This series was the winner of the 2013 Peter Lisagor Award in Non-Deadline Reporting, Online.
Children were out playing and others were already on their way to school when Annette Freeman and her seven-year-old son, Dantrell Davis, grabbed each other's hands and started walking the 100 feet from their apartment building to Jenner elementary, a neighborhood school in the middle of the Cabrini-Green public housing development. It was a little before 9 AM on Tuesday, October 13, 1992—20 years ago tomorrow.
They didn’t make it to Jenner. "In three seconds it happened," Freeman recalls. "I heard the bullet sounds and I saw he was already down. I thought he'd ducked."
He never had a chance. One of the shots, fired from a neighboring Cabrini high-rise, hit Dantrell in the left side of his face. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Children's Memorial Hospital.
Chicago, along with most other major cities, was struggling with an epidemic of violence at the time. Dantrell's killing was one of 943 Chicago homicides that year, making for the second-highest murder tally, and highest murder rate, in the city's history. It was the year's third shooting death of a student at Jenner.
Yet this particular incident exposed just how routine and random the violence had become, especially in parts of the city where the buildings and streets were crumbling, the jobs were gone, and mothers were left trying to raise their children as gang conflicts raged around them. The killing provoked outrage that cleared the way for a radical shift in the nation's approach to housing for the poor, forever altering not just the landscape of Chicago but urban policy nationwide.
"We were all in shock," says Reverend Walter Johnson, who at the time was pastor of Wayman AME Church, just up the street from the shooting. "It was the senselessness—the devastation a community felt when a seven-year-old who had nothing to do with it could get slain because someone was shooting at another gangbanger."
As word of the sniper attack spread, police and news teams swarmed Cabrini-Green, a development of 24 high-rises, blocks of row houses, and thousands of residents (15,000 at its height years earlier) where gang violence was common. In the days before, gunfire had flared between the Vice Lords who controlled Freeman's building at 502 W. Oak and the Cobras at 1157 N. Cleveland. Freeman says Danny, as she called him, had learned to drop to the ground at the sound of it. "All the kids did in that environment," she says.
Detectives soon found a witness who had seen shots fired from the window of a tenth-floor apartment at 1157 N. Cleveland, about 300 yards from where Dantrell was gunned down. The building was one of several Cabrini high-rises that were more than half vacant but used frequently by gang members who posted sentries in the upper floors. In apartment 1001 police found three .233-caliber shell casings, apparently from a high-powered rifle.
Another witness told police that a woman he knew only as "Hollywood" had related seeing someone called "Quabine" carrying a rifle up the stairs of 1157 N. Cleveland earlier that morning. "Quabine" rang a bell with police—it was the nickname of Anthony Garrett, who umpired baseball in a Cabrini youth league when he wasn't working as security chief for the Cobras. During a stint in the army, Garrett had specialized in marksmanship. In 1981 he was acquitted of killing a rival gang member in a Cabrini stairwell. He'd been convicted of six other gun crimes.
Garrett was distinctive looking—a six-foot 33-year-old with multiple tattoos and his hair in a pigtail. Police found him that afternoon at another Cabrini building where he lived and placed him under arrest. On the arrest report, they listed his occupation as "drug dealer."
Telling police he was plagued by guilt, Garrett signed a confession the next day—or so they said; Garrett would later claim he was beaten and forced to sign. But the statement aligned closely with what police had heard from the witnesses. "Garrett stated that he was upset when he woke up that day because members of the Vice Lords, a rival street gang, had shot two elderly people who were walking to get groceries the night before," the statement said. Intent on returning fire for fire, he went to 1157 N. Cleveland, where the Cobras stored an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in a tenth-floor apartment.
After making sure the gun was loaded, Garrett went to an open window in the bathroom that offered a direct view of 502 W. Oak. Milling in front of that building were half a dozen young men he knew to be gang rivals. "After he saw the Vice Lords he fired two to three [shots] at them from a standing 'offhand' position."
Garrett then left the apartment. On his way downstairs, he gave the rifle to an unnamed "shorty" and headed home to his own building, where "he hung out with some friends for several hours."
But Garrett soon learned he hadn't hit any gang foes. According to the confession, he told a CHA security guard, "The police are looking for me for shooting that kid."
Click here to read part two.