Long before Gakirah Barnes was murdered in a hail of bullets on the South Side, her mother had heard the unsettling, persistent rumors about her.
Her 17-year-old daughter — the same 5-foot-3, 128-pound girl once seen as shy at school — was known for something almost unheard of on the streets of Chicago.
There are teenage girls who are accomplices in gang murders.
There are girls who hide gang guns for their boyfriends.
But Barnes was believed to be a “hitta” — a female assassin for a faction of the Gangster Disciples, law enforcement sources say.
Barnes, who kept a stack of newspaper stories about her friends slain in street violence, was a suspect in three to five shootings, including at least one murder. Talk on the street put the number of shootings much higher, at least 15.
Her death in April did nothing to quell the talk about her, as the Internet buzzed about Barnes’ alleged involvement in gun violence.
In an interview with the Sun-Times, her mother, Shontell Brown, simply couldn’t say whether her daughter was a shooter — or not.
Brown acknowledged her daughter was charged with firing a gun when she was 14. But no one was shot, and the case was dismissed when witnesses recanted, she said.
Brown said she’s seen the homemade rap music videos of her daughter wearing a bandanna over her face and waving a handgun, but she never saw a gun in their home. She doesn’t know if the video was bravado, or something more.
“I can’t say if she killed somebody or not,” Brown said. “I was not there. I don’t know. I’ve heard rumors and gossip come to me. I have talked to my daughter and asked her. And my daughter said no.”
Those who knew Barnes more than three years ago when she was a student at Perspectives/IIT Math and Science Academy said her murder and the talk that she was a gang shooter shocked them.
Barnes was in the eighth grade when she entered the South Side charter school in the fall of 2010. In her first month, she was suspended for being disrespectful, Assistant Principal Tiffany Harston said.
But that was the end of it. She didn’t get into fights at school. When math class frustrated her, she’d leave, but only to look for help.
“I told her our goal was that she would receive a quality education and go to college,” Harston said.
Barnes was shy — even timid, Harston recalled.
As the year progressed, though, Barnes became less guarded.
“By the end of eighth grade, she had a few friends and was smiling more,” Harston said.
When Barnes returned for her freshman year, her attendance became spotty.
Eventually she dropped out after she landed in the juvenile justice system. Harston said she didn’t hear anything more about Barnes until she was killed. She was appalled to read a story on an Internet news site — “The Daily Beast” — that reported on her alleged role as a shooter.
“Typically, kids that live that kind of life, they are very confrontational. Gakirah was not that child,” she said.
In 2011, Barnes was charged with discharging a weapon, although no gun was recovered, her mother said. Barnes was ordered to attend an alternative school in Cook County’s juvenile detention center while the case against her progressed. The judge wanted to keep her off the street for her own protection, Brown said.
Barnes was found not guilty after witnesses who picked her out of a lineup changed their stories, her mother said.
Barnes continued to attend classes periodically at another alternative school on the Far South Side. But she was spending more time on the street and less in class, her mother said.
“She was a very smart child and very articulate, but she was not getting into it,” she said.
On the street, Gakirah Barnes was called “KI,” an abbreviation of her first name. In the weeks leading up to her death, she was also known as “Lil’ Snoop,” for the female shooter in the TV crime drama, “The Wire,” her mother acknowledged.
Police suspect she became embroiled in the tit-for-tat violence between her faction of the Gangster Disciples and their rivals in a 20-block area near 63rd and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
One high-level police official said Barnes was suspected in three to five shootings, at least one of which was a murder. Police received information that a female gunman was involved in those shootings, and Barnes matched the description, the official said.
But Barnes was never charged in those shootings because no witnesses were willing to identify her. Police have no physical evidence linking her to the crimes, the official said.
“She bragged about being a shooter,” one police source said. “Everybody was afraid of her.”
She acted with such swagger that she was sometimes mistaken for a boy, police said.
Barnes ’ bravado was on display on Twitter, where she often blasted her enemies.
When a Chicago Police officer shot one of her friends to death after he allegedly pointed a gun at the officer during a foot chase on March 29, Barnes sent the police a warning.
