What went wrong with Rodnell Dennis?
That question captivated Chicago in 1992, when a 13-year-old Gangster Disciple known as "Dirty Rod" shot and killed 9-year-old Anthony Felton.
It came amid one of the city's bloodiest years, with 943 people murdered, including 50 kids like Anthony who were under 14.
Charged with first-degree murder and tried as an adult, Rodnell pleaded guilty without offering an explanation or an apology. On July 21, 1993, he was sentenced to 39 years in prison.
Twenty years later, after he was released on parole, I was introduced to Rodnell at Panera Bread in Old Town. He was there with "Brother Ray," a former Gangster Disciple who now leads a group of ex-felons set on keeping at-risk kids in Cabrini-Green out of gangs.
When I ask Rodnell about his past, he speaks softly but without hesitation. It's his first interview since the murder he committed rocked Chicago.
"Got locked up at 13," Rodnell says. "First-degree murder. … Out here in these streets, survival starts early."
Rodnell was let out of prison in the summer of 2012. He was given an electronic-monitoring anklet, a strict curfew and an order to stay in constant contact with his parole officer.
Living with his sister on the West Side, Rodnell got a part-time job picking up trash in the South Loop. He still visits his mom in Cabrini-Green and the neighborhood where he became a gangster, and he worries about the kids there who are "just like me."
"Growing up broke. Single mom, daddy nowhere to be found. Ain't no good in school, don't wanna be in school. Gangbangers everywhere, and kids looking up to them. Older guys who don't want to sacrifice themselves using kids to do their dirty work,” Rodnell said.
The gang leaders, he says, “feed kids bulls--- and guns, teaching them that they won't get in trouble because they're kids, that all that matters is defeating your rivals and moving up in the gang. And kids like me, we believe that s---."
As a boy, Rodnell idolized the Gangster Disciples. He was willing to do anything to be one of them.
He was just 7 years old when he first got arrested for stealing from a store, a crime he committed to show the GDs he had what it took to be in the gang. The older guys encouraged him. Told him not to worry about getting caught because kids his age don't face serious punishment.
And they were right.
By the time Rodnell was jailed on the murder charge at age 13, he had been arrested for theft, battery, robbery and carrying a gun, among other things. Each time, until the murder rap, his punishment was little more than a “slap on the wrist,” he says.
That made him feel “invincible” and even more motivated to boost his status in the gang, he says.
Two decades after Rodnell was convicted of killing Anthony Felton, gang members still are influencing kids, teaching them to sell drugs and shoot guns to get money, power and respect.
And, police and prosecutors will tell you, kids who get caught with guns in Chicago still rarely get punished. Even fewer get sent to juvenile detention. Gangbangers use that to their advantage.
Since 2010, about 900 Chicago kids have been arrested each year for gun possession. Fewer than 400 a year have faced charges. Of those, only about 70 kids a year are found delinquent by a juvenile court judge. And 80 percent of them don’t get locked up, according to a DNAinfo Chicago analysis of law enforcement and juvenile court records.
"Gangs and dope dealers use juveniles. It's been that way since I was a young cop in the '80s,” said Nicholas Roti, head of the Chicago Police Department's organized crime division.
"They entice them with the lure of money and structure kids don’t get at home. They tell them if you get caught with dope or a gun you won’t face serious consequences until you're 18,” Roti said.
Chicago's top cop, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, said the lack of consequences for juveniles has become a "huge issue" in Chicago and across the nation.
This year, police have linked some of Chicago's most high-profile shootings to either school-age triggermen or young adults previously charged with gun possession as juveniles.
In August, a 6-year-old girl was shot and wounded, allegedly by two teenagers — 15-year old Ladon Barker and Terrence Lynon, 16, who also had prior juvenile weapons charges. The accused shooters ambushed a memorial barbecue, allegedly with Angelo Clark, 17, who police say is also a gang member.
And in a case that grabbed national attention and brought President Barack Obama back to his hometown to address the violence, 15-year-old honor roll student Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down, allegedly by 18-year old Michael Ward.
The teen was on probation for a 2011 juvenile gun charge when, in January, he allegedly shot and killed Pendleton in a park just days after she marched in the inauguration festivities for the president in Washington, D.C.
“What we're doing in the criminal justice system with juveniles is obviously not working,” McCarthy said. “Kids carrying guns are getting younger and younger. … They know anyone caught with a gun gets back on the street, and that’s definitely the case with juveniles. Something has to be done. … It’s a big problem and I don't have a solution."
Rodnell says kids today are like he was when he thought gang membership was a life goal: They don’t "see the bigger world beyond the 'hood."
I reminded Rodnell what Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan said just before sending him to prison.
“Start making plans,” the judge told him in 1993. “Eventually, you will get out and be a relatively young man. … Some way you can pay back society for this."
For Rodnell, payback starts with telling his story.
