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Not Since ’98: Relatives Reflect On Chicago Gun Violence Then And Now

Mandle Lee Johnson III was driving in Chicago’s Burnside neighborhood last month when he was shot four times and crashed into a bus shelter. He was declared dead less than an hour later at a nearby hospital, authorities said.

Johnson’s death marked a grim milestone in the city’s bloody year of violence: He was the 700th homicide reported by Chicago police.

The last time Chicago police reported more than 700 killings was in 1998, when the department recorded 704 slayings for the entire year. While that total might seem like a lot today, the number was cause for celebration at the time because it marked the lowest total since 1988. 

“The similarities (between 1998 and 2016) are the numbers of people killed,” said John Hagedorn, a criminal justice professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The reasons for the homicides are much different.”

Throughout the ’90s, killings in the city were largely a product of gang wars; this year it's much harder to find a single major cause of the violence, Hagedorn said. Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson has called for tougher sentencing laws for felons arrested with guns. Some aldermen have said more cops are needed, especially in areas with high crime rates. Police supporters have said increased public scrutiny on officers has made policing even more difficult. 

However the city moves forward, people who lost loved ones in 1998 look in bewilderment at the city’s current homicide total. They said seeing the numbers spike back up makes them feel like Chicago has slipped backwards since 1998, and they harbor little optimism about the future. 

Here are some of their stories. 

'I feel sorry for the parents' 

Robert Owens, 15, was fatally shot in Chicago in 1998. His sister Sharon Burgman-Owens, left, and mother Seonia Owens, right, hold a photo of Robert in their Kenosha home. (WBEZ / Miles Bryan)

Seonia Owens said her “mind just went completely blank” the day her 15-year-old son was shot and killed as he played outside on Feb. 2, 1998, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Robert Owens and his friend, 14-year-old Delvon Harris, were killed by a 12-year-old boy from the neighborhood as part of a gang initiation, authorities said.

“I got bars on my doors. I couldn’t get the key to work to save my life,” Seonia Owens told WBEZ. “I took off running, but for some reason my legs were just like lead. And by the time I got there, I was saying in my head, ‘This can’t happen to me again.’ Because I have been the mother of seven kids, and I’ve lost four -- two died in a fire and one died at birth.”

Nearly 20 years later, Robert’s older sister, Sharon Burgman-Owens, recalled how the family affectionately nicknamed him Mushy “because he had this funny little mouse face."

After the trial of Robert’s killer, the Owens family relocated to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Burgman-Owens said she keeps a close eye on violence in Chicago. 

“I feel sorry for the parents that have kids, young kids, that are there,” she said. “Because when Mushy got killed, you didn’t really hear (about kids being killed). … It was a shock when you heard that. But now, it’s getting old. We are hearing it every single day.”

In October, Seonia Owens’ nephew, Willie Owens, was shot and killed in Kenosha.

“This used to be my safe heaven,” Seonia Owens said. “Nobody can touch us here. And you know how I am feeling right now? He got shot and killed, and now I got to start worrying again.”

'Sometimes I drink a lot'

Kyisha Weekly talks about Candice Curry, who was fatally shot in 1998 at age 13. (WBEZ / Gabrielle Wright)

Kyisha Weekly said she tries hard not to think of her friend Candice Curry, who was shot and killed in a park when they were both 13 years old.

Candice was the victim of a drive-by-shooting Aug. 10, 1998 in Bronzeville, according to a Chicago Tribune article published days after she was killed.

“She was at my house before she went to the park, and I was telling her to wait on me while I got dressed, and she just wanted to go to the park,” Weekly said. “So I told her I’d meet her up there. And she went to the park and got shot.”

Weekly said she remembers a group of boys from the neighborhood coming by her house and telling her Candice had been shot. At first, she thought her friend would pull through, but she died that night. 

Weekly and Candice were part of a close group of six friends who hung out around the Ida B. Wells homes in Bronzeville. Weekly remembers Candice as a pretty, fun-loving girl who liked to jump rope.

“Our favorite spot to go to was called Route 66. It was a skating place, and it was skating on one side and dancing on the other side. So our parents used to think that we used to go for the skating, and we used to go for the dance part until one day my grandma came and picked us up and saw all the people and how rowdy they were. She was like, ‘No no no, y’all can’t come back up here,” Weekly said.

