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'She's a hero': 12-year-old girl shot while protecting baby niece

She was found on the ground, cradling her sister's unharmed baby in her arms.
/ Source: TODAY

When Makayla and Canisha Saulter heard loud popping sounds near their home in Bloomington, Minnesota, the sisters assumed they were just firecrackers.

But it was something far worse.

Makayla and Canisha’s cousin Anthony Smith said the siblings were loading a U-Haul on Sunday night when suddenly their neighbor, a white male, began shooting at them.

Makayla Saulter, 12, protected her 18-month-old niece from a shooter.
Makayla Saulter, 12, protected her 18-month-old niece from a shooter. Courtesy Anthony Smith

“I don’t know if it was racially motivated, but he wanted to kill my family,” Smith told TODAY Parents. “He was standing like 10 feet away, just firing and wouldn't stop."

Police have not said that race was a factor in the shooting.

Makayla, 12, was holding Canisha’s 18-month-old daughter. She was found on the ground cradling the unharmed baby in her arms.

“She's a hero,” Makayla’s aunt, Reverend Marcia Westbrook, told TODAY Parents. “She was going to protect the baby no matter what. She's a protector."

Makayla, who who was shot in the head while attempting to flee the gunman, is currently in critical condition at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Canisha Saulter and her daughter, Winter.
Canisha Saulter and her daughter, Winter. Courtesy Anthony Smith

Smith describes Makayla as a “fighter,” and said the family is asking for prayers for her. Westbrook wrote on a GoFundMe page, “It is unknown how long she will be in the hospital or if she will ever fully recover.”

Canisha, 29, who was shot three times in her lower body, is listed in stable condition. Smith said that Canisha, a single parent to Winter, will need to learn how to walk again.

When police arrived at the home of the suspect, who police identified as Jason Michael Mesich, they discovered the body of his wife, Angela Lynn Mesich, in their garage.

After an overnight standoff, Mesich, 48, was arrested on Monday. He is being held on probable cause of second-degree homicide, second-degree attempted homicide and first-degree assault. In the statement of probable cause filed with the court, police said Mesich told them that he "hated all children" and said that he thought Makayla and Canisha may have witnessed him shoot his wife.

According to the court documents, Mesich told police he argued with his wife on Sunday night because he felt they did not have sex often enough. A search warrant was executed on Mesich's home after his arrest and police said they found "numerous guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition."

Attempts to reach an attorney for Mesich were unsuccessful.

"What happened is senseless," Bloomington Police Deputy Chief Mike Hartley told TODAY Parents. "To target innocent people in their front yard is pure evil."