In a city that, like Los Angeles, is so often numbed by the exploits of ruthless gang murderers, the saga of Robert Sandifer was sadly familiar--except for his tender age.
The object of a three-day police hunt, Robert was the suspect in the shooting death of one teen-ager and the wounding of two others. He was found early Thursday, a murder victim himself. His body lay face down under a viaduct, shot in the back of the head.
Robert Sandifer was 11 years old.
He was sought for the slaying Sunday of Shavon Dean, 14, who was struck by a bullet apparently meant for a member of a gang. She wanted to be a beautician and had slipped out of her house that night, despite her mother's urgings that she stay inside, to visit a candy store and practice her skills on a neighbor's hair.
Robert was nicknamed "Yummy" for his love of cookies, and he stood less than five feet tall. He was also a member of the Black Disciples, a street gang whose ranks number in the hundreds and are alleged to be involved in the drug trade, car thefts, extortion, prostitution and credit card fraud. Police theorize that his own gang, seeing him as a liability, executed him.
He was a "tough shorty," the name gang members here give to their baby-faced members. His personal rap sheet listed eight arrests in connection with crimes ranging from armed robbery to auto theft.
Illinois children's services authorities were searching for a facility for him outside the state after 13 local agencies turned him down because of his age. Robert, said Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, "was in trouble from the moment he was conceived. His family made him a sociopath."
Robert came from a disturbing background, but, Murphy added, it was far from unique. "Believe me," he said, "we see this 100 times a week."
Nationwide, the most recent FBI statistics show, 267 children under the age of 14 were charged with murder in 1992, up 50% from the decade before. "It's not a diminishing problem. It's going to get worse," said George Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Center at Chicago State University.
Robert was the second of seven siblings. When he was 3, the state took Robert, who was covered with cigarette burns and bruises that appeared to be caused by an extension cord, out of his mother's custody. He was turned over to his grandmother, who raised him with little discipline in the house that at various times contained as many as 19 other children, Murphy said.
"If this child was protected five years ago, you save two people," Mayor Richard M. Daley said on Wednesday, before Robert's corpse was located. "You save the young woman who was killed and you save the young offender."
The two children lived a block apart in the Roseland section on the far South Side and had what one relative called "a hi-bye relationship." On Thursday, neighbors drifted back and forth between their homes, where makeshift shrines to each had been fashioned.
"I love you, Shavon," a cousin had scrawled on a banner hanging from a cyclone fence at the dead girl's frame house. "Heaven is the place for angels like you." Bouquets of sunflowers and carnations were already wilting. On the sidewalk, candles burned inside rose-tinted vases.
At Robert's house, five boys stepped up to write their names with a blue marker on a piece of cardboard affixed to the wrought-iron railing of a porch where his grandmother, Janet, was sitting. She leaped out of her chair.
"Why'd y'all let my baby go like that?" she bellowed at them. "Why'd y'all leave Yummy shot?"
Mute, jaws grinding beneath clamped teeth, they finished signing. Then they retreated down the alley while two men grabbed the distraught grandmother tightly around her arms and forced her inside the house.
"Robert's no symbol," said his aunt, Bay Sandifer. "They'll probably be shooting tonight."
There was certainly shooting on Sunday.
In the afternoon, a 16-year-old gang member was shot with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun. Robert was wanted for questioning in the attack.
At 8:30 p.m., the same weapon was firing away at a group of teen-agers playing football; police say they may have also been gang members. Another 16-year-old boy was wounded in the leg and Shavon Dean, who had sneaked away from home minutes before, was killed.
Just looking at Robert's file, Murphy said, he could have predicted "it was only a matter of time before he would be dead or killed someone. It just happened sooner, not later."
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services first made contact with Robert's mother in 1984, when he was not yet a year old. The situation was investigated again in 1985 and 1986 before five children were removed from the home because of "inadequate supervision and a risk of harm," said department spokeswoman Martha Allen. Robert's mother, Murphy said, was addicted to crack cocaine.
"As time passed," Allen said, "it became apparent to us that the grandmother was not supervising the children adequately either."
His first arrest, at age 8, was for shoplifting. Then, in rapid succession, came arrests for criminal damage to property, robbery, attempted armed robbery. He bragged about his standing in the Black Disciples.
He and an older brother ran away from their grandmother's home frequently. Late last year, they were made wards of the state. Robert was placed in a diagnostic center for evaluation. He got into a fight with a teacher there, and ran away in March.
He was picked up in April in a stolen car.
Authorities placed him in a juvenile-detention center. Shortly after his release in July, he was tormenting the neighborhood again. Eli Roberts, 17, said "Yummy" smashed a window in his white Oldsmobile 88. He retaliated by heaving the younger boy's dirt bike into the street.
Several days later, "Yummy" grabbed a gasoline can from the back seat of the Olds, poured it over the seats and lit a match.
"He took off, like he always does when he knows he's in trouble," Eli Roberts said. "We didn't see him 'round here for a week."
Within weeks, Juvenile Court Judge Thomas R. Sumner ordered the state to find a home for Robert outside the Illinois boundary. In the meantime, he decided over the state's objection, to return Robert to his grandmother's care.
By the end of the month, Robert had been arrested twice more--for burglary and for armed robbery.
Then came the spate of shootingsfor which Robert was in turn killed by his own, police speculate.
"These organizations are very selfish," said Police Supt. Matt Rodriguez at a press conference. "And he was a perfect example of someone who was apparently doing the bidding of gangs and is dead because he was expendable." Authorities are pursuing what they call "good leads" and say they think they know where Robert was during the days he dropped from the scene.
Shavon Dean's mother, Debra, took no comfort in the fate of the alleged murderer. "I'm just sorry it happened to the boy," she said.
As she spoke, she noticed a woman in a black leather jacket signing Shavon's banner. It was Robert's aunt.
In a moment, the two women were sighing together.
"We got to do something about these gangbangers," Sandifer said. "It's terrible, it don't make no sense."
"It's got to start now," Dean said.