She was an innocent little girl, sitting at home eating breakfast, when she was killed by a stray bullet from a north Omaha gunbattle.
The randomness of that act Wednesday stunned and outraged community leaders.
“In our city, every life matters and every violent death is unacceptable,” Mayor Jean Stothert said. “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.”
Five-year-old Payton Benson was hit by a bullet fired one block from her home near 45th and Emmet Streets, said Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.
Payton was eating breakfast with her mother and little brother about 9:45 a.m. when a bullet ripped through the walls of the house at 3328 N. 45th St., Schmaderer said.
The mother, Tabatha Manning, ran out screaming, a relative said.
Payton was Omaha's first homicide victim of the new year.
“Bullets know no boundaries, they know no target, they are going to land where they land,” Schmaderer said during a press conference Wednesday evening.
“Enough of the gang violence, and enough with the random shootings.”
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. Police are offering a $25,000 reward for information related to the slaying. Schmaderer asked anyone with information to call Crime Stoppers at 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.”
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.