With outrage over Hadiya Pendleton's slaying spreading from City Hall to the White House, the 15-year-old became a symbol Wednesday of escalating violence in Chicago while fueling the national debate over guns and crime.
A little more than a week after performing with the King College Prep band in Washington during President Barack Obama's inauguration festivities, Hadiya was fatally shot Tuesday afternoon in a park about a mile north of Obama's Kenwood home.
Two other teens were wounded. At a White House press briefing Wednesday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney was asked about Hadiya's death. "It's a terrible tragedy any time a young person is struck down with so much of their life ahead of them, and we see it far too often," he said. Hadiya's slaying also came up in an interview Obama did with Telemundo. The president was asked whether the example of Chicago, with strict gun control laws, gave credence to the National Rifle Association's position that more gun laws don't necessary mean less gun violence.
"Well, the problem is that a huge proportion of those guns come in from outside Chicago," Obama said. The president said it was true that creating a "bunch of pockets of gun laws" without a unified, integrated system of background checks makes it harder for a single community to protect itself from gun violence.
Police announced an $11,000 reward for information leading to the killer's capture and conviction during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the North Kenwood park where Hadiya was shot. "I want this closed now," said police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who was among the police chiefs in Washington on Monday to meet with Obama on gun control. "I don't want to wait." Hadiya was the 42nd homicide victim this year in Chicago, where killings last year climbed above 500.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke with Hadiya's mother Wednesday morning and later, at an unrelated news conference, said the teenager represented "what is best in our city." "A child going to school, who takes a final exam, who had just been to inaugural," said Emanuel, looking down at the podium for several seconds to collect himself before continuing. "And I think if anybody has any information, you are not a snitch, you're a citizen. You're a good citizen in good standing if you help."
Hadiya's father, Nathaniel Pendleton, pleaded for someone to step forward and bring the 15-year-old's killer to justice. "She was destined for great things," he said. Hadiya was a majorette with the band at King, one of the city's elite selective-enrollment schools. She dreamed of going to Northwestern University and talked about becoming a pharmacist or a journalist, maybe a lawyer. She had just finished her final exams at King, where she was a sophomore, and was hanging out with friends from the school's volleyball team Tuesday afternoon in a park in the 4400 block of South Oakenwald Avenue.
The group sought shelter from a rainstorm under a canopy at the park about 2:20 p.m. when a gunman jumped a fence, ran toward them and opened fire, police said. As the teens scattered, Hadiya and two teenage boys were shot. Hadiya was hit in the back and pronounced dead at Comer Children's Hospital less than an hour after the shooting.
The wounds suffered by the boys were not life-threatening. McCarthy stressed that neither Hadiya nor anyone in the group she was with were involved with gangs. But it appears the gunman mistook the students for members of a rival gang, he said. "This guy, whoever he was, the gunman … you took the light of my life," Hadiya's father said. "Just look at yourself and just know that you took a bright person, an innocent person, a non-violent person."
No bullet casings were found by investigators at the crime scene, leading them to believe that Hadiya may have been shot with a revolver, according to McCarthy. While it took a while to gather witnesses, McCarthy said police were making "a lot of progress." At King on Wednesday, classmates created a memorial at Hadiya's locker with pictures, teddy bears and balloons, said Jayla Rufus, 16, a junior who also traveled to D.C. with the King band.
"A lot of people are saying, 'Why Hadiya? Why did it have to be her?'" Rufus said. During the band's three-day trip to Washington, the students visited the Washington Monument and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Rufus said. Hadiya and the majorettes performed with the band in the Presidential Inauguration Heritage Festival.
The school won multiple awards while at the competition, including a first place honor for the band's auxiliary team that included the majorettes, according to Benjamin Washington, the school's director of bands. Washington said Hadiya was a dedicated and enthusiastic member of the squad. She competed with nearly 100 students during her freshman year to land one of 12 spots. "She was one of our bright, shining stars," Washington said. "She had a very outgoing personality, always eager to perform."
King's principal, Shontae Higginbottom, said Hadiya was "a wonderful student." "She was well-loved by her friends, well-adored by her teachers," Higginbottom said. "We are going to miss her. Our hearts are so heavy." Relatives of the girl said she was in an anti-gang violence video SaveFrom.net while she was attending the Carter G. Woodson Elementary School.
"So many children are out there in gangs and it is your job as students to say no to gangs and yes to a great future," Hadiya says in the 54-second clip. At Hadiya's Bronzeville home Wednesday, family and friends gathered to grieve and share stories about the boisterous teen they said had a quirky sense of humor. Hadiya's little brother, Nathaniel Pendleton Jr., 10, recalled how his big sister would often greet him with a few gentle slaps on his cheeks whenever she came home from school.
"She said it was with love," he said. "It's very painful to see your big sister get slaughtered," the soft-spoken boy said, tearing up as he went through photos of Hadiya on his phone. Hadiya's aunt, Kimiko Pettis, laughed when talking about her niece, recalling how on Tuesday, the day she was shot, the teen put on makeup and what she declared was a "fabulous outfit" before school. "She popped out of the bathroom saying, 'I'm ready!'" Pettis said, demonstrating how Hadiya threw her arms in air. Pettis said her niece loved bands like Coldplay and Maroon 5.
"You could not find any urban music on her phone," Pettis said with a laugh. Because Hadiya was interested in so many things, her family said they were encouraging her to pursue a possible double major when she went to college. "There were a lot of good opportunities that were coming her way. She was just taking them all," said LaKeisha Stewart, 37, Hadiya's godmother.
"She was the kid who you had to say, 'Slow down, you can't do everything.'" While in Washington for the inauguration, Hadiya sent her godparents a text and a photo of her and her teammates in the capital, Stewart said.
In the photo, Hadiya stands tall in her majorette's uniform, hands at her hips, face lifted in a wide smile.