A killing to shock the cynical Girl's slaying leaves young, old in disbelief

August 16, 1998|By Richard Roeper

The boy is 8 years old and he is barefoot, and his right arm is in a cast and he is holding a paper bag containing chips and other treats.

He is standing in front of a house in the 6700 block of S. Normal Ave. on the South Side of Chicago, squinting at the scene a half-block away.

The neighborhood has been invaded by police officers and reporters, camped outside the residence of a little boy who is a murder suspect. There are white vans from nearly every TV station in town, their satellite hookups spiraling to the sky. Camera operators setting up their tripods. Reporters in crisp dresses or shirts and ties, notebooks in hand as they interview neighbors. Five Chicago police cars.

You talk to the boy for a while and he tells you his name and where he lives and how he got that cast on his arm - and then he asks you if it's true what everyone in the neighborhood is saying.

"Did they get two little boys for killing that girl? Is that why the TV is here?"

You tell him indeed that's why the TV is here. In a world - in a city - where murder is commonplace and many killings don't attract even the passing attention of the media, this is one of those cases that causes even hard-nosed police officers and cynical journalists to shake their heads in sadness and disbelief.

Ryan Harris, an 11-year-old honor roll student from south suburban Lansing who had dreams of becoming a doctor, was riding her bicycle in the 6600 block of S. Parnell on July 27 when a 7-year-old boy struck her with a rock, fracturing her skull, police said. The 7-year-old and an 8-year-old boy then allegedly assaulted the girl with a foreign object and suffocated the girl with a piece of her own clothing and debris from the unkempt, open yard where she was attacked, police said.

Just when we think killers can't get any younger, this.

It's a sunny Monday morning, and news of the boys' arrest has spread quickly through the Englewood neighborhood. Residents cluster on porches and on street corners, many of them expressing disbelief.

"I don't believe those boys did that," says Carolyn Cooper. "There's just no way."

You wander away from the police-and-media cluster, and that's when you happen upon the small boy who is 8 - the same age as the older of the suspects.

"No little boys would do that," he says. "[The killers] gotta be older."

Then he says something that stuns you, something that tells you 8-year-old boys either watch too much crime-TV or hear and see too much of the real world at a young age.

"Maybe they got those boys' fingerprints from the girl's bicycle," the boy says.

In the backyard of one suspect's home is a milk crate attached to a wooden plank, nailed to a tree. It's a makeshift basketball hoop.

Across the street is the Benjamin Banneker Elementary School. A sign outside proclaims: "I Can and I Will. Children First."

You walk over to Parnell Avenue, behind a brown-brick, boarded-up, two-story building, to the scene where the girl was killed. Negotiating the weeds and broken glass and heavy rocks and empty whiskey and beer bottles, you kick at a folded square of paper.

It's one of the fliers that was handed out by Cook County Crime Stoppers after Ryan's body had been found. It contains an offer of a $1,000 reward and photos of Ryan and the royal blue Road Warrior bicycle she was riding.

She was killed right here. You try to get a sense of this as a place of evil, but of course it's not. It's an eyesore lot like a thousand others.

There's a small shrine near the house next door. Shrinking balloons, wilting flowers, a candle.

A man named Eric comes out and scrapes the remainder of his breakfast from a skillet into the garbage. He won't give his last name, but he's willing to talk about the news.

"I'm just shocked," he says. "I have a son who's 9 and I can't even imagine him being involved in something like that. I was expecting they'd catch someone a whole lot older."

It's not supposed to be this way. You don't care what town or what year - when it's a July afternoon and an 11-year-old girl is riding her bicycle alongside an 8-year-old boy and a 7-year-old boy, at the worst they're supposed to tease her or chase her. At the very worst.

The suspects each weigh about 35 pounds. Neither has reached the 4-foot mark in height. They are so small and young, there is no detention facility in the Chicago area that is properly equipped to house them.

Richard Roeper is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, where this article first appeared. Roeper also has written for TV Guide, Spy, Playboy, Chicago magazine and many other publications, and has appeared as a guest on "Nightline" and "Oprah." This article was distributed by New York Times Special Features.

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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