CHICAGO - The only memorial for 5-year-old Eric Morse at the Ida B. Wells housing project is the square of plywood nailed over the 14th-floor window from which he was thrown to his death.
"At the top, see that brown wood, that's where he dropped from," says LeAlan Jones, who is 16 and lives two blocks away.
"There's a little patch of dirt where he hit," says 17-year-old Lloyd Newman, LeAlan's best friend.
LeAlan knocks on a table.
"Dirt like this," he says. "Hard dirt."
"Fourteen stories," Lloyd says. "That's high."
Eric Morse, a bright, smiling, energetic boy who loved to do back flips and joke with his mother, was dropped to his death Oct. 13, 1994, because he wouldn't help steal candy from a supermarket. His killers were 10 and 11.
The nation flinched. President Clinton expressed outrage. Eric's death became a symbol of a strange, new violence people saw infecting the country's children. At Ida B. Wells, LeAlan and Lloyd saw kids from their neighborhood in terrible trouble.
They investigated Eric's death for National Public Radio, which will air their documentary at 4 p.m. tomorrow, during the first hour of the news show "All Things Considered." The report, "Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse," is an elegy for Eric. It will be rebroadcast at 6 p.m.
Eric has no marker in the bleak Ida B. Wells complex. Ida B, as they call the projects here, doesn't seem to want to remember him. Ida B lives life in the present at the daily exchange rate. The future is now. The past indistinct.
"Nothing's left," Lloyd says. He lives in an old and battered Ida B duplex. "No symbols. Nothing. It's not forgotten in their families. But it's forgotten in the community."
"It's something that happened in the past," says LeAlan. "The past. The day after it happened was the past.
"It's a stoicism, like just taking pain," he says. "Like the Greeks had stoicism so pain wouldn't affect them. It's like that around here. You done stoicize yourself so it don't harm you anymore."
Three years ago, at 13 and 14, LeAlan and Lloyd made their first documentary on their own lives and their neighborhood. Broadcast on NPR in June 1993, "Ghetto Life 101" won a shelf full of awards from the Sigma Delta Chi, to the Livingston, to the Prix Italia, Europe's most prestigious broadcasting prize. "Remorse" speaks with the same authentic voice that marked the first documentary as unique.
"I wouldn't say I was an expert at reporting yet," LeAlan says. "But on this story I'm probably an expert, because I've done other things other reporters didn't do, such as interviewing Mrs. Morse [Eric's mother] and family members of the kids who did it. And on living in this community, I'm an expert."
Ellen Weiss, executive producer of "All Things Considered," calls "Remorse" a powerful piece of journalism. "You just don't hear that voice talking about something that big. You hear officials. You don't hear young black men."
LeAlan is truly articulate, a smart, savvy junior who makes A's and B's at nearby Martin Luther King High School. Although he's not a big kid, he's captain of the football team, a strong safety who made 14 tackles in Lloyd and LeAlan on "Remorse."
Once again, he wanted to create a vehicle for their voice on radio.
"I'd suggest questions," he says. "And they'd throw them out."
They produced nearly 60 hours of tape.
"I edited it in collaboration with the boys through 10 or 11 drafts," Mr. Isay says. "We batted it back and forth for the final tape."
He got Frank Morgan, the fine jazz saxophonist whose life is a model of redemption, to write and play the score for "Remorse."
LeAlan and Lloyd can expect to make $8,000 to $10,000 each from the project, Mr. Isay says. (They made perhaps $3,000 from "Ghetto Life 101.") And there may be a movie deal.
"We split all profits three ways," Mr. Isay says.
LeAlan and Lloyd have gotten a modest amount of celebrity in the 'hood, but mostly from newspaper stories and television interviews about their NPR shows. LeAlan has been on the "Geraldo" show twice. Few people around Ida B hear NPR.
"They listen to rap," Lloyd says.
The boys now meet a certain amount of envy and suspicion.
"I like that kind of suspicions of the kids," LeAlan says. "I got close to 30 pairs of gym shoes. That's probably as much or more than any drug dealer back there. I probably got almost everything a drug dealer has, and yet I didn't go that route that the drug dealer did to get it.
"The kids see me with the same thing that the drug dealer has and they see me right out there on the corner and not doing bad things and that might put them on the right track. Almost just having what the drug dealer has."
Lloyd contents himself with about 10 pairs: "I wait till they wear down then buy some more."
Packing a recorder
For "Remorse," LeAlan and Lloyd interview prosecuting and defense attorneys, kids who knew Eric, and his killers. They pack their Marantz tape recorder to the 14th floor "penthouse" from which Eric plunged. They ask the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority what it would be like to live at Ida B.
"It'd be hell," he tells them.
Lloyd does live in Ida B, in a low-rise duplex that could be a refugee camp somewhere outside Zagreb.
Ida B is Chicago's oldest housing project, spreading 14-story high-rise apartments and seven-story extensions over 69 acres since the first rowhouses were built in 1939. The high-rises look like something rejected by East Berlin.
