CHICAGO - A 15-year-old girl who had performed at President Barack Obama's inauguration festivities is the latest face on the ever-increasing homicide toll in the president's hometown, killed in a Chicago park as she talked with friends by a gunman who apparently was not even aiming at her.
Chicago police said Hadiya Pendleton was in a park about two kilometres from Obama's home in a South Side neighbourhood Tuesday afternoon when a man opened fire on the group. Hadiya was shot in the back as she tried to escape.
The city's 42nd slaying is part of Chicago's bloodiest January in more than a decade, following on the heels of 2012, which ended with more than 500 homicides for the first time since 2008. It also comes at a time when Obama, spurred by the Connecticut elementary school massacre in December, is actively pushing for tougher gun laws.
Hadiya's father, Nathaniel Pendleton, spoke Wednesday at a Chicago police news conference, which was held in the same park where his daughter died.
"He took the light of my life," Pendleton said. He then spoke directly to the killer: "Look at yourself, just know that you took a bright person, an innocent person, a nonviolent person." Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy consoled him, the girl's mother and 10-year-old brother.
Hadiya was a bright kid who was killed just as she was "wondering about which lofty goal she wanted to achieve," her godfather, Damon Stewart, told The Associated Press. Hadiya had been a majorette with the King College Prep band.
"She was a very active kid, doing dance, cheerleading, who felt like she could accomplish just about anything, a very good student who had big dreams about what she wanted to be, a doctor, an attorney," said Stewart, a Chicago police officer and attorney. "She was constantly getting good grades."
Obama was asked about Hadiya's death in an interview with Telemundo, which led to a discussion about gun control. Also on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president and the first lady's "thoughts and prayers are with" the teen's family, adding: "And as the president has said, we will never be able to eradicate every act of evil in this country, but if we can save any one child's life, we have an obligation to try when it comes to the scourge of gun violence."
In Chicago, gangs routinely and often indiscriminately open fire. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and McCarthy are pushing for tougher local, state and national gun laws and longer prison sentences for offenders.
About three blocks from Hadiya's school, she and a group of 10-12 young people, including members of her volleyball team, had taken refuge under a canopy at a park to avoid the rain Tuesday afternoon. A man climbed a fence behind the park, ran at the group and started shooting, and then jumped back over the fence and into a white Nissan. The group scattered, but Hadiya was shot once in the back and a teenage boy was shot in the leg.
Police said Hadiya had no arrest record and there was no indication she was a member of a gang or was the gunman's target. In fact, McCarthy said there are no indications that anyone in the group was gang-affiliated. He said the police suspect that the gunman may be a member of a gang that considers the park its turf and that he mistook somebody in the group as someone from an encroaching rival gang.
McCarthy vowed to put a police officer at the park "24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year" if that is what it takes to show the gang that the park belongs to no one but the community.
Comments by both Stewart and the girl's father echo the message that city officials have long said: Gun violence is not confined to street corners in dangerous neighbourhoods. Obama's neighbourhood, Kenwood, is just north of the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry.
"Her parents had done everything right and she was doing everything right," he said. Stewart, who was 12 when his own brother was shot and killed, said his family and Pendleton's family were so close that his own children saw the 15-year-old as an older sister.
"The worst thing in the world was when yesterday I had to sit there and tell my children that their sister is gone," he said.