By Jason Meisner and Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune reporters
1:37 PM CST, February 13, 2013
The break came, at last, on Saturday.
As pressure mounted over nearly two weeks, Chicago police investigating the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton followed plenty of leads that hadn't panned out.
Then on Saturday, tipped by a Cook County Jail inmate, investigators picked up a recent parolee who revealed that two reputed Gangster Disciples had admitted shooting the honor student after mistaking her group for rival gang members, a law enforcement source told the Tribune in the first detailed account of how police cracked the high-profile case.
Using the threat of a return trip to prison as leverage, detectives persuaded the parolee to reveal the names of other gang members who could corroborate his account, the source said. By late Saturday night, Michael Ward and Kenneth Williams were arrested on the South Side on their way to celebrate a friend's birthday at a strip club, according to police.
On Tuesday, Cook County prosecutors laid out their case against the two, providing a glimpse at the motivation and consequences of gang violence in 2013 when many shootings are the result of turf battles among factions of the same street gang.
Ward, 18, and Williams, 20, were charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon in the shooting that has become a national symbol of Chicago's scourge of gun violence. Two of Hadiya's classmates were wounded.
The suspects, identified by authorities as members of the SUWU gang faction, stood silently with their hands behind their backs as prosecutors detailed the charges before a packed courtroom. Both were ordered held without bail. A sheriff's department source said they were being kept apart from other inmates at Cook County Jail out of "concern for their safety."
The strongest evidence highlighted in court was an alleged video-recorded confession by Ward, whom police identified as the gunman. But investigators acknowledged that the weapon used in the slaying has not been found, and prosecutors made no mention of any significant physical evidence tying either suspect to the shooting. Because Williams quickly requested a lawyer and gave no statement to police, the evidence prosecutors cited against him appears slimmer. He has no criminal background.
In his confession, Ward said he and Williams were in the midst of a three-year battle with a rival gang faction that escalated when one of Ward's friends was killed and Williams was shot in the arm last summer, according to prosecutors.
"(Ward) stated that when the rival gang killed one of his friends, he thought, 'If we keep standing for this, we are going to be some straight bitches,'" Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Sexton said in court.
On the day of the slaying, Williams and Ward were driving around in a Nissan Sentra owned by Ward's mother when they passed Harsh Park in the North Kenwood neighborhood and spotted Hadiya's group, relaxing after final exams and taking shelter from the rain under a canopy, Sexton said. Mistaking them for members of the rival 4-6 Terror gang faction, Williams drove down an alley and handed Ward a gun, she said. Ward exited the car and "snuck up on the group, and they didn't see him coming," Sexton said.
Ward admitted approaching a fence and firing six shots, the prosecutor said. He ran back to the car and Williams drove off, she said. Hadiya was shot once in the back. One 17-year-old male was shot in the left ankle, while another boy, also 17, sustained a graze wound to his left foot.
Surveillance video captured the white Nissan driving by the park before and after the shooting, Sexton said. She also alleged that witnesses identified Williams as the driver and that cellphone records placed him in the area of the park at the time of the homicide.
Ward acknowledged in his confession that Hadiya "had nothing to do" with the feud, according to the prosecutor.
"She was just there," Ward allegedly told police.
Ward's aunt, Rhonda, defended her nephew, telling the Tribune he was not the "vicious killer" portrayed by police. But at the same time, she said police need to do more to address the gun violence that has taken the lives of so many.
"I'm really sympathetic for the little girl," she said. "Maybe this will wake up a lot of people to see it's just not her that's dying."
Detectives reviewed recent gang intelligence, figured out which factions were active in the area around the park and identified gang members involved in recent hostilities there, the law enforcement source told the Tribune.
Police determined that the park was frequented by the 4-6 Terror gang, an offshoot of the Gangster Disciples. Williams had been shot in July near his home at 39th Street and Lake Park Avenue, possibly by a member of the 4-6 Terror, the source said. After Williams refused to cooperate in the investigation, police believe he likely wanted revenge, according to the source.
Detectives then began looking at months of contacts cards — used by police to keep track of those questioned during routine street stops — and found that a white Nissan matching the description of the car used in Hadiya's slaying had been pulled over several times, while either Williams or Ward were riding in it, the source said. During at least one of those stops, Williams was with Ward, the source said.
The case gained momentum late last week when a gang intelligence officer at the county jail approached other members of the suspects' gang faction and found one inmate who appeared to know a bit about the slaying, the source said. The next day, while being questioned by two detectives, the inmate gave the name of the parolee who provided the key break.
When contacted by police, that parolee told them that he’d likely fail a drug test if given one because he had smoked some illegal drugs the day before, the source said. Parolees can go back to prison if they fail drug tests. Eventually, according to the source, the parolee later cooperated with detectives, telling them what he knew about Hadiya’s death.
Gang investigations officers quickly set up surveillance of Ward and Williams on Saturday and tracked their every move, the source said. After tailing them all day, police began to worry that the suspects had spotted them and might attempt to flee. The order to arrest them was given shortly before midnight.
At Area Central headquarters on Sunday and Monday, police held more than a dozen lineups with witnesses, but no one from Hadiya's group was able to identify Ward or Williams as being involved, the law enforcement source said.
Ward's lawyer, Jeffrey Granich, contended Tuesday that police refused his client's repeated requests for a lawyer while he was being questioned. He said Ward's family didn't even know where he was being held and that by the time he was called Monday, Ward had confessed.
He also maintained that Ward was being "railroaded" because of the high-profile homicide.
"This is a serious criminal case, this is not a political platform," Granich told reporters after court. "The problem when criminal cases get made into political cases is rules are bent and mistakes are made."
Williams' attorney, Matthew McQuaid, said his client made no statement to detectives. He said any "admissions" referenced by prosecutors in court would be called into question.
"If the statements were allegedly made to a third party or some guy on the street, I think that raises serious questions about their reliability," he said.
State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said prosecutors had sought prison time for Ward when he was convicted of a weapons charge in 2012, but he was given probation because he was only 17 at the time of the offense. A state law that went into effect that year requires a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison for unlawful use of a weapon but only for offenders 18 or older, she said.
Responding to a Tribune report that Ward had been arrested three times while on probation for his gun conviction but still was on the street, Alvarez said the Cook County Adult Probation Department was responsible for notifying prosecutors of the new arrests and filing for a violation of probation. That can result in an arrestee being sent to prison.
"What I've been told (is) the probation department has admitted that they did not notify us, so obviously we didn't proceed on that violation of probation," Alvarez said.
Tribune reporter Jennifer Delgado contributed.