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Traffic stop two days before Hadiya Pendleton murder led detectives to suspects

Chicago police officer Marcos Ceballos looks at a photograph as prosecutor James Papa questions him on Friday during the trial in the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton. Trial continues next week at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Micheail Ward didn’t even get a ticket when he was pulled over for driving with his headlights off one night in late January, 2014. But the traffic stop would make him a suspect in the murder of Hadiya Pendleton two days later.

Former traffic cop Marcos Ceballos testified Friday that he spotted Ward behind the wheel of a white Nissan Sentra around midnight on Jan. 27, and pulled the car over. Ward seemed genuinely surprised he’d forgotten to turn on the lights, so Ceballos said he let Ward go with a warning and filled out a “contact card.”

“I thought that it was just an honest mistake that he forgot to turn his lights on,” Ceballos said.

When detectives were looking for a white car seen racing away from Harsh Park in Kenwood after a gunman opened fire on Pendleton and a group of her classmates on Jan. 29 in that South Side park, the contact card led them to Ward. Ward lived in the territory of a gang that was feuding with rivals who were known to hang out in the park.

Defendant Micheail Ward, and attorney Scott Kozicki, during testimony by Chicago police sergeant Jose Lopez in the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool
Defendant Micheail Ward, and attorney Scott Kozicki, during testimony by Chicago police sergeant Jose Lopez in the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Ceballos’ time on the witness stand opened the fourth day of testimony in the trial of Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams. Prosecutors allege Ward was the gunman in the Pendleton shooting, and that Williams was behind the wheel of the Nissan as they sped north after the shooting.

The location of the park, the description of the suspected getaway car and the direction of travel were key first steps in the investigation, Sgt. Jose Lopez testified. Lopez, a longtime gang unit officer, said he’d learned of the existence of the SUWU street gang only that fall, and learned they were rivals of the 4-6 Terror gang faction, which frequented Harsh Park.

Chicago Police Sgt. Jose Lopez during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton on Friday. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial for the shooting. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool
Chicago Police Sgt. Jose Lopez during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton on Friday. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial for the shooting. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Police began tailing the Nissan, which was registered to Ward’s mother, and arrested Ward and Williams days later as they drove to a party at a suburban strip club.

Defense lawyers pointed out 4-6 Terror also was shooting it out with other gangs in the area, though investigators never even looked to those groups for suspects as they hurried to make an arrest in a murder that had garnered national attention.

Defense attorney Gina Piemonte during testimony Friday by Chicago police sergeant Jose Lopez in the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial at the Leighton Criminal Courthous
Defense attorney Gina Piemonte during testimony Friday by Chicago police sergeant Jose Lopez in the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool) ORG XMIT: 3056528