(MCT) — CHICAGO — Chicago police are questioning two persons of interest in the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a day after first lady Michelle Obama attended the funeral for the teenager whose death has become a symbol of escalating violence in Chicago, according to law enforcement sources.
The two men, one in his late teens and the other 20, were pulled over near East 67th Street and South Chicago Avenue late Saturday night or early Sunday morning after detectives canvassed the area of the park where Hadiya was shot and killed Jan. 29, and tracked down witnesses, the sources said. No charges have been filed.
Hadiya was fatally shot in Vivian Gordon Harsh Park, about a mile north of President Barack Obama's Kenwood neighborhood home on the South Side, a little more than a week after the honor student performed with the King College Prep band in Washington during inauguration festivities. Two other teens were wounded.
The shooting happened after classes were dismissed for the day during finals week at King. Hadiya, a sophomore at King, was at the park with a with a group of teens, primarily other students from the school, when a male gunman climbed over a fence, ran to the group and started firing, police have said. The shooter escaped in what has been described as white Nissan vehicle, possibly driven by an accomplice.
One of the sources said at least one of the men brought into custody was riding in a Nissan Sentra, one of the two vehicles police pulled over when bringing the pair into custody. The source didn’t know that Nissan’s color.
Police have insisted that the teens in Hadiya’s group who had gathered in the park were not involved in gangs. But police have been looking into whether the gunman may have mistaken them for rival gang members.
While police and neighbors have generally described Harsh Park and its immediate surroundings as safe, there has been an internal gang conflict brewing in the area between factions of the Gangster Disciples, police said. The two men being questioned Sunday are alleged members of the Gangster Disciples, sources said.
One of the two men has a previous weapons conviction, according to court records.
In addition to Hadiya's homicide, there have been at least three other shootings within blocks of Harsh Park so far this year, according to police records.
No charges have been filed against the men, who are being held at Area Central police headquarters on the South Side.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel personally called Hadiya's parents, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton, to inform them of the development, according to a source. Nathaniel Pendleton told the Chicago Tribune on Sunday night that he didn't want to say too much about the men being questioned because charges have not been filed.
“Right now, were just happy that Chicago police have some leads and things are moving,” he said.
Shatira Wilks, a cousin of Hadiya's and a family spokesperson, said the development is a “good response” and better information than the family had Saturday.
Arrests and charges “will bring a small level of closure to the family, although (the shooter) still will be allowed to eat, drink, mingle,” Wilks said. “The thing about that is, Hadiya is no longer to do so.”
On how Hadiya's family is doing, Wilks said, “Everyone keeps asking that. I don't know if you'll ever get an answer that we’re feeling good or we’re feeling fine.”
Hadiya's godmother, LaKeisha Stewart, said questioning the men is a good start, but she's more eager to find out when or if charges are filed.
“Until this person is off the streets for good, that an example is made to … other people like him … that's when I'll breathe a sigh of relief,” Stewart said. “For me, when the person is in court and a judge says they are responsible for her murder … to me, that's when this will make a difference.”
Hadiya's death occurred during the deadliest January for Chicago since 2002. It also came on the heels of a homicide total last year that was the highest since 2008, and the second highest since 2003.
The playground where Hadiya was shot was the setting for an amateur rap video posted to YouTube. The video uses the moniker of a local gang in an opening credit and features a rapper shown leaving the Cook County Jail, then threatening to shoot down his foes.
The video ends at a house party with a smiling teenage girl flashing gang signs at the camera.
The first lady's attendance at Hadiya’s funeral placed Chicago even further into the spotlight of a national debate over gun violence that has polarized Congress and led the president to take his gun-control initiatives on the road to garner more public support.
Neither the first lady nor elected officials gave remarks during the funeral. Only the friends and relatives who knew Hadiya best were allowed to speak.
In the days following Hadiya’s death, clergy and community leaders raised $40,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the teen's killer or killers. Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has said that detectives have received numerous tips to follow up on for the homicide investigation.
(Tribune reporter Carlos Sadovi contributed to this story.)