One by one, the family of Denice Mathis walked up to the police tape on the block in Englewood and reached out to each other. Some sobbed, others cursed.
Down the street, inside a two-story house with a gray stone front, lay Mathis and the bodies of two women and a man killed in a shooting that seriously wounded four other people early Tuesday.
Mathis, 35, was a mother of four boys and a girl, and had just taken her children to Six Flags over the weekend.
Also killed was Shermetria Williams, 19, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter. She was set to graduate from Country Club Hills Trade & Tech Center on Tuesday.
The third woman who died in the attack was Ratanya Aryiel Rogers, 28, who lived in Rogers Park, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s officer.
The fourth fatality was Blake Lee, 35, who lived in the home and did odd jobs in the neighborhood, relatives said. He had recently lost his mother to diabetes and grandmother to several illnesses, including a bad heart.
The attack is the third mass shooting in Chicago in a little over a week and came at the end of a burst of violence that saw more than 25 people shot across the city in 10 hours.
The attack prompted Mayor Lori Lightfoot to say Chicago has joined a “club of cities to which no one wants to belong: cities with mass shootings.”
Lightfoot — as she repeatedly has done — decried lack of federal action aimed at “eliminating opportunity for criminals, for children, to get access to illegal guns so that petty disputes turn into mass shooting events, as we’ve seen over and over and over again.”
The Rev. Donovan Price, who regularly goes to shooting scenes to provide support for gun violence victims and their loved ones, said he’s never seen anything like the last 10 days in the more than five years he’s worked as a street pastor.
“This is the worst ever,” said Price, whose voice quivered at times as he spoke of Tuesday’s tragedy. “It’s worse now than it’s ever been. It’s devastating.”
Chicago police released few details of how the eight people were shot but said it occurred when an argument broke out inside the home. They reported no new developments Wednesday morning.
Four of the victims were pronounced dead at the scene shortly before 6 a.m., and four others were taken to hospitals, at least two of them in critical condition. A 2-year-old girl in the home at the time was taken to Comer Children’s Hospital for observation. She was not shot.
A witness told police there were two volleys of gunshots inside the home, hours apart.
The first was around 2 a.m., when the ShotSpotter system alerted police to gunfire near the Morgan address, according to Police Supt. David Brown. He did not say if police responded to the alert.
The witness heard shots again around 5 a.m., around the time officers arrived to find the victims. Police recovered shell casings inside the house and a large capacity “drum magazine.”
There was no sign of forced entry, Brown said. At least one of the victims lived at the address, a barber who cut hair out of the house.
Brown did not elaborate on the relationships of the victims and the shooter, or what the argument was about.
Brown said the victims taken to hospitals had not yet been interviewed by detectives, and the investigation still was “very preliminary.”
“All we know about this residence is there’s been several calls there for disturbances,” Brown told reporters. “Overall, the block where this residence is located is fairly quiet, not much activity going on that requires a police response.”
As officers worked the scene into the late morning, a crowd of distraught relatives and neighbors gathered along the police tape blocking off Morgan Street.
Mathis’ family said she was a devoted mother. “She was a good person — a free-spirited person,” said a cousin, Vickie Smith. “She loved her family.”
Mathis lived on the South Side, but the family didn’t know what brought her to the gathering on South Morgan.
A man who said he was Mathis’ brother said his sister had been to the house many times before. “She was a good girl — none of these knuckleheads,” the brother said.
Demetrius Williams said he was at home in Maywood, putting on a shirt and tie for his daughter Shermetria’s graduation when he heard she had been killed.
“This is unbelievable — a massacre,” said Williams, struggling to compose his thoughts as officers took down the crime tape around the Englewood house. “Why? Why did this have to happen?”
Williams still held the ticket for his daughter’s graduation. Back home were red roses and balloons that said, “Congratulations.”
“All she wanted to do was take care of her daughter and be successful in life,” the father said. “She meant the world to me. That was my baby girl.”
Also standing and waiting for answers outside the police tape was Raheem Hall, who grew up in Englewood and always had words of caution for his nephew, Blake Lee.
“I told him just to be careful out here. Stay away from the wrong crowd,” Hall said.
Blake lived in the house where the attack occurred. “He was a good guy,” said Hall, who now lives in Indiana. “He did no harm to no one. He was just trying to live his life as an ordinary guy.”
