Boy most likely shot by a rifle fired into the air

The 4-year-old boy shot and killed while in church, apparently by New Year’s Eve revelers, most likely was hit by a bullet fired from a rifle, said a firearms expert Saturday.

“I would suspect this was a rifle. An AK-47. That’s the most prolific [weapon found] downtown,” said Kelly Fite, who was the top ballistics expert with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s state Crime Lab for almost four decades.

The circumstances that led to young Marquel Peters’ death are not uncommon on New Year’s Eve.

“It’s not impossible at all” for a bullet to travel some distance then pass through a roof and kill someone inside a building, Fite said.

“This is New Year’s Eve and people are out shooting their guns,” Fite said.

The boy, playing with a video game, and his mother were waiting for a 12:30 a.m. concert to begin at Church of God of Prophecy near Decatur when Marquel was shot in the head by a stray bullet. Marquel was on the floor, crying and bleeding, when medics arrived, but he died later at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.

The child’s family has called for the person who fired the shot to come forward, but Fite said it’s unlikely that person even knows what happened. And police are unlikely to find the shooter unless the bullet is traced to a gun recovered in another investigation, Fite said.

The shooter could have been as much as two to three miles away,  Fite told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But most likely, the shooter was about a half mile away and the gun was tilted at about 30 or 40 degrees, not straight up, he said.

“This bullet that hit this kid was not shot straight up because it would have come down near the shooter,” Fite said.

Investigators discovered Friday the bullet had passed through the roof of the church.

It’s not uncommon – though illegal -- for guns to be fired to mark the start of a new year.

-- In 2005, stray bullets hit two people at different locations in downtown Atlanta on New Year's Eve. Aimee Buff from Hampton and her fiance were celebrating her 27th birthday at Underground Atlanta's Peach Drop when she was wounded. A bullet hit Buff in the ear and became lodged about two inches from her spine.

-- A few blocks away, Merritt Tidwell, a University of Georgia freshman from Douglasville, was struck below her right knee by a bullet that pierced the roof of the Georgia Dome, where she was watching the the 2005 Peach Bowl .

-- In 2004, 86-year-old Dorothy Young of Atlanta was wounded in the arm as she was leaving a New Year's Eve church service in Bankhead.

-- A fan at the 2001 Peach Bowl was grazed by a stray bullet that came through the roof of the Georgia Dome.

-- In 2000, Crystal Garrett, a college student from Easley, S.C., was hit by a stray bullet moments after she watched the Peach Drop at Underground Atlanta.

And in the summer of 1996, a National Guardsman providing security for the Olympics was hit in the chest by a bullet believed to have been fired from an AK-47 into the air. Sgt. Thomas Bentley, 43, of Monroe, was among three standing guard on the Georgia Tech when he was wounded.