On July 27, 2015, police on the West Side pulled over a black Chevrolet whose driver, they said, hadn’t signaled a turn.
The driver, DeMorrow Stephens, didn’t have a license, according to the police. And when they asked his passenger, Marcus Patrick, why he smelled like marijuana, they said he pulled seven baggies of it from his waistband.
The two men, both felons, were members of the Four Corner Hustlers street gang, according to police, who arrested them for having contact with another gang member while on parole. Each spent two days in jail before going back to their neighborhood, Austin.
Within a year, both were gunned down in separate shootings — victims of the surge in violence that claimed 324 lives in Chicago in the first six months of 2016 and put a national spotlight on the city.
Like Stephens, 26, and Patrick, 22, most of the dead were young, African-American men who were shot to death, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of every murder in the city from Jan. 1 through June 30. They typically lived and died in neighborhoods crippled by poverty and flooded with drugs and guns — places where gang conflict and street stops by the police are a daily fact of life.
And, like the two friends, most already were in trouble with the police or caught up in violence long before they were killed.
Dandre Kelly grew up with Stephens and Patrick in Austin. He feels fortunate to have reached 27 years old. Counting Stephens and Patrick, he says he has had 10 friends fall victim to the city’s violence — and no one charged in any of their murders.
“It’s a blessing to see 25 around here,” Kelly says.
Among the Sun-Times’ findings, based on a review of police and Cook County medical examiner’s reports, court files and interviews:
• The vast majority of those killed in Chicago in the first half of this year — 90 percent —died from a gunshot wound.
• Seventy-two percent were African-American men, their average age 29.
• Four out of five had faced criminal charges in Cook County at some point, mostly for drug offenses — the leading cause of arrest in Chicago.
• Two out of five had drug convictions.
• More than a quarter had been convicted of a violent offense or illegal gun possession.
• Domestic conflicts, many involving mental illness, were involved in at least 24 of the deaths.
• At least four were killed by stray bullets. Others were shot while in the company of people who were targeted.
• The reasons behind other killings remain a mystery to the police.
Chicago Police Department officials say the findings reinforce that most of the city’s gun violence involves a relatively small group of gang members and drug dealers.
Aiming to stem that violence, they’ve been sending teams to meet with gang members flagged as being likeliest to end up a shooting victim or a shooter, based in part on an algorithm that takes into account factors like whether a person has ever been shot, has been convicted of a gun crime, is on parole or has been picked up by the police with anyone who fits such criteria.
“Today’s offender is tomorrow’s victim,” says Christopher Mallette, executive director of Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy, a not-for-profit group that organizes the visits. “They flip jerseys all the time.”
It’s no coincidence that most of the killings occur in areas rife with unemployment and high rates of incarceration, says Quiwana Bell, chief operating officer of the Westside Health Authority in Austin.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” says Bell, whose organization works with Mallette’s group, as well as with young people and ex-offenders.
With factions of fractured gangs now often warring with each other, Bell says that even dealing drugs from a street corner — a common way for young men in Austin and other low-income neighborhoods to make money — has become too dangerous for some.
According to Bell, even some “good kids” not involved in gangs or drugs have started carrying a gun.
“They don’t want to be easy prey,” she says. “They say, ‘I’m not going to walk down the street lackin.’ ”
Living in the area around Augusta Boulevard and Menard Avenue in Austin, Stephens and Patrick had known each other for years.
Stephens loved computers. “If I had a computer or something, he could take it loose and put it back together,” says his grandmother, Beverly Stephens.
She says he left high school after a woman he was seeing got pregnant, though he later got his GED.
Kelly had known Patrick for so long they considered each other cousins.
“He brought energy and happiness,” says Kelly. “If you were down and out, he could bring you up.”
But the police say both were part of a faction of the Four Corner Hustlers known as the M ’n A Boys — named for the corner of Menard and Augusta. And, like many of their friends, Patrick and Stephens had criminal records. Kelly says that’s what happens when the police are quick to label young men as gang members if they’re black or Hispanic.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say he wasn’t into anything,” Beverly Stephens says of her grandson. “I don’t know what they do in the streets. I’m just being honest.”
In 2008, Stephens served two jail terms for drug possession. Two years later, he was convicted of robbery and got eight years in prison. But he was out on parole when the police stopped him last year.
Patrick was on his own dangerous path, convicted in 2013 of dealing heroin near a school — his second drug offense that year. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Their friend Kelly also attracted the attention of the police. In July 2013, he received a “custom notification” from the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy, which included a letter from the police saying he was considered at risk of being involved in violence. They got in touch again the following year.
A gang member can get a “custom visit” for different reasons, Mallette says — among them, being engaged in an ongoing conflict or having recently been a victim of violence.
