Ben Woodard covered Rogers Park for DNAinfo Chicago from 2012 to 2015. He's now a reporter at the Seattle Times.
ROGERS PARK — North Side rapper Young Pappy never liked me much.
The gang member's "rap persona" blew up on social media in 2014 as he released music videos online taunting rival gang members to take their best shot. And they did, but twice when they shot they killed someone else, igniting a panic among people living here who feared they might be next.
It took months to set up the call to Young Pappy, whose real name is Shaquon Thomas. That talk didn't last long before he laid into me, upset I wrote the things the police were saying about him and his street gang.
"Do you know how you make me look to society?" the then 19-year-old said before abruptly hanging up.
I never got to have a true conversation with Young Pappy. And now, I never will.
Three months later, whoever was shooting at him didn't miss.
Everyone saw it coming — the police, watchful neighbors and reporters, like me. It was just a matter of when.
Police locked up the rapper on any charge that might stick, and they made personal pleas to him, and to his mother, in hopes he would change his ways.
But for years a war raged on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube between Young Pappy's gang and his rivals, often spilling over into reality in spurts of violence that left otherwise quiet neighborhood streets stained with blood.
'He got the least of it'
On a cold February day in 2014, I got a call from the newsroom that someone had been shot and I rushed to the scene.
I parked my car on Columbia Avenue and walked up the hill to the crime scene — the McDonald's parking lot at Clark Street and Pratt Boulevard.
Markeyo Carr, 17, was among those shot by a masked gunman. Three more people were hit, including Young Pappy — but I didn't know it at the time.
It wasn't until later that day that a well-placed police source told me detectives believed a certain rapper growing in prominence was likely the target.
Young Pappy got shot in the arm.
His crew — about 20 members of the Insane Cutthroat Gangsters, a faction of the Gangster Disciples — congregated on the corner across the street.
I knew some of them; I turned my camera their way and snapped a few photos. They saw, and cursed at me, threatening to kick my ass.
I believed they would, so I walked across the street where I saw Carr's body covered in a bloody white sheet. His face — tilted to the side — and the toes of his sneakers weren't covered by the blood-stained sheet.
It wasn't until after sundown that his body was removed. His family would later tell me Markeyo was left outside for too long on that frosty night.
The Cook County Medical Examiner determined a gunshot to the back of the head ended his life.
The next morning, I watched as an employee of the McDonald's used shovelfuls of snow and buckets of soap to scrape away the frozen blood left behind.
A man scraped blood from the parking lot where Markeyo Carr was gunned down. [DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard]
Later, Carr's mother sat at her kitchen table and leafed through condolence letters from friends and teachers who had heard the tragic news.
"The kids wrote stuff about how he's a funny person, about how he'll be missed," she said.
The next week, I walked into the now-shuttered pizzeria next door to the McDonald's to confirm a tip that its surveillance cameras captured the shooting.
It was true. The chilling footage shows someone raise a handgun and open fire on Markeyo and the other victims running away.
"I was in shock," the restaurant's owner, Ashfaq Ahmed, told me about watching the slaying for the first time on the monitor inside his small storefront.
I tracked down Young Pappy to a house on Lakewood Avenue in Edgewater. His dad lived there. My knock on the door went unanswered, but I waited — for about an hour — until a middle-aged man walked out and headed toward Devon Avenue.
I grabbed my notebook and pen and caught up with him.
"He got the least of it, out of all of them," he told me.
He also said his son wasn't home; he didn't know where he was.
A week later, Young Pappy resurfaced on social media.
"Im still here," he tweeted.
'Wet That T-Shirt Up'
On March 26 of last year, Young Pappy was in court on a reckless conduct charge and got sentenced to 60 days in jail.
He got out on June 3.
The ensuing summer was a bloody one.
In all, 48 people were shot and 14 died in Rogers Park, Edgewater and Uptown in 2014, according to police data.
Young Pappy was back on YouTube disparaging his gang rivals in rap videos — which have racked up hundreds of thousands of views — and began promoting his soon-to-be-released mixtape, "2 Cups Part 2 of Everything."
The rapper's music was more than entertainment.
Former Rogers Park Police Cmdr. Thomas Waldera called the videos "technological kerosene," fueling the gang war raging on the street.
Two months later, on July 13, Conservative Vice Lord Eric Vaughn allegedly handed a gun to a passenger in his car and told him "Wet that T-Shirt up" when they saw Young Pappy walking down Devon Avenue near his dad's house.
He escaped the gunfire, but an innocent bystander did not.
Wil Lewis, a 28-year-old photographer, was taking photos of the rapper as the gunfire erupted, his friends told me, and he never had a chance.
The volley of bullets that missed Young Pappy struck and killed him.
A city alderman who witnessed the shooting told me he "heard a series of pops, 'Pop, pop, pop, pop.'"
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said, "I knew right away that it wasn’t fireworks. It was gunfire."
Moore said the gunman followed Young Pappy south down Glenwood Avenue, and then spotted Lewis on the ground.
