CHICAGO (AP) — A 15-year-old girl who had performed in President Barack Obama's inauguration festivities is the latest face on the ever-increasing homicide toll in the president's hometown, killed in a Chicago 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.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the president and the first lady's "thoughts and prayers are with" the teen's family, adding: "And as the president has said, we will never be able to irradiate every act of evil in this country, but if we can save even one child's life, we have an obligation to try when it comes to the scourge of gun violence."
Hadiya's father, Nathaniel Pendleton, spoke Wednesday at a Chicago police news conference, which was held in the same park where his daughter died.
"Why is it dangerous for kids to hang out in Chicago? This ain't only happening in bad neighborhoods. It's happening in good neighborhoods. It's happening in the suburbs," he said. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy consoled him.
Hadiya was a bright kid 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 me, a doctor, an attorney," said Stewart, a Chicago police officer and attorney. "She was constantly getting good grades."
Stewart, who was 12 years old when his own brother was shot and killed, said his family and Hadiya Pendleton's family were so close that his own children saw the 15-year-old as an older sister.
"The worst thing in the world was when yesterday I had to sit there and tell my children that their sister is gone," he said.
In Chicago, gangs routinely and often indiscriminately open fire. Mayor Rahm Emanuel 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 10-12 young people had taken refuge under a canopy at a park to avoid the rain Tuesday afternoon when a man climbed a fence, ran at the group and started shooting a gun. The group scattered, but Hadiya was shot in the back and a teenage boy was shot in the leg.
Police said Hadiya had no arrest record and there was no indication she was a member of a gang or was the gunman's target. But police said that at this point in the investigation, there were indications that at least some of the others had ties to gangs.
Stewart, though, said Hadiya was not hanging around gang members, but was simply talking to her friends on her volleyball team.
Stewart's comments also echo the message that city officials have long said: Gun violence is not confined to street corners in dangerous neighborhoods. Obama's neighborhood, Kenwood, is just north of the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry.
"Her parents had done everything right and she was doing everything right," he said.
AP reporter Nedra Pickler contributed to this report from Washington.