By Jason Meisner and Jeremy Gorner
Chicago Tribune reporters
5:00 PM EST, February 12, 2013
The gunman in the slaying of Hadiya Pendleton told police he was in the middle of a three-year battle with a rival gang when he opened fire at a South Side park and hit the 15-year-old who "had nothing to do" with the feud, according to prosecutors.
"She was just there," Michael Ward, 18, told police after he was arrested with Kenneth Williams, 20, prosecutors said during a hearing where both were denied bail.
Williams told witnesses he and Ward were driving around on Jan. 29, looking for members of a rival gang that had killed one of Ward's friends, according to prosecutors. Williams had also been wounded by a rival gang member last summer, police said.
"Ward stated that his gang and the rival gang had been shooting at one another since 2010. [Ward] stated that when the rival gang killed one of his friends, he thought, 'If we keep standing for this, we are going to be some straight bitches,' " prosecutors said.
"It hurt, it hurt," he told police, according to prosecutors. "It hurt to a point where everyone had to go."
Ward confessed to police that he and Williams mistook a Pendleton companion for a rival gang member as the girl was with friends at the park near King College Prep High School, about a mile away from President Barack Obama's home.
In court today, prosecutors disclosed that surveillance video captured the white Nissan the two used to flee after the shooting. Police had identified Williams and Ward as occupants of the car "within approximately 10 minutes of the shooting," prosecutors said.
The two were not arrested until this past weekend.
Williams said he and Ward pulled up to Harsh Park in the North Kenwood neighborhood, according to prosecutors. Ward got out and "snuck up on the group and they didn't see him coming," prosecutors quoted Ward as telling police. "Ward admitted he approached the fence and fired the gun six times. He ran back to the car and both defendants fled."
Williams appeared in court in a black-hooded sweatshirt and his hair in dreadlocks, while Ward was dressed in a dark gray vest and blue jeans. Both defendants kept their hands behind their backs and stood silently before the judge as Assistant State’s Attorney Jennifer Sexton detailed the charges before a packed courtroom.
Relatives and supporters showed up in court for both Ward and Williams, but no one spoke to reporters following the bond hearing.
Ward’s aunt, Rhonda Ward, said later by phone that she felt for Hadiya’s family but police have made errors in their investigation. Ward is a “helpful kid” and not a vicious killer, she said.
“It’s not like he’s this whole big criminal they portray him to be,” she said. “It’s all untrue.”
Ward’s lawyer, Jeffrey Granich, contended that police refused his client’s repeated requests for a lawyer while he was being questioned by detectives. He also maintained that Ward was being “railroaded” because of the high-profile homicide.
“This is a serious case, not a political platform,” Granich told reporters in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
Granich said Ward was attending Malcolm X College to obtain a GED, a requirement of his probation sentence for a weapons conviction.
Williams’ attorney, Matthew McQuaid, said his client had graduated from the same high school as Hadiya – King College Prep – and was working for an air courier service at O’Hare International Airport. He has no criminal background.
McQuaid also denied that Williams belonged to a gang.
David Smith, a close friend of the Pendleton family, said after the court hearing that the family was keeping tabs on developments from Washington. Hadiya’s parents are guests of First Lady Michelle Obama at the president’s State of the Union address tonight. “They need to be off the streets, absolutely,” Smith said in expressing satisfaction that the two suspects were ordered held without bond. But at the same time, he said the entire case saddens him.
“I feel sad for Haydia and seeing those guys (in court) they looked sad, too, like little kids themselves,” Smith said.
Another family friend, Ray Hill, said he hoped the shooting would galvanize residents against violence.“Everybody needs to wake up because if it can happen to our family, it can happen to yours,” Hill said. “We need to get the city more involved with our children.”
Detectives arrested the two Saturday night as the suspects were on their way to a suburban strip club to celebrate a friend's birthday, police said. Pendleton had been buried only hours earlier in a funeral attended by first lady Michelle Obama.
Police Superintendent Garry 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, police 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 July 11 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 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."
State's Attorney Anita Alvarez echoed McCarthy's call for stronger sentencing laws for gun offenses.
After the hearing, she said prosecutors had asked for prison time for Ward when he was convicted of a weapon charge in 2011, but he was instead given probation because he was only 17 at the time of the offense. A state law that went into effect that year requires a mandatory minimum sentence of 1 year in prison for unlawful use of a weapon but only for offenders 18 or older, she said.
“What we want to do with the new legislation is to fix that so that we are holding these people responsible…and that they receive an amount of jail time that is going to serve as a deterrent,” she said.
Responding to a Tribune report that Ward had been arrested three times while on probation for his gun conviction but still was on the street, Alvarez said the Cook County Adult Probation Department was responsible for notifying prosecutors of the new arrests and filing for a violation of probation. That can result in an arrestee being sent to prison.
“What I’ve been told (is) the probation department has admitted that they did not notify us, so obviously we didn’t proceed on that violation of probation,” Alvarez said.
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