In this special report, DNAinfo Chicago's Writer-at-Large Mark Konkol explores the problem of kids with guns, including how gangs exploit the juvenile justice system by relying on children. In Part One, Rodnell Dennis, who was convicted of murder at age 13, explained the allure of gang life. Read Part One here.
PART TWO — CAUGHT IN A TRAP
The first time Quentin "Q" Evans got caught carrying a gun, he beat the case.
Then, his luck ran out.
Earlier this year, police arrested Q for carrying a pistol he said a "homie" gave him to deliver to someone.
"I was heated, you know," Q says in a fast-paced, slang-riddled slur.
Q was 17, and this time he got charged as an adult, which meant a trip to Cook County Jail.
"There's more [gang structure] in there than on the street. Go in and say you're in a gang, and that's your ass. It's all young mother------ who want to fight in there," Q says.
"One thing about the street is when you get locked up, f--- your homies. They're not there at all. Not a letter. Don't send no money. … And when you get out, ain't nothing changed" from before, he says.
While Q was locked up, the neighborhood feuds around Cabrini-Green waged on without him. Some of his friends got shot. His brother took a bullet to the head.
"That woke me up. It scared me. I didn't know if my brother was dead or not. Couldn't make a phone call. I was f----- up in the head," Q says.
"I was thinking, 'What should I do?' And I knew I had to leave it all alone. … My brother survived. … back to a normal guy. I know that's God and my family telling me to get out of that."
Fresh out of jail and a week before his 18th birthday, Q got a job at a TJ Maxx and was hoping to get enough hours to afford an apartment in a different part of town, away from Cabrini.
"I realized I gotta start changing before I get in my 20s, before it's too late,” he says. " 'Cause hanging out here, it's gonna be too late. I feel trapped."
Rodnell Dennis never reached a point on the streets where his violent neighborhood felt like a roadblock to a better life.
In his tainted worldview, being a ranking Gangster Disciple would bring him power, territory and respect.
"I was so dead set on being an outstanding gang member that I focused all my attention on doing that," he tells me.
The gang leaders — who use kids like Rodnell to sell drugs, carry weapons and serve as a buffer between them and the police — told Rodnell that by age 12, "I could be part of gang leadership."
They told him he could "have a lot of soldiers" behind him "depending on the amount of work you put in: selling drugs, fighting Vice Lords,” Rodnell said.
Rodnell describes his potential career path: “Come up in the ranks and get a coordinator spot … coordinator controls everything from Wells to Ashland. That's a nice distance … and everything that happens, they'd have to see me."
On March 8, 1992, Rodnell finally had his chance to prove his worth to the gang.
Just the mention of it, he says, sends him back to that day when a group of GDs hanging out at 929 Hudson St. were talking about shooting up some Vice Lords they had just fought with at 500 W. Oak St.
"They were passing around a pistol," Rodnell says. "The moment I laid eyes on that gun, I had to have it. Had to."
He snatched the long-barreled 22-caliber silver revolver from his friend's hand, tucked it under his shirt and rushed to take care of GD business.
He wasn't afraid. Not even a little bit.
Rodnell squatted between two Dumpsters, took aim and fired seven shots into a crowd of gang rivals.
He ran away before he could tell if anyone was hit.
"I had tunnel vision," Rodnell says. "Did what I did and left."
Rodnell gave the pistol to a fellow gang member who wiped it clean of gunpowder and fingerprints and hid it atop an elevator.
Twenty minutes later, the cops swarmed Cabrini-Green.
Back at the crime scene, yellow police tape blocked the street near a vacant lot known as "Dead Man's Field." A sheet covered a tiny body, leaving no doubt what Rodnell had done. Anthony Felton was dead.
A GD lookout confirmed the news: “Somebody got killed. … You killed somebody.”
His victim was an innocent kid — a 9-year-old boxing prodigy — not a Vice Lord.
"Everything around me got dark," Rodnell says. "It was kind of crazy. It had to be me. I was the only one out there shooting."
Within an hour, detectives were outside his building while Rodnell hid with other GDs who told him, "You ain't gotta turn yourself in.' "
Rodnell said the GDs offered to take him to Milwaukee "and I could hide out there.”
But the look on their faces — one of them in particular, a known shooter, the guy you don't mess with — made Rodnell feel uneasy.
