By Ellen Jean Hirst, Adam Sege and Carlos Sadovi
12:35 PM CDT, September 24, 2013
The youngest victim of last week's mass shooting at a South Side park is getting better by the day, but his mother worries that her 3-year-old son's fears are just beginning.
"I don't think he ever gonna, you know, feel safe in a park," said Shamarah Leggett, 24, outside the hospital where her son Deonta Howard was being treated for a gunshot wound to the face. "He always say he want to go to the park. He say, 'I don't wanna go on the baby swing, I wanna go on the big people swing.' ... But since he been talking, he hasn't said anything about a park. He just wanna go home."
Deonta was on a basketball court in Cornell Square Park with a crowd of people last Thursday night when at least one gunman armed with a "military-grade" rifle walked up and opened fire, wounding Deonta and 12 other people. Shell casings found around the blood-soaked basketball court in the 1800 block of West 51st Street were of the kind typically ejected from AK-47 rifles.
Leggett said she was with her son as he played basketball. When the shots rang out, people fell to the ground, either to take cover or because they were hit, she said.
As Leggett looked up, she saw her son's face covered in blood. "He wasn't crying," she recalled Monday. "And I said, 'Baby, be still because you got a big hole in your face.' "
The bullet hit the boy in the ear and exited his cheek. On Monday, his mother told the Tribune her boy was expected to go home in a few days. His face and right eye remain swollen, but he is eager to leave Mount Sinai Hospital, she said.
Leggett said her son will later need reconstructive plastic surgery. He had been scheduled to start preschool Monday.
"He just keep saying, 'Ma, they shot me, they shot me with a gun. You heard me, mama?' And I say, 'Yeah, I heard you.' But I just say, 'You OK. You a big boy. You a soldier.' "
While she called her neighborhood tightknit, Leggett said the shooting has left her pondering a move to the suburbs so her sons can grow up in a more "peaceful" environment. Her brother, Jerome Howard, 21, was fatally shot in the Woodlawn neighborhood earlier this month, she said.
"Everybody that got shot (Thursday), we like a family. You know? We was all up at the park together. We either live next door to each other or downstairs from each other or you know across the alley or around the corner."
Leggett's neighbors say violence has become so commonplace in their Back of the Yards neighborhood that they keep their children close to home. And they worry that police patrols, stepped up after last week's shooting, are already receding.
'How do these kids know how to run?'
"My kids mean everything to me," said Keeyana Keith, 24, after she and her brother walked her 5- and-6-year-old children to Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy adjacent to Cornell Square Park Monday morning. "I'm scared for them.
"I hear gunshots, I know how to run," she said, tears streaming down her face. "How do these kids know how to run from gunshots?"
Her brother Dennis Earl, 30, said violence in the neighborhood had been a problem long before the park shooting.
"Ain't nothing changed since Thursday, to tell the truth," said Earl. "We don't have a library in the Back of the Yards. Doesn't that tell you that the people don't care?"
'I don't have my kids out in the street'
Esmeralda Carlos, 30, whose daughter is a seventh-grader at the Daley school, said she avoids lingering near the park and makes sure her children do the same.
She kept her older son busy as he was growing up, making sure he wasn't hanging out in the street. "We go straight home," she said. "I don't have my kids out in the street. If they hang out with the wrong person – there's a lot of gangbangers."
One of her daughter's classmates was at the park Thursday night with his parents, but Carlos doesn't believe any of them were hurt. The next day, she noticed more police patrolling the area by the school on foot and in cars. "I don't know if that's going to be a temporary thing or a permanent thing," she said. "It'd be nice if it were a permanent thing."
No police officers were in sight Monday morning as students and parents arrived at the Daley school. Later, a single squad car idled by the 50th Street entrance to the school.
'What's to keep the bullets from coming through my window?'
On the 5200 block of South Marshfield Avenue, blocks southeast of the park, Richard Mints was walking to get tools to work on his car as he looked up and down the block behind his home and pointed out the boarded-up homes.
"We need to get rid of these abandoned houses, we got too many of them," said Mints, 55. "It's a haven for them (gang members) to hang in. We need to fix them up or tear them down."
The two suspects in the shooting were arrested in a vacant building behind Mints' home Sunday night. Mints said he looked over and spotted a large number of police cars with flashing lights descending on the building.
Mints said he wasn't surprised by the shootings in the park. The great-grandfather said gunfire and gangs have troubled the neighborhood for a long time. "When my grandkids come, I have to keep them in the house. It's getting ridiculous," he said. "If they get to shooting, what's to keep the bullets from coming through my window and hitting my grandkids?"
'I don't even let my son go to the store'
Frederick Reed, 42, was walking on the sidewalk in front of where the suspects were caught. He was checking on his 62-year-old mother, who lives a block away.
Reed said he grew up in the neighborhood and went to Dunbar High School. But the neighborhood had gotten bad by the time he returned from the U.S. Navy in mid-1990s.
"It was a family neighborhood, somewhere to raise kids," he said.
He said many of those children have been drawn to the gangs and put much of the blame on the lack of jobs and activities for teenagers and young adults. "I watched these kids grow up," Reed said. "Nobody has anything to do, just hang out everyday and the crowds bring trouble."
Reed knows violence up close. His sister Stephanie Reed was fatally shot nearby in 2009 by a former boyfriend who is serving a life sentence. And as a parent of a 16-year-old boy, a 15-year-old girl and a 3-year-old girl, he always worries about their safety.
"I don't let them go outside. I keep telling my mother it's time for us to go," he said. "I don't even let my son go to the store. I'm worried every day."
'There are always sirens and gunshots'
Jimmy Ramirez, 23, said growing up in the neighborhood was difficult because gangs were always trying to recruit him. He said his cousin, Juan "Angel" Cazares, was killed in the same park in 2009. Juan was 14 and was fatally shot along with another 14-year-old who survived.
Ramirez said the talk in the neighborhood is that the shooting was spurred by fighting between two gangs. Ramirez said he often spots gang members keeping tabs on him. "They're sneaky, they're watching who I bring over," he said.
Ramirez said he has two small children. When they want to go play in a park, he takes them to one on 35th Street, about two miles away, rather than to Cornell Square Park just three blocks away.
"It's an everyday thing, there are always sirens and gunshots," he said.
'I can't even bring my grandchildren outside'
On 51st Street, Salvador and Maria Lopez keep a padlock on the fence in front of their home at all times. The couple raised their family there and say they have had more problems as more buildings become abandoned.
They are especially vigilant when any of their seven grandchildren -- ages 6 to 14 -- are visiting and don't believe police are responsive enough.
Two years ago, they said, a man had his throat slit in a doorway of a building next door. The man stumbled several houses down, leaving a trail of blood on the sidewalk in front of their home. The man collapsed and died at the corner.
"I can't even bring my grandchildren outside," said Maria Lopez. "You have a lot of gunshots, it's normal."
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