CHICAGO — Police are searching for a gunman who used an assault rifle to fire on a pickup basketball game in a Chicago South Side neighborhood, injuring 13 people and dragging the city back into the international spotlight for its violent crime problem.
At least 16 bullets were fired into Cornell Square Park late Thursday, wounding a 3-year-old boy and a dozen other people. All are expected to survive, many with wounds to their arms and legs.
Shell casings found around the blood-soaked basketball courts were 7.62-millimeter rounds, which are typically used in AK-47 assault rifles. Although gun violence has long plagued the city's impoverished neighborhoods, offenders almost never use military-style weapons.
"It's a miracle there has been no fatality," Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a news conference Friday morning. "Illegal guns ... drive violence.... A military-grade weapon on the streets of Chicago is simply unacceptable."
The park is in a heavily gang-infested area, but it is not in a so-called impact zone flooded by police officers to deter crime, McCarthy said. The nearest zones are three blocks to the north and three blocks to the south, leaving Cornell Square protected mainly by occasional patrols and an 11 p.m. curfew that applies to all Chicago parks.
About 45 minutes before the park's closing time, at least one gunman walked to the basketball court in the 1800 block of West 51st Street and opened fire, police said. The 13 people shot included the pickup game's players and spectators, including 3-year-old Deonta Howard. The boy, who was standing near the court, was shot near the ear and the bullet exited through his cheek, police and relatives said. His family said he was expected to recover but would need plastic surgery.
After visiting Deonta in the hospital Friday, his grandmother Semehca Nunn called for an end to the violence that over the last few years has terrorized her historically working-class Back of the Yards neighborhood, so named because of the area's proximity to Chicago's once-famed stockyards.
"They need to stop — they need to stop," Nunn said before collapsing in tears.
Police say they believe the shooting stemmed from an ongoing dispute between two rival gangs.
It was not known whether any of the victims were the intended targets, authorities said.
"There were members of gangs on the scene and there were gang members among the victims," McCarthy said.
Authorities do not have anyone in custody and are reviewing video from police cameras mounted nearby. There could be as many as three offenders, officials say.
The first paramedics on the scene found more than a dozen people lying across the rust-colored court. Ambulances continued to arrive half an hour after the shootings as wounded people — including a 15-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl — were carried out on stretchers. About 60 police officers converged on the park and crime lab investigators combed the scene.
The images again drew the world's attention to Chicago's troubling history of gun violence. Before Thursday night's shooting, eight children younger than 8 had been shot over the last seven weeks. "Every time somebody is shot in this city, it's a setback," McCarthy said. "But this is not a problem particular to the city of Chicago."
The incident appeared serious enough for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to cancel a meeting on city issues with Obama administration Cabinet secretaries Friday and return to Chicago, his spokeswoman, Sarah Hamilton, said. Upon his return, Emanuel spent 40 minutes speaking with Deonta's family at the hospital where the boy, who remained in critical condition, was being prepared for surgery.
The mayor did not speak with reporters, but he released a statement asking the community to cooperate with the investigation.
"Senseless and brazen acts of violence have no place in Chicago and betray all that we stand for," his statement said. "The perpetrators of this crime will be brought to justice and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I encourage everyone in the community to step forward with any information and everyone in Chicago to continue their individual efforts to build stronger communities where violence has no place."
The shootings occurred just days after the FBI released crime data showing that Chicago had more murders than New York City in 2012. McCarthy argued Friday that the statistics were old news and did not represent the progress made in the city, where the murder rate has dropped by 20% over the last year.
For neighborhood residents, the reality Thursday night began with a burst of rapid gunfire. Deonta's older brother, Jamarrie Toney, was at his aunt's home across from Cornell Square when he heard the shots. He ran to the park's gate and saw his brother lying on the ground with a gunshot wound to the face.
Jamarrie, 9, had not seen Deonta since paramedics rushed the little boy to the hospital. "I just miss him," he said.
Another victim, a 37-year-old man who was shot in the leg, said he had been in the park with friends when the gunfire began.
"I turned around; I heard screaming,'' he said.
Then he saw Deonta.
"I just saw his face. Just tore off ... they almost shot his whole face off," he said.
The man, who asked that his name not be used, leaned on a cane after being released from the hospital. Medical tape held down a piece of cotton gauze on his left arm, and he was missing the shoe from the leg where he had also been shot.
He denied feeling anger toward the shooter.
"I'm just grateful — grateful to be alive," he said.