Weekly says a few years after Candice was killed, a second member of the group, Charlene Johnson, was killed by another girl she had been fighting with over a boy.

Weekly said she has also lost a brother and a nephew to gun violence.

“I try not to think about it,” Weekly said. “Sometimes I drink a lot to not think about the stuff that has happened in my life.”

Now, Weekly said she hardly goes outside, except to take her 3-year-old daughter to the Shedd Aquarium or to Maggie Daley Park downtown.

“I love my baby. That’s why you can’t sit on the bus stop with your kids,” Weekly said. “People getting shot, they’re shooting women, it’s out of control.” 

Despite the loss of her friend in 1998, Weekly said she is certain the violence is worse now. It was rare then, she said, for an innocent victim like Candice to get caught in the crossfire. But not anymore.

“The gangbangers (in the ‘90s) used to make sure the kids were in the house before they started shooting … They used to care then about kids, but now they just don’t,” Weekly said. “It’s the little kids. They’ll be 13 or 14 years old with guns. … If somebody looks at them wrong...they want to pull out their guns and start shooting. And it’s like they’re shooting with their eyes closed because they’re hitting innocent people.”

'Trying to turn his life around'

Jose Montelongo, center, was fatally shot in 1998 in Chicago. Priest Bruce Wellems, right, and friend Andres Munoz, left, surround him. (WBEZ / Miles Bryan)

Twenty-year-old Jose Montelongo had dropped out of high school and was affiliated with the Saints street gang when he was killed on July 26, 1998, in a drive-by shooting in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, said his brother, Martin Montelongo.

But Jose Montelongo was trying to go in a different direction, his brother said.

“He was trying to turn his life around,” Martin Montelongo said. “He got a job (in) carpentry. And he wanted to go back to school. He was involved with the church; he did a lot of volunteering work there ... He wanted to help my mother buy a house.”

Martin Montelongo said he was also in a gang, but his brother’s death -- and the birth of his son -- motivated him to move to the Ashburn neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side. 

Erasmo Muñoz, who was Jose Montelongo’s childhood friend and neighbor, also moved to Ashburn.

“My parents still live in (Back of the Yards), but most of the time I won’t take my son,” Muñoz said. “My daughter will go with me, but my son, he’s at that age where he could be looked upon as ‘from the neighborhood.’ I would hate to take him with me and have something happen. I would never forgive myself.”

Martin Montelongo and Muñoz said they’re concerned with both the recent rise in violence and what they see as it’s changing character.

“Before there was crime, of course, but there was that almost like weird respect: ‘I am not going to do it to you because you are with your mother. I am not going to do it with your kid,’” Muñoz said. “Now, they don’t care who is with them. They got the whole family in the car -- they’ll shoot them.”

Then vs. now

Hagedorn, the UIC professor who has been studying gangs in Chicago for decades, said that while the homicide total in 1998 is similar to this year, the mood in the city then was far more optimistic. Killings had declined from a high of almost a thousand in 1994.

“In 1998, we were at the downward slope of organized gang wars that racked Chicago,” he said. “Homicides were often called by leaders who were locked up in prison. They were intentional kinds of violence. Today the violence is spontaneous; it’s local. The gangs are no longer structured and citywide. They are small cliques of kids. The reasons for the homicides are often insults, accidental events -- very difficult kinds of things to contain.”

Hagedorn said Chicago police identified -- or believed they identified -- the culprits in roughly two-thirds of all the homicides in the ’90s. As of last year, the Chicago Police Department's “clearance rate” had fallen to under 30 percent

To identify the roots of Chicago’s current epidemic, Hagedorn looks to how the city broke away from Los Angeles and New York, which had similar homicide rates as Chicago in the 1990s.

“One major difference between Chicago and New York is that in Chicago in the ’90s, we ripped down the projects and scattered people across the city. In New York, they embarked at the end of the ’80s on the largest investment in public housing in world history. Billions of dollars of investment in housing. 

“Those neighborhoods (in New York) while they stayed poor, there was an increase in stability that took place. People didn’t move. They weren’t pushed around. They saw some hope and investment in their communities. We don’t see that in Chicago.”

Miles Bryan and Patrick Smith are reporters with WBEZ. Follow them at @miles__bryan and @pksmid.

Investigative reporting and in-depth journalism at WBEZ is made possible in part with support from Doris and Howard Conant.

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