Or he could be on the police department’s “Strategic Subject List,” a group of people identified as gang members and deemed likely to become victims or shooters. The Illinois Institute of Technology developed the closely guarded computer algorithm that produces SSL scores.
Since 2010, police, social workers and community members — including the families of victims — have made more than 950 direct contacts with gang members, Mallette says. They warn them to keep away from violent conflicts and also offer help getting jobs, counseling and other services.
Of those contacted, 11 percent were victims of a shooting after a visit, according to Mallette, and 20 percent committed a new act of violence. Also, 19 percent reached out for help.
“It’s promising,” Mallette says of the results so far.
Police officials say that after his second visit, Kelly expressed interest in getting connected with social services but never followed up.
Kelly says he felt harassed. Though he was convicted in a gun possession case in 2007 and charged with drug possession in 2014, Kelly says he’s stayed clean and become a neighborhood peacemaker.
“I haven’t done nothing in 10 years,” he says.
His takeaway from the visit: “If anything happens, you’re coming to get me.”
Kelly says that when his friend Patrick got out of prison, he didn’t have a place to live. “Marcus was living house to house,” he says.
That’s not unusual in Austin, where records show that about one in 50 residents is on parole. Along with thousands of other ex-offenders living on the West Side, the parolees often struggle to find steady work and housing. About half end up back in prison.
Under conditions of their parole, neither Stephens nor Patrick was supposed to have contact with anyone identified by the police as a gang member. But that’s nearly impossible in their neighborhood, according to Kelly.
Police put both Patrick and Stephens on their Strategic Subject List.
Stephens’s SSL score was 262 — not the lowest and not the highest. Those at the top of the list are in the 400s or 500s. Patrick’s score was even lower — 67. Within a few months, though, it soared to 327.
By then, Stephens was dead.
Early the morning of Jan. 30, police got a call of a shooting in the 4500 block of West Washington Boulevard. They found Stephens behind the wheel of a 2007 Audi that had crashed into a parked car. He’d been shot in the chest, torso, left thigh and pelvis, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Police said the shooter was in a white sport-utility vehicle.
Beverly Stephens says she heard the SUV had been following her grandson. “I believe he was set up,” she says, though she doesn’t know why.
Stephens, 69, says she tries to keep her other eight grandchildren inside, especially the five boys. “You can walk out and get shot up” at any time, she says. “I don’t know what the heck is going on.”
In April, a few weeks after Stephens was killed, his friend Patrick was arrested at a neighborhood gas station and charged with trespassing while in possession of a firearm. The handgun had eight live rounds, according to police. Patrick was sentenced to court supervision.
But on May 18 — exactly a month after his gun arrest — he was riding on a motor scooter on Augusta when shots fired from a passing car killed him and wounded another man, also a felon.
“I don’t know what he was shot for,” says Kelly. “But he didn’t deserve it. He wasn’t no bad guy.”
Some “animals” in his neighborhood will shoot people whether they deserve it or not, Kelly says. “It’s to the point where I think, ‘What’s next? Me?’ ”
Earlier this year, an Oak Park church began putting up knee-high purple crosses everywhere in Austin that someone gets shot and wounded or killed. They are on nearly every block around Menard and Augusta. On some blocks, there are several.
Austin is plagued with a “never-ending cycle of retaliation,” says Bell, with few killers held accountable.
“There is really no consequence to murder in our community,” she says. “You can go home and eat a bowl of cereal afterward.”
Bell says that’s why her organization is trying to forge relationships among residents and between them and the police. She’s also pushing for more investment in the community, pointing to a recent University of Illinois at Chicago study that found nearly half of young black men in Chicago were out of school and unemployed.
“We want to get our young people working,” she says.
The police alone can’t stop the shootings, Mallette and police officials say.
“The police are the triage doctors,” Mallette says. “They are just stopping the hemorrhaging. You can’t get to the heart surgeon or the orthopedic surgeon until the bleeding stops.”
Tywanna Patrick, who isn’t related to Marcus Patrick, says she understands this firsthand. Her son Donald Joshua Ray grew up close to where Marcus Patrick and Stephens were killed. At least one of his friends was killed every year since Ray was 14, she says.
“When he made 21, he was like, ‘Wow, I did it,’ ” his mother says.
Ray got a job at a Dave & Buster’s restaurant and was going to college downtown.
But on July 6, 2014, he was shot to death in a car parked in the 5200 block of West Lake Street. Police said the shooting resulted from an argument involving his sister. Two men have been charged in Ray’s murder.
Patrick said she and her husband opened the Afrikan Village Chicago Cultural Center at 5840 W. Madison St. to teach young people martial arts and introduce them to African-American history to build their self-esteem.
“We have to see past all of this negativity,” she says.