About 12:45 a.m. on July 3, 2013, patrol cars from the Chicago Police Department’s 25th District took off in a hurry from the scene of a murder on West Potomac Avenue. A freelance video journalist followed after them. As sirens wailed in the distance, so did I.
By that time, the West Potomac crime scene was three hours old. Earlier that night, two assailants opened fire on a group of people standing on the block, in the North Austin neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side. One of the bullets struck 19-year-old Ashley Hardmon in the head, and she died at a hospital soon after.
As a night shift reporter for the Chicago Tribune, I had gone there to take photographs, gather details and talk with anyone I could. A detective, speaking in a low tone, told me police believed retaliation was imminent somewhere in the neighborhood, an area racked by violence and drugs. Minutes later, the officers were rushing back to their cars to chase reports of a second shooting just a few blocks away.
There, on North Avenue, more than a dozen police officers crowded around someone on the ground. An ambulance was parked in the middle of the street, but no one was doing CPR. There was a boy lying next to a bicycle, and no one touched him.
After nine months on the beat, I knew the night would come when I’d see some version of this. I had covered several deadly shootings already, and given Chicago’s murder rate, it was a matter of time before I saw a body.
The teenager was on his way home early Wednesday morning when he was fatally shot in the 5000 block of West North Avenue in the Austin neighborhood, police said. “What am I going to do when Christmas comes, when his birthday comes, when the first day of school comes?” Henard’s mother said. — Chicago Tribune July 2013
What I didn’t expect, though, was the silence. In the aftermath of a movie killing, the cuts are usually quick. If the camera stays with the body at all, you might hear sobbing, maybe a soundtrack. On North Avenue, the boy’s relatives hadn’t arrived yet. They probably didn’t even know.
The boy’s family had recently moved from Chicago to suburban Oak Park. He was just bicycling home when someone shot him, apparently mistaking him for a local gang member. I knew none of this at the time. I stood outside the yellow tape, looking at the crumpled body of 14-year-old Damani Henard, whose name I did not yet know, surrounded by an eerie quiet.
That silence, one I’d hear versions of again and again, became a powerful part of my nights. Four hundred fifteen people were murdered in Chicago in 2013, more than in any other American city — and this was an improvement from the year before. I was at the scene of more than 30 of them. Most were killed by guns; many were teenagers. In Chicago last year, more than 2,100 people were shot.
For two years, I crisscrossed the city rushing to dozens of these crime scenes, sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes for several hours. On some nights I traveled with a Tribune photographer, but usually I worked alone. My job was to document what happened while the city slept. I saw distraught faces, shocked by loss. And I spent much of my time listening to the city’s streets, and to their silence.
The Chicago Police Department divides the city into 13 radio zones, each comprising one or two police districts. Dispatchers run the show, relaying information from 9–1–1 callers, and from other zones and departments, to officers on the streets. Officers respond with occasional updates about where they are and what they’re doing.
In a downtown skyscraper, the Tribune news desk has five scanners broadcasting this scratchy chatter. About 10 p.m., at the start of my shift, I’d point the heavy, full-sized radios toward my chair and place the portable ones, about the size of a walkie-talkie, in front of me.
Nearby, my backpack contained a laptop, an aircard for Internet, a Nikon point-and-shoot camera and several chargers. Within reach was a bulletproof vest. Trim and lightweight, it didn’t show through the shirts I wore over it. This was important as I interviewed witnesses. A conspicuous vest might have suggested I was a plainclothes police officer or that I was scared. I never needed it, but at the request of my editors, I wore it almost every night.
During the day, scanner traffic blends into the rest of the newsroom sounds: reporters talking on phones, the occasional slam of a receiver, laughter and conversation. At night it carries, resounding through a mostly empty newsroom.
The calm, even-toned conversations seep into the background of your consciousness. Noise complaints. Landlord-tenant disputes. Suspicious people. Far too many domestic batteries and drunk drivers.
I listened for chaos, for the raised voices indicating a car chase. I listened for calls about house fires. Mostly, though, I listened for shootings.
Loud crime scenes are rare. Victims are usually brought to hospitals, and family members and friends typically meet there instead of at the scene. But when paramedics can’t revive someone, they leave the body where they found it so police can start their investigation. These scenes, DOAs — dead on arrival — in the words of cops, draw crowds agonized by the body lying there, sometimes not even covered by a sheet.
People scream. Piercing, awful shrieks that tell you the person is feeling something no one should, that you hope you never do. Once, a grieving sister’s howls subsided as she started to vomit.
It takes several hours for detectives to take pictures and collect evidence. Often, by the time the body removal company arrives, much of a victim’s extended family has gathered near the crime scene.
At one West Side shooting, I stood at the end of a block as a team brought a covered body on a gurney out of an apartment building. As they wheeled it to a waiting van, the sound of sobbing floated through the night.
Mostly there is sadness, but there is also anger. This July, roughly a year after Damani Henard was killed bicycling home, 17-year-old Marcel Pearson was killed in the South Side’s Brainerd neighborhood. He died just before he would have started college. As I asked questions and took pictures, a friend of Pearson’s walked over to me and said he’d break my camera if he saw it again. I tried to explain what I was doing. “This isn’t a story,” he told me. “It’s a tragedy.”
