By Peter Nickeas and Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune reporters
12:07 AM CDT, September 21, 2013
A gunman with a military-grade assault rifle opened fire on a pickup basketball game in the Back of the Yards neighborhood late Thursday, injuring 13 people and pulling the city back into the spotlight for its epidemic of gun violence.
The mass shooting — which counted a 3-year-old boy among its victims — prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to cut short an East Coast fundraising trip and fly back to Chicago on Friday. Before the mayor's plane had landed, international and local media accounts already were raising the question of whether the city had reached a new level of lawlessness given the type of gun used and the number of people wounded.
Shell casings found around the blood-soaked basketball courts at Cornell Square Park were of the kind typically ejected from AK-47 rifles and rarely found at the scenes of gang attacks on the city's South and West sides. Though gun violence long has plagued impoverished neighborhoods here, offenders almost never use military-style weapons.
"It's a miracle there has been no fatality," police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a news conference Friday. "Illegal guns, illegal guns, illegal guns drive violence. ... A military-grade weapon on the streets of Chicago is simply unacceptable."
The park is in a gang-infested area, but not in a so-called impact zone flooded by officers to deter crime, McCarthy said. The nearest such zones are three blocks to the north and three blocks to the south, leaving Cornell Square a no man's land protected only by occasional patrols and an 11 p.m. curfew.
About 45 minutes before the park's closing time, at least one gunman walked to the basketball court in the 1800 block of West 51st Street and opened fire, police said. The 13 people hit were among the pickup game's players and spectators, and all are expected to survive.
Kevin Gordon, 31, said he was talking to his cousin when he was shot in the buttocks and fell to the ground.
"It was the longest seconds of my life. It felt like forever," Gordon said. "I was about to run but I couldn't. I could feel 'em whizzing by me. Then it stopped. I looked up and everything was over with. I'm like, 'I'm hit.' I looked around; it was like everybody was hit."
Three-year-old Deonta Howard was shot near the ear and the bullet exited through his cheek, according to police and relatives. His family said the boy will need plastic surgery.
"They shot my baby with a gun that's bigger than him," said his mother, Shamarah Leggett. "It's out of control."
Relatives said the boy's uncle, Jerome Howard, was fatally shot in the Woodlawn neighborhood over the Labor Day weekend.
"This gun violence has to stop," Leggett said. "It has to. My baby is only 3. How is he shot in the face with an army gun? Where are they getting army guns from?"
Police believe the shooting stemmed from an ongoing dispute between the Black P. Stones and Gangster Disciples, though neither claims the park as turf, a source said. It was not known if any of the victims were the intended targets. Authorities did not have anyone in custody and were reviewing police cameras mounted nearby. There could be as many as three offenders, officials said.
The first paramedics on the scene found more than a dozen people lying across the rust-colored court. One person lay near a bicycle that was on its side. A pair of white gym shoes were left near an out-of-bounds line. Ambulances continued to arrive for nearly half an hour after the shootings as wounded people — including a 15-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl — were carried out on stretchers. About 60 police officers converged on the park, and crime lab investigators combed the scene.
Mario Campbell, who was shot three times in the abdomen, had been worried about gang conflicts in the past week, said his mother, Diane Cade. The 25-year-old aspiring cook had stayed inside most of the week but went to the park with friends to watch the basketball game.
"Out here it's hard for a boy, no matter what you try to do with your life, no matter how you try to change ... it's hard," Cade said.
McCarthy repeatedly refused to address whether the shooting blemishes the city's reputation or his department's efforts to curb gun violence.
"Every time somebody is shot in this city, it's a setback," McCarthy said. "But this is not a problem particular to the city of Chicago."
The incident appeared problematic enough for Emanuel to cancel a meeting with Obama administration Cabinet secretaries Friday and fly back to Chicago. The mayor had traveled to Washington on Thursday to raise money for his campaign fund at an event that evening.
Upon his return, Emanuel spent 40 minutes at Mount Sinai Hospital, where he spoke with Deonta's mother. The boy, who remained in critical condition, was sedated and being prepared for surgery during the visit. The mayor did not speak with reporters but later attended a prayer vigil where he urged residents to live by a "moral code."
"The parks in the city of Chicago belong to the families of the city of Chicago. The streets of the city of Chicago belong to the families of Chicago. The front stoops of our homes belong to the families of the city of Chicago," he told the crowd. "You go out there and you enjoy our city."
The shooting came just days after the FBI released crime data showing that Chicago had more homicides than New York in 2012. McCarthy argued Friday that the statistics had been known publicly for more than nine months and did not reflect the progress made in the city, where the homicide rate has dropped by 20 percent over the past year.
But Ald. Willie Cochran, a retired police sergeant whose redrawn ward will include Cornell Square in 2015, acknowledged that the shootings landed a damaging blow against the city's crime-fighting efforts.
"It's a setback because we've been focusing so much attention on suppressing crime," he said. "If you look at where we were last year and where we are this year, it shows that. But the perception of crime is greater than the crime itself."
Tribune reporters Lolly Bowean, Stacy St. Clair, Annie Sweeney, Liam Ford, Ellen Jean Hirst, Hal Dardick, Rosemary R. Sobol and Bill Ruthhart contributed.
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