to pay for billboards that screamed, "HELP WANTED: Stop The Killings In Newark Now!"
According to police, one floor below where Washington slept, 19-year-old Terrance Perry was handling a stolen rifle he had acquired for protection in a neighborhood where teens recall stabbings or fights the way suburban kids recite baseball scores.
Perry, who had no prior criminal record, said the gun went off accidentally. He made his first court appearance last week and pleaded not guilty to aggravated manslaughter and weapons charges.
Outside the apartment building where Washington was shot, friends and neighbors set up a makeshift memorial with pictures of the teenager, along with the words, "Enough is Enough."
Washington's death called to mind the slaying earlier in the summer of 18-year-old Sujeiti Ocasio, who was fatally shot hours after graduating from high school, allegedly by another teenage girl with whom she'd had a dispute.
"It's obviously senseless, but the fact of the matter is that virtually all these cases are senseless," Police Director Garry McCarthy said after Ocasio died.
The city's most notorious slayings happened a year ago. Assailants shot three college-bound students execution-style behind a deserted middle school after an attempted robbery.
A fourth person was also shot in the head but survived.
Six suspects are awaiting trial.
Since then, authorities have begun to turn things around. Total homicides in Newark fell to 37 through Aug. 18, compared to 62 in the same period a year ago.
Killings are on pace to approach a 10-year low.
Just too many guns
Shootings also were down by 19 percent. A $3 million network of surveillance cameras has been credited with increasing arrest rates and taking more violent criminals off the city's streets.
Still, the proliferation of illegal guns often seems insurmountable.
Last week, police raided a public housing complex and seized a small cache of weapons from an abandoned apartment.
The haul included two semiautomatic assault rifles of the type allegedly used by Perry, plus dozens of rounds of ammunition, a 12-gauge shotgun, a .357-caliber revolver and a 9mm handgun, along with a bulletproof vest.
According to McCarthy, the increasing use of semiautomatic weapons has changed the playing field in Newark.
"It used to be, you'd arrive at a crime scene and you'd find five or six shell casings," he said.
"Now, you find 25 or 30."