By Peter Nickeas
9:18 AM CDT, May 25, 2013
Leetema Daniels' family negotiated with police 25 feet from where his body lay in a West Side gangway just after midnight Saturday morning.
Their faces – the tears, the strained looks, the tension in their throats and cheeks before they screamed – showed that they knew he was dead. But they wanted to get close to the body, wanted to see.
They cajoled, begged, tried to slide under crime scene tape and peek from an apartment-building porch three stories above the scene in the 400 block of North Central Avenue at the fourth Austin neighborhood homicide victim within a week. But the police, doing what they do as they processed the crime scene, limited access as they gathered evidence before removing the body.
Only a closer look at the 17-year-old's body – marked with a puzzle-piece facial tattoo and wearing a pair of Timberland boots relatives described as unlucky – would suffice for family.
"We just wanna know (that it's him), they just letting him lay in the doorway, lay in the doorway like a (expletive) dog," his aunt Tawana Sanders said. "How could they just lay him out there?"
Police said Daniels and the 18-year-old boy wounded in the same attack did not have documented gang affiliations. The pair was on the sidewalk with other young men when two others approached and opened fire with handguns before melting back into the Austin neighborhood.
Daniels was shot twice in the head, and he died where he fell. His friend was shot once in the chest and is in Mount Sinai Hospital, where police said his condition had stabilized.
Sanders stood on a Central Avenue sidewalk near the gangway where Daniels fell and explained the hurt of seeing the young man on the ground, only his feet visible under a blanket. An ambulance sounded sirens to clear through traffic heading south as she spoke.
"I guess they're coming to finally get him," she said as it approached and watched in silence as the vehicle continued south under the Lake Street "L" and Union Pacific Railroad viaduct at Central Avenue.
In a nearby alley littered with bricks and railroad ties and decorated with a yellowed sign reading "Target: Rats" stapled to a light pole crowned by a broken streetlamp, a detective – standing at least a full foot taller than Daniels' mother – promised her closure. They stood under a spider web of phone, cable and electric wiring strung between brick buildings, illuminated by a full moon on a clear and chilly night, with a passing freight train carrying cargo and colorful graffiti providing background noise that drowned out the neighborhood sounds.
"I'm not going to let you go from here without you knowing," he said.
A crowd gathered across Central Avenue, leaning against an iron fence that surrounds Austin Town Hall Park. Daniels' mother, who walked from inside the crime scene toward the group, shouted at nobody in particular:
"They wanna play gangsta, we can play gangsta," his mother shouted, her cries echoing off the brick buildings that loomed over the alley. "They wanna play clique, they wanna play gang, we can do that!"
His family said Leetema Daniels lived several miles east of the place where he was killed but was in the neighborhood hanging out with high school friends from Austin Career Academy.
Daniels was named for his father and inherited his parents' height. One aunt said the 5-foot-4-inch teen dabbled in boxing and loved sports, rap music and his 11-year-old sister, but wasn't tall enough to hoop.
His father paced Central Avenue, wearing a large T-shirt and a flat-brimmed Chicago Bulls hat, trying to figure out how anyone knew for sure his son was dead.
"Did you see him dead," the elder Daniels half-lectured and half-asked. "How do they know it's exactly my son?"
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