Two reputed gang members were out for revenge from a previous shooting when they opened fire on a group of students in a South Side park last month, killing 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in a heartbreaking case that has brought national attention to Chicago's rampant gun violence, police said.
Michael Ward, 18, and Kenneth Williams, 20, were each charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and aggravated battery with a firearm in the Jan. 29 attack that also left two teens wounded.
Ward confessed to police that he and Williams mistook Pendleton's companions for gang members involved in the shooting of Williams last July, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a news conference Monday night at Area Central police headquarters.
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Ward told police that he and Williams got out of their car, crept up on the group and opened fire in Harsh Park, McCarthy said. Williams then drove them from the scene, he said.
"The offenders had it all wrong. They thought the group they shot into included members of a rival gang. Instead it was a group of upstanding, determined kids who, like Hadiya, were repulsed by the gang lifestyle," said McCarthy, flanked by two dozen detectives and gang investigators who worked the case.
Detectives arrested the two Saturday night as the suspects were on their way to a suburban strip club to celebrate a friend's birthday, McCarthy said. Pendleton had been buried only hours earlier in a funeral attended by first lady Michelle Obama.
"I don't even know what to say about that," McCarthy said. "They were going out to celebrate at a strip club."
Williams did not confess and police have not recovered a weapon, McCarthy said. Both are due in bond court Tuesday.
Hadiya's father, Nathaniel Pendleton, said Monday night that news of the charges marked the first time since his daughter's slaying that he had a "legitimate" smile on his face.
"I'm ecstatic that they found the two guys," he told the Tribune during a brief telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he and wife Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton will attend the State of the Union address Tuesday as guests of President Barack Obama. "(I'm) thanking God that these two guys are off the streets, so that this doesn't happen to another innocent person."
Danetria Hutson, 15, a classmate who held Hadiya in her arms after she was shot, said she and others who witnessed the shooting have had nightmares.
"A lot of us were actually paranoid because the guys were still out there," Hutson said in a telephone interview. "They knew where we went to school."
McCarthy said that two days before the killing, police had stopped Ward in his Nissan Sentra as part of a routine gang investigation. That information wound up being the starting point for detectives when witnesses in the shooting described seeing a similar car driving away from the shooting scene, he said.
Through surveillance and interviews — including several fruitful interviews with parolees in the neighborhood — detectives were able to home in on Ward and Williams, McCarthy said. On Saturday night, the decision was made to stop the two if they were spotted. Police watched as they departed in a caravan of cars headed to the strip club in Harvey. They were stopped near 67th Street and South King Drive and taken in for questioning.
McCarthy said Williams was shot in July at 39th Street and South Lake Park Avenue, and an arrest was made. But that gunman was let go after Williams refused to cooperate, McCarthy said.
McCarthy also noted that at the time of Hadiya's slaying, Ward was on probation for a weapons conviction. McCarthy said weak Illinois gun laws allowed Ward to avoid jail time because of the absence of mandatory minimum sentences.
"This incident did not have to occur," McCarthy said. "And if mandatory minimums existed in the state of Illinois, Michael Ward would not have been on the street to commit this heinous act."
In announcing the charges, McCarthy praised the "meticulous" detective work that led to the arrests, but he also expressed frustration that despite a $40,000 reward for information in the shooting, no one who had knowledge of the crime came forward.
"While we received a lot of tips in this particular case and the community really stepped up and tried to help us, I'm sad to point out that we did not get our target audience to step up," the superintendent said.
Hadiya was fatally shot about a mile north of the president's Kenwood neighborhood home a little more than a week after the King College Prep honor student performed with her school band near Washington during inauguration festivities.
Hadiya's death occurred during the deadliest January in Chicago since 2002. It also came on the heels of a homicide total last year that was the highest since 2008 and the second highest since 2003.
The first lady's attendance at Hadiya's funeral pushed Chicago further into the spotlight of a debate over gun violence that has polarized Congress and led the president to take his plans for gun control on the road to garner more public support. The president is scheduled to appear in Chicago on Friday to talk about violence.
In the days after Hadiya's death, clergy and community leaders raised the $40,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the teen's killer or killers.
The victim's father acknowledged that true closure will come if Ward and Williams are convicted of the crimes. But the charges, he said, are a good start.
"Right now, I can say to you that the healing can start," Pendleton said.