So I asked him the question that once captivated our city, “What went wrong?”
ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A GANGSTER
Rodnell Katrell Dennis was born on Feb. 5, 1979, at Grant Hospital in Chicago. He never met his father.
"His loss," Rodnell says. “My loss, too. Maybe things would have been different for me. Not saying I wouldn't have gone to prison. I was determined to be out there in the street, but maybe he could have changed that."
But Rodnell’s mother, Jessie Lee Dennis, she was his heart. They lived in a small apartment at 364 W. Oak St., a red brick Cabrini-Green high-rise controlled by the Gangster Disciples.
“We were poor, on welfare, but I never went without. There was always food on the table. I had clothes to wear,” Rodnell says. “She’s a good woman. Took care of me.”
Jessie Lee Dennis had her struggles. A single mother living in public housing, she drank more than she should have and had a son who didn't obey her rules.
Still, "She taught me everything I was supposed to do, and I didn't do the right things," Rodnell says.
Because Rodnell always wanted to be a Gangster Disciple.
"I loved everything about them. The unity. The way they spoke, walked. The way they dressed. I was infatuated," he says. "Six years old … I started to understand what a gang was. I’d do whatever it took to get in.”
He was 7 years old when he started hanging out with his cousins and a group of neighborhood kids who called themselves the "Lynch Mob."
He got arrested for vandalism and petty theft in second grade. He sold drugs, "nation packs" the GDs called them. That got him respect.
So did fighting young Vice Lords in training. The rivals.
"I wasn't the peacemaking type. It was always, 'Go get them Vice Lords. Get them before they got us.' We'd go against a crew called 'MOC,' and we’d kick each other's ass daily. That's what we did for fun," Rodnell says.
"I loved gangbanging, the mentality that those were my enemies. There was a rush that came with beating the living s--- out of someone and coming back to have someone praise you for doing it."
When Rodnell returned to Cabrini-Green last summer, the iconic public housing project's high-rise towers — including his school and the building he grew up in — were gone, torn down and replaced by vacant lots and fancy condos with sweeping skyline views.
Across Division Street, an urban farm and strip mall complete with a grocery store, Starbucks and Panera Bread made the violent gang turf he grew up in look almost suburban. In fact, on the day I met Rodnell at Panera, he got his first ever blueberry scone there.
What hasn't changed in his old 'hood is that so many kids are still running in cliques, warring with rivals, toting guns and selling dope to earn favor from older gang members.
When I met Rodnell in May, gang tensions were high.
Manierre Elementary was on a list of public schools slated to close. The move would send kids from "Sedville" — Vice Lord and Mickey Cobra street gang turf north of Division Street — to Jenner Academy in the GD-controlled area south of Division Street. The plan had kids, parents and neighbors worried.
Rodnell spent much of his summer talking to kids from both sides of Divison Street in an attempt to broker some kind of peace in the generations-old gang war.
He and a collection of ex-felons called “Brothers Standing Together” told it to kids straight: Beware of "those older cats.”
"You see kids selling drugs, shooting guys, and behind them there's an older cat somewhere dictating the pace," Rodnell says. “They catch 'em young and start feeding bulls--- about what we're killing for, what we're fighting for. And it's bulls---. All of it."
'LIKE HAVING SEX FOR THE FIRST TIME'
Late spring before school let out, Rodnell and the guys from Brothers Standing Together take me on one of their "missionary trips."
While the land once occupied by the infamous high-rises is now home to upscale condos, a new Target store and vacant lots, a remaining stretch of Cabrini-Green row houses remain as rough-and-tumble as they’ve ever been.
In a row house apartment we meet Quentin Evans, who goes by Q. He's a good-looking 17-year-old with a muscular build and "Chief Keef" braids dangling over his face.
Q tells me that the first time he got caught with a gun, when he was 16, he was back on the street in no time, like nothing happened.
"I got lucky. I ain't gonna lie. They didn't put it on my background. It's like I never got arrested," Q says.
"I didn't take what happened seriously. I fell right back into the same hole I was in, and it got worse. Kept doing the same s--- that summer."
Guys in his clique look up to Q. Rivals would like to see him dead.
"You gotta be heated out here, you gotta be ready for the war. Cause there's a war going on," Q says. "Nowadays, nobody fistfighting. No one. Everyone shooting guns. West Side, over east, they all shooting. Gotta have a gun nowadays.”
Rodnell felt the same way more than 20 years ago — when Gangster Disciples trained him to be a shooter at just 11 years old.
"Starts out with a Nerf gun, then a water gun, cap gun and to a BB gun," Rodnell tells me. "Get that BB gun and show people. They got that surprised look, 'Oh, man he gotta gun,' and you feel so good inside. Nothing else makes you feel like that. And you want the real deal."
And once Rodnell got that first gun in his hands there was no stopping him.
