Chicago: A gang shooting, a stray bullet, an innocent victim

A second-grader's shooting death turns anguish into anger for the unwitting victims of Chicago's homicide epidemic. With schoolchildren caught in the gang crossfire on the Windy City's mean streets, parents say the only option they have is to keep their children home. 

Paul Beaty/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Police ‘need to stop those predators from taking these lives.’ – Ashake Banks, mother of Heaven Sutton, age 7, who was killed in June outside her home on Chicago’s West Side

Only eight blocks separate the home of Heaven Sutton, the second-grader killed June 27 by bullets meant for someone else, and the home of the man charged with shooting her – and between the two stands a gang-riddled neighborhood that both sets of traumatized parents say poses far too many dangers.

This is Austin, a community of brick two-flats and block-shaped apartment buildings on Chicago's West Side, where unemployment is endemic and almost 3 in 10 residents live in poverty. Heaven had lived here with her mother and three older brothers for only 10 months. Jerrell Dorsey, charged with her murder, grew up nearby, in the modest bungalow where his family has lived for 26 years.

Heaven is not the only child to be killed by errant gunfire on the mean streets of Chicago. In the past school year, 24 students were killed and 319 wounded in shootings, police reports show. But the circumstances of her death – she was shot at a candy stand her mother had set up on the front lawn outside their two-flat – have sparked more than the usual muffled cries of anguish. Reports that the gunfire was a gang shooting elicited Mayor Rahm Emanuel's first public comments about the city's mounting homicide count.

"This is not about crime. This is about values," he said in a tongue-lashing aimed at the perpetrators.

Heaven's mother, Ashake Banks, appreciates the mayor's personal involvement in the case. "I love him. I really do," Ms. Banks says, standing under the tent of the former candy stand that, filled now with stuffed animals, messages, balloons, and photos, has become a public shrine in Heaven's memory.

Banks characterizes the gang members in this area as "baby thieves" and says the police "need to stop those predators from taking these lives."

She is filled with regret about moving to Austin. But she had lost her job as a beautician, and a friend of her brother's invited her to move into a building he owned. Despite her reservations about moving her children to a neighborhood she knew was violent, Banks says she reluctantly accepted.

"I didn't want to be here. But I wanted my own place," she says. "I was too proud."

The candy stand was Banks's idea – an opportunity to make a little money and to keep her daughter under close supervision. On the evening of June 27, Chicago police say, one of the men near the stand, alleged to be affiliated with a splinter group of the Vice Lords gang, was the target of gunfire from another gang known as the Four Corner Hustlers. Jerrell, police say, is a Hustler who sprayed 10 bullets at the man, striking him in the ankle and Heaven in the back. She died 30 minutes later, in her mother's arms.

Vernell Dorsey, Jerrell's father, says that his son did not fire the shots and that "the police made a bad mistake." "He ain't that kind of person; he don't go around and cause trouble ... it's not in his character," Vernell says.

He describes Jerrell as "very responsible" in his job as a caretaker for a younger brother, who needs intense physical care because of a disability. The Dorsey parents, who both work, paid Jerrell to feed his brother, get him to the bathroom, and administer his medicine.

Vernell says the neighborhood has gone downhill during the decades his family has lived here. "It was pretty good when we moved in. It didn't have stores open 24-hours a day, didn't have liquor stores on the corner, didn't have gas stations open all night," he says. "That brings in different people." He blames lack of jobs for "kids having nothing to do but stand around a lot."

"You can always tell your children 'stay with the right crowd,' but who is the right crowd? You never know," Vernell says. "Sometimes people act different around you."

After Jerrell's arrest, his parents temporarily took time off work to care for their disabled son. Jerrell's girlfriend recently moved in to help out.

As for Banks, she says she plans to move out of Austin as soon as she can find a job. "Even if I have to live in a hotel, I can't stay here," she says.

With her only daughter killed outside her front door, she says there is only one choice to keep her three boys safe: "I don't let them leave the house."

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