A 17-year-old boy who would have started college orientation Thursday was shot to death Tuesday night in the Brainerd neighborhood, one of at least 12 people shot across the city since Tuesday afternoon. — Chicago Tribune July 2014
Even amidst such grief, there were graceful moments. At the same scene, when a woman complained loudly about how long police were taking to remove Pearson’s body, a plainclothes officer near the yellow police tape gently explained that he understood how difficult it was, but to bring the killers to justice police had to collect as much evidence as they could.
The woman’s tone changed. She thanked him politely, and they continued talking.
Quiet scenes are no less disturbing.
Rey Dorantes, a 14-year-old from the Humboldt Park neighborhood, died in the doorway of his own home. He had been standing outside when he was shot, then apparently took a few steps toward the entrance and collapsed. Paramedics couldn’t revive him, so they left his body where it fell.
The boy’s father remained inside the home, perhaps with other relatives as well, as the house became a crime scene wrapped in tape. As officers collected evidence, Dorantes’ stepmother paced the sidewalk. Her sobbing into a cell phone was the only sound.
White, black and Latino neighbors stood outside brick homes, watching the police officers. Unlike other neighborhoods where gun violence is more common, Humboldt Park, the hub of the city’s Puerto Rican community, is gentrifying rapidly. The new coffee shops and bearded bicyclists have created new and different tensions, but everyone could at least agree: The persistence of gang shootings was disquieting. Dorantes was the second student from his high school shot to death that school year; a third would be killed the following month.
Accompanied by one of their fathers, a small group of Dorantes’ friends stood together half a block from the police tape. One friend, a short young man, stared ahead of him, his eyes wide and unblinking. They seemed older than his boyish face. When I asked if he wanted to talk, he shook his head.
Two gunmen shot a 14-year-old boy several times Friday night as he stood on his porch, leaving him to die in the front hallway of his Humboldt Park home, authorities said. — Chicago Tribune January 2013
Angel Cano was gunned down in Back of the Yards, a South Side neighborhood where gang affiliations dominate the high school social landscape. At 16, he left behind three younger siblings, a girlfriend and two loving parents. When you’re a breaking news reporter in Chicago, you chase; rarely, if ever, do you follow. But several months after Cano was killed, after his family moved to a new neighborhood for their safety, I sat with his parents and sister. Cano’s friends had urged me to dive more deeply than the four paragraphs I’d written about his death. There in the kitchen, the family played a video on a cellphone of Cano singing one of his favorite songs. Hearing his voice, loud and confident, brought tears to his mother’s eyes.
Maria Gutierrez wipes away tears as she watches video of her son Angel staring at the camera, singing in a powerful voice that rattles her cellphone speaker. In a corner of her apartment, a poster depicts him smiling under a Cubs cap, a pair of wings Photoshopped onto his back. — Chicago Tribune January 2013
The moment passed quickly — another glimpse into the hole Angel Cano’s killer had left in a tight-knit family.
Cano’s parents had left Mexico hoping for a better life for their children. Now, the two youngest, one of them sitting nearby in a Halloween costume, were growing up without their older brother.
Chicago’s main publications are trying to figure out the best way to cover this violence. Several projects in recent years have offered more context and depth, but for the most part, reporting on gun crimes in this city and others its size remains incomplete, a collection of brief articles with few details. Reading the stories has the same sanitized quality as being at one of those quiet crime scenes, where no one is grieving — you know the facts, but it’s impossible to understand their weight. There are reasons for that, of course. Newsrooms cover all of a city’s news, not just murder, and following murders happening at a rate of more than one a day requires significant resources.
Had Cano’s classmates not written to me, those four paragraphs in the Tribune might have been the last words about him. In reality, every one of the 415 killings left holes like the one in the Cano family’s kitchen that night.
Just before 5 a.m. on each shift, I pressed the buzzer in the entryway of the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Someone from inside would emerge with a sign-in sheet, usually a cheerful man a few years older than me with a warm smile and a wealth of wisecracks about college basketball.
Inside the office, a night-shift investigator handed over a white sheet of paper with the name, age and race of each person brought in for an autopsy that night. Reading from an oversized logbook, the investigator announced the block where each one lived, the “address of occurrence,” and, until the morgue changed its rules, the apparent cause of death pending the autopsy.
The older people usually died from falling, or, occasionally, they were homeless and found dead on sidewalks or in parks. When we saw younger people on the list, we came to expect traffic crashes, drugs, suicide and gunshot wounds.
I scanned the list of deaths. Like much of the overnight shift, these heavy disclosures had become a familiar routine. We’d bring newspapers, printed hours earlier, to thank the morgue staff. Have a good one, we’d say.
As I drove back to the newsroom, with the sun rising behind the city’s skyline, I sometimes heard overnight dispatchers and police officers wishing each other goodnight. On the radio, upbeat morning talk hosts rattled off weather forecasts and traffic updates.
Inside my backpack was the list of names from the morgue. My day was ending, but for the families of Angel Cano, Rey Dorantes, Marcel Pearson, Ashley Hardmon and Damani Henard, another was about to start.
Adam Sege reported for the Chicago Tribune’s breaking news desk from October 2012 through September 2014.
Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley, Colin Morris and Jon O’Neill.