"When you fire that first shot, all other sounds around you disappear,” he says. "The sound made by that gun, the fire shooting out from that gun. Take a nine, pull back the hammer and you never forget that sound. ... It's like having sex for the first time. It feels so good. There's something about that sound. It blows your mind. You want to hear it all the time."
Rodnell got plenty of target practice.
"When the Vice Lords came into our area we want to remove them. Lot of kids got killed," he says. "Our target practice was when they came here or we went down there outta boredom. … And yell, 'Vice Lord Killer' to get a fight started."
Everybody in Cabrini knew that Rodnell, a stocky kid tough beyond his years, wasn't the type to be taken lightly.
"Those were my enemies, and we have to get them. It feels good until it's your ass on the receiving end. I got caught once on Oak Street, and they beat my ass. ... I was like, 'I'ma kill me a mother------.' "
'HOW DID THIS KID GET A GUN?'
Roti, the Chicago Police organized crime chief, said officers on the street know all about how gangs train their young shooters.
"They use the basements of abandon buildings, or they'll go up on the railroad tracks and show them how to shoot," Roti said.
"Kids mimic what the older guys are doing. They use replica and BB guns in armed robberies. … Kids know you get street cred if you shoot a gun. You get respected, you get feared. You gotta have a gun. A gun makes you powerful. You grow up feeling helpless, and now you're in a gang, you're part of group, and now you shoot."
Cops will tell you the sad reality is no kid is too young to be holding.
Police arrested 182 kids between the ages of 10 and 14 on gun possession charges in 2012, according to police statistics.
One of those kids, a 14-year-old admitted gang member, was arrested for carrying .25-caliber semi-automatic pistol during a traffic stop on the West Side.
On Feb. 25, 2012, Patrol Officer Adrian Perez pulled the kid from a car packed with Maniac Latin Disciples gang members cruising the streets looking to shoot rival Imperial Gangsters.
"The driver said there was a 'banger' in the car. That's a gun," Perez said.
The other gang members in the car were older. They told police they were out to avenge a murder.
Perez and Officer Pedro Hernandez searched every person in the car until they found the pistol on a boy with a "youthful face" who admitted he was an MLD, too.
"My first thought was, 'How did this kid get a gun?' Is it his dad's? Did he get it from a fellow gang member? The kid's 14 and should be in school or playing sports, not here carrying a gun," Perez said. "It's a sad reality that every stop you make, a kid — no matter how old — could have a gun."
Hernandez said adult gang members often have kids carry their pistols because they know that gun possession for gang members now carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence.
"Of all the gun arrests I make, I'd say about a quarter of them are juveniles," Hernandez said.
Perez said he also catches underage kids toting BB guns that kids often use in armed robberies.
"The BB gun is a gun gateway, absolutely. You get a feel how it looks, how it feels in your hand. How you look with it. There's a lot of intimidation that goes with a BB gun. You can't really tell if it's a BB gun or a gun," Perez said. "It empowers them and gives them the confidence to take it a step higher to the real thing."
GATEWAY TO MURDER
For Rodnell, part of his boldness came from knowing that every time he got arrested as a boy — theft, battery, robbery, carrying a gun — the cops couldn't hold him for too long.
And when his case got to juvenile court he'd wind up on probation and back in Cabrini living with his mom.
"They just sent me back to the neighborhood, so I never really had nothing to fear. I didn't have to go through no program, never had someone constantly over me telling me, 'You gotta do this, you gotta go to school.' It was just the same as always," Rodnell says. "I never had no motivation to change. If a kid don't have that fear, all you're gonna get is the same result."
In Illinois, juvenile court judges are required by state law to hand down the least restrictive sentences.
A delinquent child can be sentenced to juvenile detention only after efforts are made to "eliminate the need for the minor to be removed from the home" — even in the case of gun possession, according to the Juvenile Court Act of 1987.
About 87 percent of Chicago kids found guilty of gun possession were sentenced to probation or supervision in 2012, according to juvenile court records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Judge Michael Toomin, who presides over the Cook County juvenile court, said sentences are dictated by the Juvenile Court Act.
"That's what the Legislature told us to do. That's what guides us," Toomin said. "It's the overriding philosophy we implement and follow."
McCarthy said that when it comes to kids carrying guns, the juvenile justice system isn't working.
"They're supposed to give the least-restrictive sentence. If they do that the first, second, 10th time, is it still going to be least-restrictive?" he asked. "I don't know what's going on with that, but until the laws of the State of Illinois are geared to reduce gun violence we’re going to keep seeing these problems."
McCarthy said statistics show that gun offenders are getting younger, and "Possession of an [illegal] firearm is a gateway crime to committing murder."
"Once you get caught with a gun, you’re four times more likely to get caught again," McCarthy said. "There has to be some sort of sanction, something to elicit corrective behavior from kids. Because obviously, it's not happening."