By Jeremy Gorner, Kim Geiger and Cynthia Dizikes
11:25 PM CDT, March 12, 2013
Little more than a month after the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton drew international attention to Chicago's gun violence, city officials grappled Tuesday to address the shooting death of an even younger victim — 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins.
Though Jonylah's killing followed improvements over last year's tragic trend in homicides, her age and the circumstances of the shooting — carried out in broad daylight on the South Side while her father was changing her diaper in a parked minivan — underscored the ongoing brutality on Chicago streets.
"The fact is this is a sobering reality that we have a lot of work to do even though we are making progress," Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a news conference hours after Jonylah's death.
Homicides soared past 500 last year for only the second time in the last decade, but so far in 2013, the numbers have fallen by 24 percent, to 62 killings with Jonylah's death, down from 82 in the year-earlier period.
But those statistics may do little to soothe residents in the wake of such a ruthless killing that has only furthered Chicago's reputation for out-of-control gun violence, said Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago.
"Numbers are not powerful unless you're a researcher or statistician," Lurigio said. "Stories that involve real people who we can relate to have a strong impact on how we feel and how we perceive ourselves in our own neighborhoods with respect to our risk of violence, with respect to the risk of our loved ones for violence and, most important, our overall perceptions of safety."
Police said Jonylah's father, Jonathan Watkins, 29, was sitting in a minivan changing her diaper early Monday afternoon when a gunman appeared from a gangway in the 6500 block of South Maryland Avenue in the Woodlawn neighborhood and opened fire.
Watkins was shot in his left side and right buttock and rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in serious to critical condition, officials said. Jonylah had bullet wounds to her right shoulder, left groin and left lower portion of her abdomen, said Dr. Mark Slidell, a pediatric surgeon at Comer Children's Hospital, where Jonylah was taken.
On Tuesday, McCarthy said the shooting had "very strong gang overtones." Watkins has gang ties and an extensive criminal history, he said, and was clearly targeted in the shooting. Court records show his criminal record dates to when he was 17 and includes three felony convictions, two drug-related and one for a weapons offense that resulted in a three-year sentence in prison in 2008.
The superintendent acknowledged there are many ongoing gang conflicts in the area of the shooting and that on Monday night police deployed extra officers there to prevent retaliatory shootings.
"There are going to be good days and there's going to be bad days. And today is obviously a bad day," McCarthy told reporters.
He quickly dismissed that the gang connections mean police don't care about the shooting.
"No way, no way," McCarthy said. "And especially when an innocent is involved. And it doesn't mean that it's OK to shoot a gang member. But the fact is it's important that we make it clear this was not a random case."
McCarthy said it was unclear whether Watkins, who had undergone surgery Monday, would cooperate with the investigation into his daughter's homicide. He said no one else had stepped forward to help police.
Clergy and community leaders have raised $11,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the gunman.
Police are looking into a claim from a relative that someone had threatened, in a Facebook post, to shoot Watkins, authorities said. Police also have video of what they believe is the getaway van but only a vague description of the shooter.
Near the shooting scene, a small memorial had been set up around a tree on Maryland Avenue. Among the gifts left there was an off-white teddy bear with a stuffed heart in its hands and the word "love" embroidered on it. Broken glass from the shot-out windows of the van still lay on the ground nearby.
Activist the Rev. Michael Pfleger issued a statement urging every church this coming weekend to plead with its members to "break the code of silence" and turn in those involved in shootings. And the neighborhood's alderman, Willie Cochran, 20th, a retired Chicago police sergeant, said he had reached out to gang leaders to ask them not to harbor the killers of innocent victims.
At an unrelated news conference, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he "will not rest" until children in all parts of the city have a sense of safety and security enjoyed in more affluent areas.
"You can continue to see progress made in the early days of March on reducing homicides and shootings, and then you get a senseless, despicable act of violence like this that is just heartbreaking to any adult," he said.
Throughout Monday and into Tuesday morning, doctors, nurses and medical technicians at Comer Children's Hospital worked to keep Jonylah alive, Dr. Slidell said.
Around the time of the shooting, Jonylah's mother, Judy Young, said she was finishing up her shift at a nearby McDonald's.
She said a manager, alerted to the tragedy by Young's relative, called her into his office to break the news.
She was escorted by police to the hospital, where she said she camped out in the waiting room for hours, praying for the survival of her daughter, nicknamed "Smooch."
But doctors eventually told her that the prognosis didn't look good.
The doctors "did everything they could," Young said. "I told them, 'I don't want my baby to suffer.'"
At 6 a.m. Tuesday, Jonylah was pronounced dead.
Young said she vividly remembered the September day her daughter was born.
"I was barely in labor," said Young, calling Jonylah a "happy baby."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC