Apall hung over the city like a dark cloud. Police scoured the streets in search of an 11-year-old murder suspect on the lam.
His name was “Yummy.” He was, according to police, at his tender age, already a hardened criminal. Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was believed to be the triggerman in the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Shavon Dean, an innocent bystander, killed just feet from her South Side home.
In a separate shooting earlier that Sunday in late August 1994, the same prepubescent gunman was believed to have shot a 16-year-old boy, injuring his spinal cord.
I was chief crime reporter at the Chicago Tribune back then. I covered the Yummy case. It had all the ingredients of a page-one story: a double shooting, a pint-sized, baby-faced gunman, a police manhunt for an armed and dangerous 11-year-old.
Back then, I understood that murder was a hard sell to my editors — considered routine enough as to be considered generally not newsworthy. Back then, an annual tally of more than 900 homicides came and went without most of those slain drawing even a paragraph of news ink or TV or radio air time.
There was no appetite for “run-of-the-mill” murders — in which the victims were black or brown, especially in cases where victim and perpetrator were alleged to have been gang-bangers or drug dealers. Once, while working late night, I heard over the police scanner about a shooting. News was slow. I figured I’d go out to the scene. I asked my editor.
“What’s the address?” he asked.
It was the West Side or South Side, some predominantly black neighborhood.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
Covering murder wasn’t considered sexy. Not the topic to build a journalism career covering. Even then, there were plenty of children felled by gunfire as innocent bystanders. I chose to cover murder — to press the issue — because I couldn’t afford not to. The victims reminded me of my sons, nephews, nieces and friends — of me.
I remember, in September 1990, writing a story on innocent children maimed, killed or otherwise traumatized by shootings. It was what we in journalism call an “enterprise” story — an idea you generate and often work on in your own time.
What I remember most is that an editor said the decision had been made to place another story on the front page instead of mine. A more significant story: A feud over a Hopi Indian snake dance ritual. I felt like cursing, crying.
I remember the editor telling me to keep the faith. That the story of murdered children and the impact of homicide was an important story. That eventually “we” would come around.
Now, decades later, 20 years since I covered Yummy, we have. News of shootings and homicides, of children caught in the crossfire are routinely reported — in real time — in the city’s major dailies, on the nightly newscasts. It’s on the Internet, news services and community crime blogs. News of the latest shootings buzzes on my smartphone, is posted on Facebook, tweeted and retweeted.
In this media spotlight, it can sometimes seem like homicide is rising as never before when the truth is there are hundreds fewer people murdered today than 20 years ago.
But for those who have lived for the last 20 years in Yummy’s neighborhood, or in other Chicago neighborhoods, where all that blood has been spilled and where all those bodies fell, it is no less hell. For them, there is a pall that still hangs over this city like a dark cloud.