Natalee Peters still speaks of her son in the present tense.
Nearly a week after 4-year-old Marquel Peters was killed by a stray bullet at a New Year’s Eve church service, his mother is struggling with the realization that her only child was taken from her in a senseless accident.
DeKalb Police believe that a bullet fired from a gun by someone celebrating the new year pierced a hole in the roof of The Church of God of Prophecy in Decatur and struck Marquel in the head. He died a short time later at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston before doctors could stabilize him enough to surgically remove the bullet.
DeKalb Police are continuing the investigation but have so suspects in the case, as the shot could have been fired from more than a mile away.
“He really loves going to church,” Natalee Peters said on Jan. 4. “Sometimes, if he wasn’t listening I would tell him we’re not going. He would tell me, ‘I wanna go.’ He enjoyed going to Sunday School and loved being up front where the musicians are.”
During an intermission after the Watch Night Service, Marquel got up from his seat and went to where the musicians were setting up for a concert that was to begin at 12:30 a.m. He banged around on the drums a little bit, and then went to visit his uncle, Gary Peters, who was sitting nearby.
“He told me ‘Happy New Year, Uncle Gary,’” his uncle said. “I was talking to him just two minutes before it happened.”
Pastor Lloyd Phipps and others at the service said they heard a loud pop. Marquel was playing with a portable video game he got for Christmas during the intermission when he was hit by the bullet.
Natalee Peters said she saw the game drop to the floor, and when she turned around after picking it up, she saw her son’s head covered in blood.
“I’m just trying to hold up,” Natalee Peters said. “It’s been very hard. The church family has been real supportive, real nice. My mom, dad, brother, everyone has helped. I couldn’t do it by myself. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Phipps is concerned that the most difficult time for Peters will come after the funeral service. There was a memorial service scheduled at the church on Wednesday, Jan. 7, and the funeral is scheduled for Jan. 15, Phipps said. Details have not been finalized.
“Honestly, I can’t make sense out of it,” Phipps said. “Right now we’re just trying to be there for the family to support them. The hard work is once the funeral is over. When the emotions have calmed down, folks go back to their routine. Natalee will still be missing him, seeing his toys and not hearing his voice.”
Phipps is trying to set up a six-month schedule where church members can volunteer to sit with her, pray with her, and take her shopping or out to eat. The church, with an average attendance of about 230 people, according to Phipps, is close-knit. Marquel’s grandparents, and several aunts, uncles and cousins also attend the church.
Gary Peters, who has been attending the church since 1992, is the director of stewardship ministry and a member of the church’s finance committee. Natalee Peters and several of her relatives moved from Jamaica to DeKalb County five years ago and have been attending the church ever since.
“We want to make sure she’s not in need of anything,” he said. “I haven’t heard of one person who is not trying to find a way to contribute.”
In addition to coping with her son’s death, Natalee Peters and others are trying to come to terms with the entire series of events that happened after Marquel was struck. When police and paramedics arrived at the church, they found no evidence of a bullet. Investigators discovered on Friday, Jan. 1, that the bullet had passed through the roof.
Natalee Peters said that a couple of nurses in the congregation were applying pressure to the wound until paramedics arrived.
“They couldn’t find anything that suggested it was a gunshot,” Phipps said. “They didn’t find out it was a bullet until they did an X-ray at the hospital.”
Phipps said paramedics thought debris from the ceiling caused the bleeding and that it was a flesh wound.
Marquel was taken by ambulance to Egleston, where those at the church thought he was improving. A police officer stayed behind at the church and twice received an update from the hospital. According to Phipps, the officer told him twice that Marquel’s condition was upgraded so they went ahead with the concert.
“They didn’t think it was a gunshot,” Natalee Peters said. “They said he would be all right.”