“DA Police I’d kill u Faster Dan n—-z on Da Corner,” she wrote on Twitter.
For days, Barnes posted messages about the shooting near 62nd and Rhodes.
“It’s a colddd, cold world,” Barnes lamented.
She also worried that people were gunning for her.
“I Got n—-z Tryna Off me Put Me n a Coffin,” she said on Twitter.
She was right.
On April 11, a hooded gunman shot Barnes seven times in front of a home in the 6400 block of South Eberhart, police said.
Two young men were wounded, but investigators are certain Barnes was the target. “Seems even her own gang wanted her gone because she was such a lightning rod,” a police source said. No one is in custody in her murder.
Girls like Barnes have become more deeply involved in gangs over the past decade and more willing to participate in violence, but usually with their fists and feet.
“A number of reports show there is an increase in females with delinquent behavior as opposed to boys, whose delinquency has plateaued,” said Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center.
Still, there are few documented cases of girls pulling the trigger in gang shootings.
One of the highest-profile cases of female gang assassins was in 1992 when three women lured two male rival gang members into Humboldt Park and fatally shot them in the head — one in a restroom and one outside.
Anthony Riccio, deputy chief of detectives for the Chicago Police Department, worked on the case as a young detective. When he led one of the women out of a police station, she flashed gang signs for the TV news cameras.
“Most of the shootings are by the guys. Rarely do we see cases like this where the females are the shooters,” Riccio said in a recent interview.
“They go from playing with Barbie dolls to being a shooter for the gang,” he said. “They identify themselves with the gang members and carry out acts in support of the gang. Sometimes it’s to gain rank in the gang.”
Barnes hung out with fellow gang members in an area called “Tookaville” in honor of 15-year-old Shondale “Tooka” Gregory, who was shot to death in January 2011 while waiting for a bus.
Later that year, Odee Perry was shot and killed, possibly in retaliation for Gregory’s murder. One theory is that Barnes — then 14 — was Perry’s killer, police say.
In June 2012, one of Barnes ’ friends, 13-year-old Tyquan Tyler, was killed while leaving a party.
Barnes dedicated herself to avenging Tyler and began calling herself “Tyquanassassin” on Twitter, police said.
Andrew Holmes, a community activist and founder of “Stop Killing Our Youth,” said he’d heard about Barnes for years.
“She did become a victim of the streets, but she dished out a lot of things,” he said.
As part of Holmes’ duties, he visits the families of murder victims. Several times, families have said they suspected Barnes in the killings of their loved ones, Holmes said.
“Many people I talked to said she was the getaway driver in cars that were discharging weapons out of the windows,” he said. “And sometimes, she was the shooter herself.”
Holmes said he saw a photo of Barnes wearing a shirt with the letters “CPK,” meaning Chicago Police Killer.
“She called herself a ‘hitta,’ ” he said.
The lesson for parents is simple, Holmes said.
“If your child is out here on the street, grab them by the neck and pull them in the house because you will lose them,” he said.
But Brown said she doesn’t think she lost control of her daughter.
“When she was in my home, I was in control. I think that when she was in the street, she became another person,” she said.
Barnes needed to project a tough image on the streets, her mother said.
“I guess she felt, ‘I can’t be the good girl my mom wants me to be — I have to be a badass,’ ” Brown said.
On a cold day in February, the police made an effort at saving Barnes from the violence of the streets.
District Cmdr. Glenn Evans and Chris Mallette, director of Community Safety Initiatives for the city, were on their way to visit a male gang member to deliver a “custom notification.”
They were going to give the gang member a message to stay away from guns or go to prison. Evans and Mallette were also going to offer him a way to find a job.
They spotted Barnes in an alley off 63rd Street near King Drive.
The girl was in the wrong place — on the border of enemy Black Disciples territory — and risked getting killed. Mallette stepped out of the car and offered her help.
But she politely refused and walked away, according to a police spokesman. Less than two months later, she was dead.
Her Twitter account continues to buzz with tributes and jeers for the reputed gang assassin.
“GoodNight Shoota,” one of them said.
Contributing: Becky Schlikerman