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Parents visit block where boy, 9, was slain: 'Where he took his last breath'

Who would gun down a 9-year-old boy? "I don't understand why anybody would do this."

Nine-year-old Antonio Smith was gunned down on a concrete slab a few feet away from the railroad tracks that have long served as the dividing line between rival gangs in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood known as Pocket Town.

How a fourth-grader who played peewee football and loved to dance to Chris Brown songs ended up there with fatal bullet wounds in his chest, back and hand is not clear.

But the tragic murder of another child in the city has left a community mourning, parents seeking answers, and a nation once again wondering what's going on in Chicago.

“He just didn't make it,” Brandi Murry, said Thursday at her home, a few blocks from where her son was fatally shot a day earlier. “I'm praying for the whole city right now. I don't want no other parent to ever go through this. I feel your pain. It's bad, and it hurts so much.”

Shootings are not uncommon in this low-income African-American community, where a stretch of 71st Street was renamed Emmett Till Drive in memory of the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. There have been at least seven other homicides in Greater Grand Crossing this year, but residents are baffled by this one, which one called the “execution of a child.”

What people in this South Side neighborhood do know is that the 71st Street viaduct near South Kimbark Avenue and the railroad tracks above it are dangerous places. Anyone looking for trouble, they said, can find it there.

“That viaduct has always been the dividing line between gangs,” said Will Layton, 38, who has lived in Pocket Town all his life. “Even when I was growing up, we knew not to go east of the viaduct. But what we have now is not a gang war, it's just irresponsible kids and too many guns in irresponsible hands.”

Law enforcement sources said a dispute between two factions of the Gangster Disciples — one dubbed Pocket Town and another Sircon City — recently flared up in the neighborhood. Police said Antonio was not in a gang, but would not rule out the possibility that he might have been the intended target. Police were still looking into how he ended up behind the apartment building in the 1200 block of East 71st Street.

At least four spent shell casings were found in the yard near where Antonio was shot, suggesting that the gunman likely opened fire from inside the yard, a law enforcement source said.

As of Thursday night, there had been no arrests, and no description of a suspect had been released.
Some residents guessed that Antonio, who moved to the neighborhood from Englewood with his mother only a few months ago, might not have known about the gang boundaries and could simply have been in the wrong place when gunfire erupted.

Murry, 34, could not bring herself to walk into the backyard where her son was found.

“I wanted to know where he took his last breath,” Murry said. “I am numb.”

Antonio lived with his mother, 13-year-old sister and an older brother in an apartment in the 1100 block of east 73rd Street. According to Murry, Antonio had run out of the house not long before the shooting, angry that he couldn't have some cake.

“I know he was a little upset with me. He was in trouble. He asked me for something, and I told him no,” she said.

She began looking for him on the way home from work because “I didn't want my son to go outside like that. He was never outside like that.”  When she got home from work, officers were waiting for her, she said. She showed them a picture of her son, and they told her he was at Comer Children's Hospital, where he died an hour after being shot.

Antonio's stepfather Kawada Hodges, 39, led reporters to the backyard and pointed to the spot where he was told his son had been shot. Hodges said he believed that his stepson had been walking near the viaduct when gunfire rang out. The boy, he thinks, started running and the space between the houses leading to the backyard was the first escape he saw.

In this neighborhood, children are accustomed to running when they hear gunfire, according to 9-year-old Akil Matthews, who lives east of the viaduct.

“When I hear shots, it's intimidating and it's scary,” said Akil, a fourth-grader who said he did not know Antonio. “Since I heard about it, I can't get it out of my mind. People need to stop killing little boys.”

Young men in the neighborhood said the railroad tracks provide an escape route for criminals. Sometimes, gunmen stand on top of the tracks and fire down. Or, after shooting under the viaduct, they climb up the 12-foot dirt and gravel hill and run away down the tracks.

Helen Cross, 82, said she was sitting on her front porch as she often does in the afternoon when she heard what she thought was a car backfiring or kids playing with firecrackers. Then came the police helicopters and flashing blue lights.

“I couldn't believe it when I heard a 9-year-old had been shot. I can't imagine what he could have done that was so bad to cause someone to shoot him like that. It hurts my heart to talk about it,” Cross said.

What also breaks Cross' heart is the way the neighborhood has changed since she and her late husband arrived about 50 years ago. They raised five girls and five boys in the four-bedroom house where she still lives.

“They all knew to be home before dark, and if they weren't here, my husband would be sitting on the step waiting for them,” said Cross. “The worst thing that happened around here during that time was when one of the neighbors got mad and shot his wife in the arm.”

Just before sundown Thursday, dozens of community members joined Antonio's family in the backyard where he was shot. A young boy stood briefly at the front of the crowd, clutching a placard that said ‘I am Antonio Smith'. Several others held white balloons, as police detectives and officials looked on.

“We're here in outrage,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church, who organized the vigil. “We're in outrage because when you shoot a 9-year-old boy in a dead-end alley, it is indeed an execution. It is a hit, it's not an accident, it's not a drive-by. This was an executed, direct hit on a child. If you kill a child, you are a terrorist in our neighborhood, and we want you brought in, we want you turned in and we want you locked up.”

Antonio's mother declined to address the crowd. She grasped a young man and broke into heavy sobs as the family slowly left.

Community and religious leaders donated a total of $13,500 as a reward for information leading to the shooter, Pfleger said. Members of the crowd paraded slowly through the neighborhood as the rally broke, leaving fliers on surrounding windshields and doorways.

“Let us be clear, it's a bounty,” Pfleger said.

Earlier in the day, a group of young men stood at a bus stop waiting on the CTA's No. 71. Shevelle Benard, 16, called the killing of a child senseless.

“They knew this was a little boy. You didn't even have to ask his age,” said Benard, who said he's a high school junior. “He's not as tall as your belly button, he can't do you no harm.”

Tribune reporter Juan Perez Jr. contributed.
dglanton@tribune.com
mmrodriguez@tribune.com
jgorner@tribune.com

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