CHICAGO – A 15-year-old girl who performed in President Obama’s inaugural festivities is the latest face on the ever-increasing homicide toll in his hometown – killed in a city park, as she talked with friends, by a gunman who apparently was not even aiming at her.
Chicago police said Hadiya Pendleton was in a park about a mile from Obama’s home in a South Side neighborhood Tuesday afternoon when a man opened fire on the group. Hadiya was shot in the back as she tried to escape.
The city’s 42nd slaying is part of Chicago’s bloodiest January in more than a decade, following on the heels of 2012, which ended with more than 500 homicides for the first time since 2008. It also comes at a time when Obama, spurred by the Connecticut elementary school massacre in December, is actively pushing for tougher gun laws.
Hadiya’s father, Nathaniel Pendleton, spoke Wednesday at a Chicago police news conference, which was held in the same park where his daughter was killed.
“He took the light of my life,” Pendleton said. He then spoke directly to the killer: “Look at yourself; just know that you took a bright person, an innocent person, a nonviolent person.”
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy consoled him, as well as Hadiya’s mother and 10-year-old brother.
Hadiya was a bright girl who was killed just as she was “wondering about which lofty goal she wanted to achieve,” her godfather, Damon Stewart, told the Associated Press. Hadiya had been a majorette with the King College Prep band.
“She was a very active kid, doing dance, cheerleading, who felt like she could accomplish just about anything, a very good student who had big dreams about what she wanted to be, a doctor, an attorney,” said Stewart, a Chicago police officer and attorney. “She was constantly getting good grades.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the president and the first lady’s “thoughts and prayers are with” the teenager’s family, adding: “And as the president has said, we will never be able to eradicate every act of evil in this country, but if we can save any one child’s life, we have an obligation to try when it comes to the scourge of gun violence.”
In Chicago, gangs routinely and often indiscriminately open fire. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was White House chief of staff in 2009 and 2010, and McCarthy are pushing for tougher local, state and national gun laws and longer prison sentences for offenders.
About three blocks from Hadiya’s school, she and a group of 10 to 12 young people, including members of her volleyball team, had taken refuge under a canopy at a park to avoid the rain Tuesday afternoon. A man climbed a fence behind the park, ran at the group and started shooting, and then jumped back over the fence and into a white Nissan. The group scattered, but Hadiya was shot once in the back, and a teen boy was shot in the leg.
Hadiya had no arrest record, police said, and there was no indication she was a member of a gang or was the gunman’s intended target. In fact, McCarthy said there are no indications that anyone in the group was gang-affiliated. He said police suspect that the gunman may be a member of a gang that considers the park its turf and that he mistook somebody in the group as someone from an encroaching rival gang.
McCarthy vowed to put a police officer at the park “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year” if that is what it takes to show the gang that the park belongs to no one but the community.
In Washington, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., mentioned Hadiya as he began questioning witnesses at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue of gun violence.
Durbin noted that Hadiya had marched in the inaugural parade last week. “It was the highlight of her young life,” he said. “Just a matter of days after the happiest day of her life, she’s gone.”
Addressing the epidemic if gun violence in Chicago, Durbin said the biggest problem is that the city is “awash in guns.”
“We have guns everywhere,” Durbin said, “and some believe the solution to this is more guns. I disagree.”
Julie Jovan, the lower-school department chairwoman at Providence St. Mel School, where Hadiya had attended second grade, said she impressed teachers.
“She had a sparkle,” Jovan said in an interview. “She absolutely would have gone somewhere special and done great things.”
The Washington Post and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.