“He wasn’t really a guy that started trouble or anything like that, if anything, he’d try to diffuse a situation… he just got caught up in a tragic moment,” Hall said.
Blake had had a hard life, his uncle said, but he was also enjoying things recently, having traveled to Miami on vacation, his uncle said.
Price, founder and executive director of solutions and resources|Street Pastors, spent most of the morning on the Morgan block, praying over the victims and their families as well as comforting people who lived in the area.
He said he spoke to a young boy who said his mother was one of the victims who died. “The whole thing is bad. There’s a lot of family,” Price said. “This is a terrible situation and a lasting and damaging situation for the South Side [and] for the city.”
Similar scenes played out through the day at the hospitals where the wounded were taken.
A group of about 10 people waited outside the University of Chicago Hospital, where a 25-year-old woman was taken in critical condition after being shot on Morgan.
A 45-year-old man said his daughter remained in surgery as of 12:45 p.m. The man said his daughter worked at Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp.
After he walked away, several women began to weep. One woman dropped to the ground and buried her face in her hands.
One person wrapped her arms around another and rubbed their back to comfort them as they stood against a chain-linked fence and faced the emergency room entrance.
“She got shot in the head,” another person sobbed on the phone as they walked away.
Outside Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, relatives said the man who lived in the home, James Tolbert, 41, was “alert and coherent.”
Tolbert operated a barbershop from his home after COVID-19 restrictions closed down the shop where he worked. The 2-year-old girl taken to Comer for observation is his daughter, according to Tolbert’s sister, Michelle Tolbert.
Waiting outside the emergency room entrance, Michelle Tolbert said she learned her brother had been shot from a Facebook post and feared the worst.
“There were a lot of people putting up ‘RIP’ posts, so I was worried,” she said.
Hospital staff would not let her up to her brother’s room but said Tolbert no longer was in critical condition. “They told me he’s awake, he’s responsive.”
Michelle Tolbert said her brother had a jovial “barbershop” personality and had studied to be an EMT before going to barber college.
“He’s a good person,” she said. “He definitely didn’t deserve this.”
The attack is the third mass shooting in Chicago in little over a week and came just hours after gunfire erupted at a party in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side, killing a man and wounding two women.
Early Saturday, a woman was killed and nine others wounded near 75th Street and South Prairie Avenue. Kimfier Miles, 29, a mother of three, was out with a group of girlfriends when two men opened fire about 2 a.m. Saturday.
The weekend before, six men and two women were wounded when someone in a silver car opened fire in a shooting in the 8900 block of South Cottage Grove Avenue in the Burnside neighborhood.
There have been 390 homicides in Cook County so far this year, according to the medical examiner’s office, nearly 300 of them in Chicago. This time last year, the county had recorded 342.
Lightfoot blamed the violence on the lack of national laws that would curb the flow of illegal guns.
“When gun [laws] are so porous that they can come across our borders with such ease, as we see every single day in Chicago, we know that we have to have a multi-jurisdictional, national solution to this horrible plague of gun violence,” she said. “And that starts with eliminating opportunity for criminals, for children to get access to illegal guns so that petty disputes turn into mass shooting events, as we’ve seen over and over and over again—not just this year, but every year.”
Lightfoot bristled when asked how the steady stream of mass shootings might impact her efforts to reopen the city and encourage Chicagoans to come downtown to dine and shop and patronize the stores and restaurants in their own neighborhoods.
She noted that the Englewood shooting happened “inside a single residence” — not out on the street or in a large outdoor gathering.
“The reality is, our city is safe,” the mayor said. “And I stand by that. We have done yeoman’s work over the course of a very difficult year where every major city — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Atlanta and on and on the list goes — has seen similar surge in violence.”
Pressed about the perception of safety, she said, “What I’m concerned about is the fact that people lost their lives this morning. I’m concerned about the fact that there are people who are dead in an act of violence that makes no sense to me.”
Asked whether she believes Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is doing a good job prosecuting gun offenders, Lightfoot pointed to what one of the state’s attorney’s top aides said about the Chicago Police Department during a recent webinar for reporters.
“The conclusion of her policy person was that the Chicago Police Department is arresting the wrong people who possess guns. I fundamentally disagree with that,” she said. “We are a city that’s awash in illegal guns. Those illegal guns cause deep pain and injury and death.”
Contributing: Mary Chappell