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Even on mean streets, he was so very young


CHICAGO -- In a city often numbed by the exploits of gang murderers, the saga of Robert Sandifer was sadly familiar -- except for his age.

Object of a three-day police hunt, Robert was suspected in the shooting death of one teen-ager and the wounding of two others. He was found early yesterday, a murder victim himself. Shot in the back of the head, he lay face down under a viaduct.

When he died, authorities said, Robert Sandifer was 11 years old.

He was sought for the slaying Sunday of Shavon Dean, 14, who was struck by a bullet apparently meant for a member of a gang. She wanted to be a beautician and had slipped out of her house that night, despite her mother's urgings that she stay inside, to visit a candy store and practice her skills on a neighbor's hair.

Robert was nicknamed "Yummy" for his love of cookies and stood less than 5 feet tall. He was also a member of the Black Disciples, a street gang whose ranks number in the hundreds and are alleged to be involved in the drug trade, car thefts, extortion, prostitution and credit card fraud. Police theorize that his own gang, seeing him as a liability, executed him.

He was a "tough shorty," the name gang members here give to their baby-faced members. His personal rap sheet listed eight arrests on suspicion of crimes ranging from armed robbery to auto theft.

Illinois children's services authorities were searching for a home for him outside the state after 13 local agencies turned him down. Robert, said Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, "was in trouble from the moment he was conceived. His family made him a sociopath."

Robert came from a disturbing background but, Mr. Murphy added, it was far from unique. "Believe me, we see this 100 times a week."

Nationwide, the most recent FBI statistics show, 267 children under the age of 14 were charged with murder in 1992, up 50 percent from the decade before. "It's not a diminishing problem. It's going to get worse," said George Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Center at Chicago State University.

Robert was the second of seven siblings. When he was 3, the state took Robert, who was covered with cigarette burns and bruises that appeared to be caused by an extension cord, out of his mother's custody. He was turned over to his grandmother, who raised him with little discipline in the house that at various times contained as many as 19 other children, Mr. Murphy said.

"If this child was protected five years ago, you save two people," Mayor Richard M. Daley said before Robert's corpse was found.

"Robert's no symbol," said his aunt, Bay Sandifer. "They'll probably be shooting tonight."

There was certainly shooting on Sunday.

In the afternoon, a 16-year-old gang member was shot with a semiautomatic handgun. Robert was wanted for questioning in the attack.

At 8:30 p.m., the same weapon was firing away at a group of teen-agers playing football; police say they may have also been gang members. Another 16-year-old boy was wounded in the leg and Shavon Dean, who had sneaked out minutes before, was killed.

Shavon Dean's mother, Debra, took no comfort in the fate of the alleged murderer. "I'm just sorry it happened to the boy," she said.

She noticed a woman signing Shavon's banner. It was Robert's aunt. In a moment, the two women were sighing together.

"We got to do something about these gangbangers," Ms. Sandifer said.

"It's got to start now," Ms. Dean said.

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