Two weeks after a bullet fatally pierced her back in a South Side park, the nation heard the story of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton from none other than the president of the United States.
Barack Obama said Hadiya loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. He said she was kind to her friends. And in his 2013 State of the Union address, the president explained in part why Hadiya had become a symbol of the senseless gun violence in Chicago.
“Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration,” Obama said in the nation’s capital. “And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.”
Back in Chicago, Hadiya’s accused killer, Micheail Ward, also allegedly gave an explanation for her getting shot, which prosecutors said happened after some in her group were mistaken for rival gang members: “She was simply there.”
Now Ward and his alleged getaway driver, Kenneth Williams, are finally set to stand trial for the murder that shocked the city, with jury selection in the case scheduled to begin Friday at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California. But the crime took place in what already feels like a bygone political era — before Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second term, before the firing of then-police Supt. Garry McCarthy, and before Donald Trump replaced Obama in the White House.
Hadiya’s murder followed the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by roughly six weeks. It came on the heels of a 2012 in which Chicago saw at least 500 homicides for the first time since 2008. Last year, Chicago saw 650 murders.
It also became part of Obama’s campaign for a “simple vote” on gun reform — reforms that Congress never enacted. But his connection to it — including its proximity to his Kenwood mansion — also prompted the president and first lady to heed calls to come home.
Hadiya had attended Obama’s inauguration festivities and performed as a baton-twirling majorette with her King College Prep school band at a party sponsored by U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.
Then, on Jan. 29, 2013, she was among a dozen or so teens who ducked under a park canopy in the 4500 block of South Oakenwald to avoid a rain storm. That’s when police said Ward jumped a fence, ran toward the group and opened fire. Everyone scrambled, but Hadiya was hit in the back and died. The gunman got in a car, which drove off.
A few weeks later, prosecutors charged Ward and Williams with first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. Ward allegedly said Hadiya was collateral damage in a gang war.
Then first lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya’s funeral at the Greater Harvest Baptist Church. She chose not to speak, but she met with Hadiya’s friends privately and consoled Hadiya’s mother, Cleo Cowley-Pendleton, beside Hadiya’s casket. A hand-written message from the president appeared on the back of Hadiya’s funeral program.
“Michelle and I just wanted you to know how heartbroken we are to have heard about Hadiya’s passing,” it read. “We know that no words from us can stop the pain, but rest assured that we are praying for you, and that we will continue to work as hard as we can to end this senseless violence.”
Obama’s comments at the State of the Union followed. Then, days later, he returned to Chicago to push for solutions to the city’s epidemic of violence, calling the steady flow of murders here “the equivalent of a Newtown every four months.”
“This is not just a gun issue,” Obama said in a speech at Hyde Park Career Academy. “It’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building. And for that, we all share a responsibility, as citizens, to fix it.”
That would not be the last Obama visit. The first lady made other appearances, explaining once how she had encouraged Hadiya’s friends at her funeral to “dream as big as she did.” She helped with an Emanuel initiative to raise private sector money to invest in youth programs in troubled neighborhoods, and she spoke at what would have been Hadiya’s 2015 high school graduation at King.
“Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her,” Michelle Obama said at an event in 2013. “But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story. Just a week after she performed at my husband’s inauguration, she went to a park with some friends and got shot in the back because some kid thought she was in a gang.”
She added: “For me, this is personal.”