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Stepfather of suspect in Hadiya Pendleton murder defends him

Kenneth Williams

Kenneth Williams

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:51AM

Under different circumstances, President Obama’s speech at Hyde Park Academy High School on Friday might have simply been a proud occasion for Mike Lopez.

After all, the South Side man’s 15-year-old stepdaughter was among the students there to hear the president talk about putting an end to senseless killings, like that of Hadiya Pendleton.

But in an odd and painful coincidence, Obama was also talking, indirectly, about Lopez’s other stepchild, Kenneth Williams ­— one of the two charged with Hadiya’s murder.

“It was very ironic,” said Lopez, in his first interview since his stepson’s arrest about a week ago.

Lopez, a self-employed caterer, is speaking out now because he wants the public to know Williams is more than a booking mugshot — and that he’s innocent.

“I ask that they let the system work the way it’s meant to work, where we are innocent until proven guilty,” said Lopez, 44, who is married to Williams’ biological mother, Julia Beal-Lopez.

Police say Williams, 20, and Michael Ward, 18, were gang-bangers out for vengeance Jan. 29, when Ward allegedly opened fire, killing 15-year-old Hadiya, who was seeking shelter from the rain with friends under a canopy at Harsh Park in the 4400 block of South Oakenwald. Ward and Williams mistook the group for a rival gang suspected of shooting Williams in the arm near his Chicago Housing Authority home at 39th and South Lake Park last summer, investigators say. He allegedly told another person about his role in the murder. But Williams never confessed to police, Lopez said.

Lopez says police are the ones who’ve made the bad I.D. Lopez described a neighborhood so thick with gang-bangers, so rife with gunfire, that sometimes the innocent get unjustly branded with the gang-banger label.

Williams, a 2011 King College Prep High School graduate, was a kid with a future — in the U.S. Air Force, Lopez said.

“He would have been getting ready to leave for basic training in the next month or so,” Lopez said.

Lopez isn’t alone in that opinion. Half a dozen teachers at King College Prep recalled Williams as a smart, charming student.

“He was no angel, but he could write and speak well,” said teacher Jocelyn Alexander Shaw, who had Williams in her English class in 2010. “Of my boys in class, he participated in discussion quite often, making for a great contribution. He was a jokester who was liked by many. Overall, he was a pretty charming kid with the baby face that made it pretty hard to stay mad at him for whatever reason.”

James McKatherine, the school’s former baseball coach and a current Chicago Police officer, remembered Williams as a not particularly gifted, but unusually dedicated, athlete. Williams would stay hours late, working on his pitching and fielding.

“He showed up early, left late, got extra hitting in, extra fielding — trying to make the starting line-up,” which, said McKatherine, he never did.

If Williams was in a gang, half a dozen of his teachers never suspected it.

“He was well groomed,” said Ronald Stewart Jr., chair of the P.E. department. “He wasn’t boasting about anything. He was just a real good kid.”

With ambitions of joining the Air Force, Williams appeared to be heading for a good future. He took classes at Malcolm X College and he had a part-time job at Macy’s on State Street, Lopez said.

And then one July evening last summer, Williams was walking not far from his home, when three men approached. Williams would later tell police two of them had handguns. He told police he ran and that he was shot in the arm. He said he knew one of the men from his neighborhood. But he wouldn’t give police a name.

The “no-snitch code” is an on-going frustration for Chicago detectives trying to tackle gang violence, but Lopez said he understands it.

“I encouraged him to press charges,” Lopez said. “Unfortunately, the way things are now — if you do that, then you’re considered a rat or a snitch, even if you’re a victim.”

But Lopez said Williams’ lack of cooperation doesn’t make him a criminal. He said Williams and Ward weren’t buddies, weren’t together when Hadiya was shot — even though one neighbor in the building where Williams lived said she saw the two young men together often.

On Friday evening, hours after Obama’s speech ended, Lopez was thinking of a different connection — the one he says he now shares with Hadiya’s family.

“We deeply feel for them,” Lopez said. “I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, but I’m experiencing it now. . . Unfortunately, via Hadiya’s death, our son has been taken away from us.”

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