Lewis' wife, Maria, wouldn't talk to me or any other reporter about her husband's murder. The young couple had just moved to the neighborhood when she lost him.
Friends tell me she's trying to move on now, and just returned from a long hike on the Appalachian Trail.
'Good Luck to You'
Early this year, Young Pappy was back in jail.
He got in a fight at the same McDonald's where Markeyo was killed. Police said the fight moved outside and down a side street, Columbia Avenue, when the man he was fighting ended up with a bullet in his leg.
It was the same block where I parked to cover the murder scene nearly a year before.
No one was charged in that shooting, but Young Pappy was slapped with a reckless conduct charge.
A couple of weeks later, I visited Young Pappy's mother, Ingrid Thomas, who lives separately from her ex-husband at the family's Rogers Park home.
I caught up with her as she was leaving for work, warming up her car in an alley parking spot.
Immediately, I recognized the building — the same place Markeyo lived with his mother.
Ingrid Thomas told me her son was talented, smart and misunderstood. She said the police stormed into her apartment with guns drawn to arrest her boy. They spent hours searching for a gun, but never found one.
Standing in the ground-level doorway of the apartment, the woman told me the police can't be trusted. They were "painting my son as someone that he's not," she said.
Still, the mother was scared for her son's life — the violence was close to home.
In February, I chatted up one of the sheriff's deputies checking bags at the courthouse at Belmont and Western avenues while waiting for Young Pappy's case to be heard that day.
We talked about Chuy Garcia, whether he had a chance at unseating Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and the gang bangers who frequent the courthouse.
He knew Young Pappy. And he knew Keith Hayer, aka Bang Da Hitta, a rapper and fellow member of the Insane Cutthroat Gangsters.
They were regulars, he said.
Rivals targeted Bang Da Hitta, too. In September, they set his car ablaze in Rogers Park. Neighbors likened the scene to "a war zone."
Rapper Bang Da Hitta checks out his burned-out car.
He responded with a post on his Facebook page: "Owow Yall Blow Up Carz.. But B---- We Blow Up Bodyz.. I Aint F--- Up Bout It Tho."
When Young Pappy's court hearing resumed, I watched him — while shackled and in jail scrubs — plead guilty to the reckless conduct charge before Cook County Circuit Judge Anthony Calabrese.
"Good luck to you," the judge said, ordering the rapper released after time served of 29 days.
'Young Pappy Got Assassinated'
On a Friday night in May, a SWAT team crashed Young Pappy's mixtape release party at his dad's house on Lakewood.
A neighbor said she heard five shots before the street where she lives with her husband and daughter filled with officers.
The evening had kicked off on social media when Young Pappy announced on Facebook, "Party Started!!!" along with a string of festive emojis.
Seven hours later — after a five-hour standoff with police — he was back online claiming police were "harassing" him and his family.
Young Pappy and 30 other people got charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
About a week later, the rapper was back in jail for allegedly failing to appear at a hearing for an unrelated reckless conduct charge.
He quickly posted bond and was back out on the street.
He didn’t waste any time taking to YouTube to taunt his rivals, releasing a new song called "Shooters."
"N----, you don't know how to shoot," Young Pappy raps in the video, which has been viewed more than 120,000 times.
The gang war raged on.
Two weeks later, I woke up to a text message from a guy familiar with the rapper's gang.
"I think Young Pappy got murdered in Uptown last night," he wrote. An hour later he sent a follow-up message: "I'm almost certain Young Pappy got assassinated."
He was right.
In the early morning hours of May 29, whoever was gunning for him didn't miss, putting two bullets in his back while he walked down a residential street in Uptown.
Shaquon Thomas, 20, was shot on an Uptown street. [DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard]
The news started to spread on social media. Members of the Conservative Vice Lords took credit for the shooting online.
One person who described himself on his Twitter profile as a "Conservative Vice Lord enforcer" tweeted he would do it again, but instead aim for Young Pappy's kneecaps and "make him beg."
Foster Police District Cmdr. Cornelia Lott said last week the fighting among gangs on social media was a "lead instigator" of Chicago street violence, including in the case of Young Pappy.
"He had exchanged barbs with rival gang members," she said. "He had disrespected a gang on social media and even made a rap video about it, and he was targeted. It wasn’t random."
The cycle of cyber gangbanging and its real life consequences affect Rogers Park and Uptown — and other neighborhoods around town.
I wish I could have asked Young Pappy about his music, why he made the songs he did — and whether the 20-year-old wanted out of the street life that put him in the crosshairs one too many times.
The songs, the videos, the tweets and the bloodshed seemed to be over nothing.
I keep thinking about one particular message Young Pappy posted on Facebook a couple of days before getting locked up that last time.
In some ways, it illustrates all he was up against.
It ends with a hint at the late gangster’s take on the world he rapped about — an angry sliver of cyberspace and North Side streets by the lake where angry young men kill each other for reasons most people, certainly me and probably even the warriors themselves, may never understand.
"Everything Aint What It Seem," he wrote.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: