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Sun-Times reporter witnesses shooting at memorial for slain teen

Shooting victim is removed from scene West Humbolt Park

Shooting victim is removed from the scene in West Humbolt Park

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Updated: August 3, 2011 9:27PM

I knew the gun couldn’t be real because the shooting always happens before I get there.

Even when the crazed teenager standing five yards from me on the corner fired two warning shots into the sky, it didn’t sound loud enough.

Nobody in the crowd of 25 to 30 mourners seemed to believe he could be so brazen.

Then the gunman lowered his snub-nosed black revolver, aimed down Kildare and fired two or three shots, and we stopped rationalizing and ran for our lives.

Covering shootings for five years in Chicago, I thought I knew the depressing routine.

The expected makeshift sidewalk shrine, complete with dozens of candles, empty liquor bottles, hand-written notes of condolence taped to the railings, a graffiti-covered basketball and two photocopied pictures of the dead boy, was well-established when I arrived at the corner of Hirsch and Kildare Tuesday afternoon to interview friends and relatives of Jovany Diaz.

Floating above amid an atmosphere of grief and menace, were more than a dozen foil balloons bought to celebrate Diaz’s 15th birthday just a day earlier. They hinted at what I hoped might give this particular tragedy a chance of cutting through the background noise of violence that so many Chicagoans have learned to filter out.

Diaz’s grandmother and aunt had said that Diaz — a devoted basketball player and fun-loving teenager — was a “good kid who wasn’t involved with gangs.” That’s what relatives usually say, although in this case police do agree Diaz was not in a gang.

His cousin Jonathan Trentez was celebrating Diaz’s birthday with him late Monday night when several men ran from an alley and shot Diaz four times just yards from his home on the 4300 block of West Hirsch. Trentez had just fondly told me about Diaz’s birthday celebrations.

“He was only 15 so we couldn’t drink but he loved doing the Cat Daddy dance,” Trentez said, referring to the Rej3ctz hip-hop hit. “Put that in — he loved it!”

Then the first shots rang out. Moments later we were in flight.

As we bolted I glanced up at the second floor balcony above Diaz’s shrine and saw a second teenager take a running jump over the iron railing and 15 feet down into the street and towards the shooter.

Holding a semi-automatic handgun in his left hand and wearing shiny white Nike Air sneakers, the youth lept with the balletic grace of Michael Jordan at his peak. I was still marvelling at it when the original gunman ran past on the other side of the street, and a man opened his front door to me and shouted “Get in!”

A minute later I’d returned to the scene and found the tattooed victim, sitting in a plastic chair, bleeding from the leg and turning a shade of greyish green.

A tableau of friends gathered tightly around him and glared at me. I asked him his name and he shook his head, grimly, before police and paramedics arrived and his friends split in a hurry.

“Nobody’s talking,” I heard a sergeant say into his radio. As I made myself scarce, a passing dreadlocked witness said to himself, “I didn’t see nothing, I didn’t hear nothing, I don’t know nothing.”

An hour and a half later, I gave a statement to police, describing what I saw and giving as good a description as I could of the scrawny, 6-foot-tall teenage Hispanic gunman, who was unshaven and wore a black sleeveless T-shirt.

It wasn’t a hard decision, but unlike most of the 25-30 other witnesses, I don’t have to live on that block, I don’t know the shooter’s name, and I’d struggle to pick him out in a police line-up.

The detective told me that the block was “up for grabs” and that it was unlikely the victim would press charges.

“They usually don’t,” he said.

As I was leaving the scene, Tyrice Brown, a 15-year-old friend of Diaz’s who was walking his grade school brother home from school, stopped me.

“You see how we have to live in this neighborhood?,” he said. “You see how we live?”

I thought I knew better than most.

But it wasn’t until Tuesday that I fully understood just how cheap life is in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, where just walking down the block can make you a victim — or a witness — to attempted murder.

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