He knew he didn't have a choice, really.
"Going on the run wasn't an option. They were gonna kill me," Rodnell says. "The Chicago River would be my next home."
Without talking it over with his mother, Rodnell decided to turn himself in.
"I was bad as hell and into a lot of s---. But I did have a heart, especially when it came to kids. I was a kid myself," he says. "But this boy was younger. … And I was guilty. I took my chances with the police. That was the last time I saw the streets."
At 1 a.m., Rodnell walked into the police station and said, "I hear you're looking for me."
'MOM, I'M GUILTY'
The juvenile justice system — all those slaps on the wrist — couldn't help Rodnell Dennis anymore.
"Rodnell had a horrific criminal background. He picked up his first felony at the age of 8 or 9," said David J. O'Conner, the Cook County assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case.
"The judge threw up his hands. Rodnell had been given every chance, every resource, and nothing seemed to work. Rodnell hit the pinnacle of his short criminal career and managed to kill a little boy. That's how he ended up in adult court with two adult co-defendants," O'Conner said.
Rodnell's beloved GDs abandoned him. His mother, Jessie Lee Dennis, a single mom who struggled with drugs, showed up to only one hearing, court records show.
"He was isolated by himself, and nobody was there at all," Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan recalled. "The public defender and state's attorney were like his surrogate mother and father. They were the only family that he had."
Jessie Lee Dennis disputes that. In her Cabrini-Green row house apartment, Rodnell's mother insisted she regularly visited her son and attended his court hearings, but he never listened to her.
"He was being hardheaded," Jessie Lee Dennis said, claiming that her son's attorney "was swaying him to take the time, and I was telling him don't.”
In a court conference room, Rodnell's county-appointed lawyer and O'Conner offered up a plea deal. Rodnell took it.
"Didn't ask my mother. She was pissed off at me for not consulting her first. I told her, 'Mom, I'm guilty. I did that. That kid didn't deserve to die. I took his life,' " Rodnell says. "Right is right. Wrong is wrong. If you're in the game, you have to suffer the consequences. I had to go to jail."
In court, Gaughan sentenced Rodnell to 39 years in prison.
"Start making plans for the rest of your life," the judge said in court that day. "You don't want to come out as a criminal and be a criminal forever. All right?"
"All right," Rodnell said.
His sentence merited eight paragraphs in the Tribune on page three of an inside section. It noted that his police record began when he was arrested at age 7.
Still, Rodnell thinks that, even with a sentence that would promise he would spend much of his young adult life behind bars, he got off easy.
"How could I complain? I should have received the death penalty. I took the gun. I fired it and killed that kid. It was all my decision,” he said. "I hate the fact that I did it. You don't get no slap on the wrist for that. You take a life, you give yours up."
'BUILT FOR PRISON'
Rodnell spent his formative years bouncing from prison to prison — and it didn't reform him one bit.
In fact, he became more devoted to the Gangster Disciples.
"I was GD crazy," he says. "I knew the GD literature and bylaws like the back of my hand. And I enforced it, aggressively."
Rodnell got in a lot of fights in prison — playing cards, battling Vice Lords, dishing out gang punishment and grappling with guards — to raise his status.
"I was built for prison. As a wing coordinator, my job was to control a portion of the prison. When I was GD chief of security I had control over everything," he says. "What I said was law. I was dead set on being an outstanding member of the gang."
But all that finally changed the day Rodnell spotted GD bosses relaxing with Vice Lord leaders at the same chow table in Stateville prison.
"I was like, 'This ain't right.' Nobody told us we could eat at a table and be friends with Vice Lords," Rodnell says. "A guy told me it was prison politics and all these guys were best friends. I was told Vice Lords were our enemies and it was our job to get rid of them."
Seeing the charade, he decided, "That was it for me."
Rodnell started hanging out with Vice Lords. He had a new way of thinking: "No more fighting for GDs. I'm fighting for myself. It's a brand new fight,” he said. “Now if I die, I die for me. I found something worth dying for. It was time for a change."
Ten years into his 39-year sentence Rodnell says seeing the rival gang bosses breaking bread set him off on "getting my mind right, moving on, growing up."
He started to make plans for his real future.
