Gangster's former woman hides in fear he again will send men to kill her

August 04, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- "Good night."

The cold hard steel of the gun's barrel pressed against Stephanie's head. She already had been shot once through her right shoulder, and blood trickled down her arm onto the smooth leather car seats, soaking her fur coat.

The air was cold, the winter night still, except for a dog barking in the distance. The white $26,000 Infiniti, Stephanie's most prized possession among a collection that included diamond rings, bracelets and gold necklaces, now sat idling near the railroad tracks on the Far South Side.

Five days after Valentine's Day, her imprisoned lover had ordered her execution.

She had been seeing someone else, he believed, and he was now making good on an old promise. "If you ever leave me, I'll kill you," Stephanie recalled him saying so many times before this night. Already serving a natural life term, he also feared she might testify against him in a pending drug case.

When the shot fired seconds earlier by a gunman behind the wheel tore through her shoulder, Stephanie slumped, too stunned to cry.

"Good night," snarled a second gunman, seated next to her and dressed all in black. With his finger folded around the trigger of a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol, there wasn't much she could do, even as "Folks woman," the name given to the women of leaders of the Gangster Disciples gang.

Stephanie slowly looked away, resolved at age 24 to dying.

Many miles and a life away from the railroad tracks, Stephanie, now 26, rubs her right shoulder, her palm sinking deep into her healed-over bullet wound, now masked by a dark growth of scar tissue.

Stephanie has decided to stay indoors on this stormy evening. The dampness makes her ache.

The pain reminds her of the attempted murder two years ago that left her unconscious and bleeding. And the glass eye that replaced her real one, destroyed by a bullet, serves as a constant reminder of the fury of an ex-boyfriend.

"He decides who lives or dies," Stephanie said matter-of-factly about Michael Smith, 40, gang leader and recently convicted killer. Stephanie was the state's star witness in Smith's trial earlier this year for ordering her murder.

Her family lived with threats of retaliation if she testified. Her mother sent Stephanie's three younger siblings out of state, bracing for the worst, and with good reason.

One of the men Smith ordered to murder Stephanie was mysteriously killed, shot in the head and burned, before the trial began in January, authorities said.

The other was never identified or found by authorities.

Smith was convicted in January and later sentenced automatically to his second natural life term in prison. It was Smith's fourth felony conviction, said Assistant State's Attorneys Bernie Murray and Charles Burns, who prosecuted the case.

While Stephanie survived that night, a part of her died. And Stephanie's lust for fortune at any cost, by her own admission, proved to be too costly.

"He did have a very sensitive side," Stephanie said of her former boyfriend, who showered her with roses "all the time." Even from prison, he paid her rent, car note and bills.

But, according to court records, the same boyfriend ordered his henchmen to remove Stephanie's jewelry the night of Feb. 19, 1992, including a diamond engagement ring, before shooting her three times and leaving her for dead.

Fearful that her life still is in danger, Stephanie remains in hiding. She has switched cities. Changed friends. Changed habits.

She is seldom out at night past 10. She is cautious of strangers, leery of men.

"It's hard because I have to start all over," Stephanie said. "There are a lot of people who don't want to be associated with me because they are afraid something is going to happen to them, and I can't blame them."

"It's like I'm in seclusion. It's a psychological thing. It's just something always on my mind. I always have to watch."

Stephanie has seen her mother only once in nearly a year, though they talk almost daily. She's too afraid to live in Chicago. Her phone number at her new home is unlisted.

She usually goes straight home after work and spends evenings falling asleep under the glare of a TV set.

She saves her Saturdays for hair and nails -- a perm, a manicure, a pedicure. They are a few of the carryovers from her days as a high-maintenance woman of a gang chieftain.

Sitting now in a chair in a beauty shop, her hair freshly curled, Stephanie soaked her feet in a warm pan while a manicurist added the finishing touches to her fingers. For months she had been a regular at the shop. No one knew her real name, not even the woman with whom Stephanie had laughed and joked outside the shop and considers a friend.

Stephanie seldom uses her real name and never shares the secrets of her past. She wears a wool sweater at work even on hot days, keeping to herself the aching caused by the air-conditioner.

And her prescription eyeglasses, as well as the ability to control her glass eye with undamaged muscle, makes the prosthesis difficult to detect.

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