STOCKTON — A 3-year-old girl was senselessly shot and killed Sunday evening while in a car with family members traveling down a south Stockton residential street, police said.

“They just drove into the gunfire,” police spokesman Officer Joe Silva said. Detectives do not believe anyone in the car was the intended target. “They just happened to be caught in the middle of the gunfire,” Silva said. He was unable to say definitively if a gunbattle between two groups was going on at the time the family car drove by.

That the victim was so young has rocked the community as well as police personnel.  

“This is as bad as it gets,” said a Police Department employee, who is not authorized to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The girl, identified as Melanie Martinez by the San Joaquin County Coroner's Office, was in the back seat of the car at 8:26 p.m. as it was driving down the 1100 block of South Commerce Street, one block west of South Center Street and two blocks north of West Charter Way.

Five occupants, including Melanie’s mother, were in the car at the time of the shooting, Silva said. No one else was injured.

After the shooting, the family drove Melanie directly to an area hospital, where she was pronounced deceased by hospital personnel, according to Silva.

While no motive for the shooting has been released, detectives have reason to believe a black Chevrolet Monte Carlo with tinted windows or a black/dark Chevrolet Camaro is connected to the crime. At this time, there is no information describing a shooting suspect or suspects.

“Anytime there is a loss of life, that is a tragedy,” Silva said, “but when it's a 3-year-old girl, that hits all of us hard at the Police Department, along with the entire community.

“What I can tell you what happened on that street last night was a senseless act of violence committed by cowards with guns. Our detectives will be relentless in their investigation. We need to find out who did this so they can be held accountable for their actions. Justice needs to be served for the little girl’s family,” he said, urging anyone with any information to contact the Police Department or Crime Stoppers.

On Monday morning, the crime scene remained cordoned off as a somber crew of detectives, police officers and evidence technicians processed the area around the intersection of South Commerce and West Jefferson streets.

About three dozen evidence markers indicated where multiple shell casings and other clues were found over a wide area of Commerce Street spanning both sides of Jefferson. At least one pickup sustained a broken passenger-side window consistent with gunfire. Silva could not say if it was connected to Sunday’s shooting or if other vehicles or homes were shot.

Neighbor Ana Martinez, 22, no relation to the victim, heard the gunfire shortly before 8:30 p.m. and immediately grabbed her baby.

“There were a lot of shots,” Martinez said, adding that her only concern was for the safety of her child.

Martinez said she didn’t know what had occurred until Monday morning when she read about the 3-year-old’s death online.

“It’s a good neighborhood, but no words can describe what happened here,” she said. “It’s dangerous now. My boyfriend grew up here, and now my child is growing up in this neighborhood.”

Last week, two boys, ages 1 and 3, were in the backseat and uninjured when someone shot at the car they were riding in on Interstate 5 through south Stockton. Two adults in the car, a 29-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman, were injured and rushed to the hospital for treatment. Police said at the time that both were expected to survive.

Melanie's shooting death marks the 40th homicide, including seven in September alone, that Stockton detectives have investigated this year. By the same date last year, they had investigated 31 homicides.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the Stockton Police Department at (209) 937-8377, the Investigations Unit at (209) 937-8323 or Crime Stoppers at (209) 946-0600. Crime Stoppers pays cash rewards up to $10,000. Callers can remain anonymous.

Cellphone users can text information to 274637 (CRIMES) by entering the keyword “TIPSPD” followed by their tip. Internet users can visit the Police Department’s Facebook page and click “Submit a Tip,” or use the department’s mobile phone app.

— Contact reporter Joe Goldeen at (209) 546-8278 or jgoldeen@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/goldeenblog and on Twitter @JoeGoldeen.