Lightfoot, Brown condemn another weekend of slain children; ‘Chicago deserves us figuring this out’
A 33-year-old man was charged with murder Monday in connection with a 7-year-old girl’s death in Austin over the weekend. It was the third consecutive weekend in Chicago in which at least two children were killed.
In what’s become a macabre routine, city leaders Monday found themselves forced to lament, mourn and condemn the weekend killings of several children in Chicago.
Shootings over the Fourth of July holiday weekend left 15 people dead and another 64 wounded in the city, according to a tally maintained by the Chicago Sun-Times. Two of those killed were kids: 7-year-old Natalia Wallace in Austin and 14-year-old Vernado Jones Jr. in Englewood.
It was the third consecutive weekend in Chicago in which at least two children were slain, though both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown urged the public to not “normalize these circumstances.”
“I want all of us to feel this loss. It feels personal to me,” Lightfoot said at an unrelated news conference. “Thoughts and prayers are simply not enough at this point. Sorrow itself is not enough. And what it says is we need to do better as a city this day, this year and really every day. There’s no reason we should be feeling and experiencing moments like this.”
“We simply must fundamentally recommit ourselves to focusing on the root causes of the violence. It is every bit a public health crisis as COVID-19, and we can never lose sight of that fact.”
In recent weeks, Brown has grown increasingly vocal in his criticisms of the Cook County criminal justice apparatus. He has called for revisions to the county’s home monitoring system and decried the frequency with which people charged with gun-related crimes are released from the Cook County Jail before trial.
“There’s no consequences to illegal gun possession in our criminal justice system,” Brown said during a news conference at the CPD’s training academy. “My hopes are that the deaths of these young people won’t be in vain and will prick the hearts of the decision-makers who release violent offenders on electronic monitoring back into these very communities to mete out this kind of violence every weekend.”
On Monday evening, CPD Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan announced that one man had been charged with murder in connection with Natalia’s death. Reginald Merrill, who police believe was the driver of the getaway vehicle used in the shooting, was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery. Merrill, 33, is expected to have his first court hearing Tuesday, and police are still searching for three more suspects, according to Deenihan.
Investigators tracked Merrill’s vehicle through a video and arrested him about 9:15 p.m. July 4 in the 1000 block of North Pine Avenue, police said. Detectives believe the shooting may have been in retaliation for an earlier homicide.
Along with Vernado, three other people were killed and four more were wounded in the Saturday night shooting at 61st and Carpenter. Two other boys, ages 11 and 15, were among those injured. No arrests have been made.
Deenihan said both shootings were the byproduct of area gang conflicts.
Last week, 1-year-old Sincere A. Gaston was killed when someone opened fire on his mother’s car as they drove home from a laundromat in Englewood. Lena Nunez, 10, was killed in Logan Square when a bullet came through her window and struck her.
Over Father’s Day weekend, 3-year-old Mekhi James was fatally shot while riding in an SUV with his father in Austin when someone opened fire on them from another vehicle. Amaria Jones, 13, died after she was struck by a stray bullet in a shooting that also wounded two boys on the West Side. They were among 104 people shot that weekend, 15 of them fatally.
Though Brown repeatedly said Monday that he doesn’t “want to be the person that’s pointing the finger,” he noted other parts of the county justice system — the chief judge’s office and sheriff — do not face the same scrutiny when it comes to addressing gun violence in Chicago.
“Chicago deserves us figuring this out. And we can. Chicago can do this,” Brown said. “But not if it’s only the Chicago Police Department, only the superintendent, standing at the podium every weekend, answering these questions. This has to be an all-hands-on-deck [scenario], everyone in the criminal justice system being held accountable in the same ways Chicago police officers are.”
Brown had a meeting last week with the leaders of the Chicago offices of the FBI, DEA, ATF and U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois, asking for their help in tamping down Chicago shootings by bringing more gun cases to the federal level, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office released a statement Monday saying: “The sheriff is committed to combating violence and has always believed individuals charged with gun-related or violent crimes should remain in jail while awaiting trial to ensure the safety of the public. Decisions about bond amounts and conditions of bond — including which individuals are placed on electronic monitoring — rest solely with the judiciary.”
The office of Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans pointed to an opinion piece that Evans authored last year in which he said criticism of pretrial justice practices in Cook County is “misleading because pretrial defendants released on bond are not driving the weekend crime statistics.”
And Mary Wisniewski, a spokeswoman for Evans, said in an email, “If this is a discussion about resources for pretrial programs, Chief Judge Evans welcomes ideas to strengthen services for those who qualify for release while their cases are pending and they are presumed innocent.”
Contributing: Mitch Dudek, Carly Behm and Emmanuel Camarillo.