CHICAGO — Chicago police say two gang members charged in the death of a 15-year-old honor student mistook her and her friends for members of a rival gang and attacked the group in retaliation for a shooting that injured one of them over the summer.
Hadiya Pendleton died after being shot in a park about a mile from the Chicago home of President Barack Obama on Jan. 29, just days after she performed during his inauguration festivities in Washington. Her death was among dozens of homicides in Chicago last month, though her background and ties to Obama thrust her death into the national headlines.
Michael Ward, 18, and Kenneth Williams, 20, were charged Monday with first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and aggravated battery with a firearm, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Monday night. Both were taken into custody late Saturday while on their way to a strip club — and just hours after first lady Michelle Obama and other dignitaries attended Pendleton's funeral.
"Ward confessed and indicated Hadiya was not the intended target. They got it all wrong," McCarthy said.
Pendleton, a popular high school majorette, was with a group of friends who took cover during a rainstorm under a canopy in a park about a mile from the Obama home on the city's South Side. Police said a man hopped a fence, ran toward them and opened fire with a handgun before fleeing in a waiting car. Pendleton was struck in the back and died later that day. Two others were injured.
McCarthy said Ward told investigators he thought he was shooting into the crowd of a rival gang, and that the shooting was meant as retaliation for Williams being shot in the arm in July. Police said neither Pendleton nor her friends were affiliated with gangs.
Williams, who refused to cooperate with authorities after the July shooting, was driving the getaway car, McCarthy said. He added that both men were arrested while on their way to a strip club to celebrate a friend's birthday Saturday night.
Pendleton's death was one of more than 40 homicides in Chicago in January, a total that made it the deadliest January in the city in more than a decade. But her murder attracted national attention and helped put Chicago at the center of a national debate over gun control.
Not only did the first lady attend the teen's funeral, but the girl's parents were set to sit with Michelle Obama during the president's State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Obama is scheduled to return to Chicago three days later to discuss gun violence.
Homicides in Chicago topped 500 last year for the first time since 2008, stoking residents' concerns about gun violence and leading the police department to put more officers on the street and to focus more on combatting gangs.
McCarthy, who is pushing for tougher gun laws that would increase minimum sentences for gun crimes, noted that Ward was arrested in January 2011 on a gun charge but he received probation after pleading guilty to unlawful use of a weapon. If Chicago had laws like those in New York City, McCarthy said, Ward wouldn't have been on the streets.
"This has to stop. Gun offenders have to do significant jail time," said McCarthy, who rose through the ranks of New York City's police and is the former police director in Newark, N.J.
McCarthy said the arrests occurred after police figured out that the description of the car in which the shooter fled matched the description of a vehicle in which Williams had been pulled over a day before the shootings. The police superintendent noted it didn't come from a tip from the community.
"I'm sad to point out we did not get our target audience to step up," he said.
Just as the December killing of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., brought renewed scrutiny of the nation's gun laws, the death of the popular Chicago teen has cast the city's gun violence in a new light.
Earlier Monday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel seemed to make just that point.
"The only time when the gun issue ever gets affected is when Newtown happens," he said. "What happens in urban areas around the country too often ... gets put to the side."
He said that while it's not wrong that massacres stir such debate, what happens on the streets of Chicago and in other urban areas "gets put in a different value system."
"These are our kids," he said, his voice rising. "These are our children."
Emanuel joined McCarthy and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez at an afternoon news conference to announce they would push for tougher gun laws that would increase the minimum sentences and require offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
They say the law now allows offenders to be released after serving no more than half their sentences and sometimes obtain their release after a matter of weeks.