'IT'S A MAJOR ISSUE'
A DNAinfo Chicago analysis of law enforcement and juvenile court records shows that most kids caught with guns go unpunished for their first offense. That approach, critics say, often fosters more criminal activity by youngsters who see that the claim made by older gang members is true.
Looking back, Rodnell says that the juvenile court system that kept spitting him back into the streets only nurtured his lust for gang life.
"Yeah, the system's broke," he said. "It's always been broke."
Now, maybe more than ever, it needs fixing, says Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy.
"It's a major issue especially with 10-, 12-, 14-year-old kids in gangs. They're around guns. They're the one's holding guns, and it's an incredible public safety issue for the community," he said. "The juvenile criminal justice issue is enormous nationwide. Not just in Chicago. It's not working, and it's something we really have to examine."
Top law enforcement officials, including McCarthy, say they're not sure locking up kids caught with guns is the answer. There's proof that restorative justice measures such as peace circles, grief counseling and peer mediation can help kids turn their lives around.
But the reality is funding for those types of programs has been significantly reduced.
"For the most part, [restorative justice] works, and there are kids we keep out of the system that way," said Cook County's top prosecutor, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.
"Funds and grants have dried up. And due to budget cuts, we don't have all the programs that we used to have," she said. "Some programs we used to put a kid in don't even exist anymore. So, do we lock up every kid caught with a gun? I don't think so."
Rodnell says he knows changes to the juvy court system won't be enough to change kids growing up in violent 'hoods.
He refers to Quentin "Q" Evans, the teen with numerous run-ins with the law who lives steps away from Rodnell's mother in the Cabrini-Green row houses.
"Kids like Q, man, they don't want to live the lives they're living. Cats like Q, they're the ones that slip through the cracks, like I did," says Rodnell.
"I can tell them what's next — prison."
Rodnell says that right now "We need more brothers to step up and set a new tone for what it means to be men — how to act and carry yourself.”
What the community needs, he says, is for someone to tell young men trapped in the inner city that "There's more out there in the world than what's happening in the 'hood."
'I'M SO SORRY FOR WHAT HAPPENED'
Rodnell can't forgive himself for what he did when he pulled the trigger that took 9-year-old Anthony Felton's life all those years ago.
He won't forgive himself, ever.
A condition of Rodnell's parole prohibits him from making contact with Felton's mother, who moved to Wisconsin shortly after her son's murder and couldn't be reached for comment.
But if Rodnell could talk to Anthony Felton's family he'd tell them all the things he wrote in a letter that he's not allowed to send.
"I'd say 'I'm so sorry for what happened. I'm sorry for taking your family member's life,' " he said. "I'd answer all their questions."
He'd try to answer the question, "What went wrong with Rodnell Dennis?”
"I was a child that was caught up in a f----- up world that I thought I had to be in," Rodnell said. "I'd tell them I'm not a killer. I'd tell them that I was a good kid, and I just got caught up."
And he'd hope that somehow, by the grace of God, they might forgive him his sin.
Until then, Rodnell gets up early to go to work, rushes home before his 5 p.m. curfew and tries to be happy. He smiles, even though he knows someday someone might find him and kill him for what he did. And he dreams of doing his part by reaching out to at-risk youth so that one day Cabrini-Green might be a place where kids don't get stuck in the same trap he did.
"I want to be around to see changes made between this side and that side [of Division Street] so all of us could just come out here and live and be free. No fear, nothing. Go where you want to go," he said. "That's what I want for me, for us."
Maybe one day, he'll fall in love, get married and have a kid — and raise him right — far away from Chicago.
"Man, I want to get up outta here because I know now there's more to the world than just gang turf in Cabrini," he said. "There's a lot of things. Things I never knew about before I got locked up."
Rodnell tells Cabrini kids about all the wonderful things that are waiting for them, too.
And they can have it — if they just don't get caught up.
On Sept. 19, Rodnell Dennis lost his freedom. His sister was no longer willing to let him stay at her home — and with nowhere else to live, the Illinois Department of Corrections sent him back to prison. He remains eligible to be released on parole from Dixon Correctional Center once he finds a place to live. A parole board hearing is scheduled for later this month.
And Quentin Evans, 18, lost his job at TJ Maxx after getting arrested on drug charges that were ultimately dropped. He moved out of the Cabrini-Green row houses and currently lives on the West Side. Q is enrolled in an alternative school in hopes of earning his high school diploma and finding a steady job.