"You go back over there, you feel that you're in a concentration camp." LeAlan says. "People are saying they should tear down those houses. They shouldn't have been built in the first place. They should have been low-rise housing with more home facilities.
"There are rat holes," he says. "It's dirty. It's just steel. I mean it's almost the same material they use to make prisons. You don't see no flowers, no flower beds. You don't see no green grass. You see a dog it's shaggy and mangy. It's not what you see on TV, Wally and the Beaver."
LeAlan lives in rowhouse a couple of blocks away. It has seen much better days. His grandmother, June Marie Jones, moved into their house in 1937, when this was a fine neighborhood with nice homes and stores and hotels.
"It was a good neighborhood, a great neighborhood," LeAlan says. It's called the Low End.
"The low end of the city, the low numbers of the city", he says. "The low end in finance, low end in employment. But high crime rate."
The homes on both sides of Mrs. Jones' house have been torn down, leaving the Jones home isolated at the end of a block on Oakwood boulevard like an old tooth. The remnants of old rooms and phantom stairs mark the sides of the house like shards of lost lives. The vaguely chowlike family dog, Ferocious, whose bark listeners might remember from "Ghetto Life 101," is tied up at the top of the stoop that leads to the front door.
Mrs. Jones, who is 66, is the strong matriarch and support of her very extended family. She volunteers at a local school and sings first soprano at Metropolitan Community Church. LeAlan recorded her singing the old gospel song "One Day at a Time" for "101." Her voice was hoarse but sweet.
Mrs. Jones raised eight children in the house and she's now helping bring up five of her grandchildren and the son of a cousin. LeAlan's mother, Toutchi, who is 37, and his sisters Janelle, 20, and, Jerri, 11, live here.
Toutchi has been taking medication for a mental illness on and off for 20 years. LeAlan's grandfather, Gus, worked for years in the Chicago stockyards, lugging sides of beef.
"Is that where we get our strong backs?" LeAlan asks his grandmother on "101."
Gus sits mostly smiling and silent now after a series of strokes. His round, strong and handsome face is reflected in LeAlan's.
In a memorable moment in "Ghetto Life 101," LeAlan asks his mother: "Who is my father?"
Toutchi replies: "Your father is a fellow named Toby Flipper. He knows you exist. He seen you when you was about 2, and I ain't seen him since."
"What do you think happened to him?"
"He probably dead."
Equally remarkable is Lloyd's question to his father, who is drunk and acting the fool by spelling fool "l-o-o-f." He asks, "Do you think you've been a good father?"
"Yes, I have," his father replies, slurring the words. "To the best capability I could."
"I have no further questions," Lloyd says.
His mother is dead and he lives with his two older sisters.
Both Lloyd and LeAlan say you've got to be an expert to survive in their neighborhood and they are their own best evidence.
"You cannot be a dummy," LeAlan says. "You can't be ignorant of things. You've got to be aware at all times. You've got to be conscious of everything going on around you.
"Like in a jungle with animals, you can't find a zebra, a gazelle, an antelope who's goin' to walk around just dummy and unconscious. It's a lion out there. There's all these predators out there.
"That's the way it is around here," he says. "Like the animal kingdom, either you're a prey or you're a predator. There ain't nobody preying on me. I ain't nobody's prey. I ain't nobody's huckleberry.
"Every time you walk these streets you think about that," he says. "Are you predator or are you prey? Even if you're a big guy, you got to watch your back."
He looks down Oakwood Boulevard with the thousand-yard stare of a veteran infantryman.
An unfriendly place
A lovely, sunny, pre-spring day has brought everybody out onto these streets on the South Side of Chicago.
But it's not a good day to stroll around the Ida B.
"I wouldn't want to walk around there today," LeAlan says.
"People'll get suspicious. There's a lot of things going on. They're doing what they got to do. People walking by to buy what they gotta buy. Buy drugs. You don't want them to be thinking you be suspicious.
"Frankly," he says, "they don't like the idea of seeing white people in the projects."
"Right," agrees Lloyd.
Earlier in the day, the guy in the Bulls cap put it this way: "Get your ass out of the goddamn projects."
So we pile into a rental car and circle Ida B. A multitude of kids swarm through the sunny streets. In 1992, the last time the Chicago Housing Authority counted, 5,660 people lived in Ida B. Nearly 2,500 were under 14.
"One of things wrong with these children now," LeAlan's grandmother had said, "is that you have younger parents now, single parents now, children raising children, and that these children nowadays have no fear. They're not afraid of anything. I blame parents first. But how can a child teach a child."
L LeAlan and Lloyd certainly agree that the kids have no fear.
"You got little kids out here who think there ain't no tomorrow," LeAlan says, "that feel they're living for today. What kid should live for today? That's bad. Ten and 11 and 12 and 13 and 14, and you're living for today. They should be living for tomorrow."
"They don't see past right now," LeAlan says.
"They don't see past what they're doing," Lloyd says.
"I see myself going to college, being successful and everything," LeAlan says. "They see themselves doing what they doing that day, that minute, that second.
"They serving time and they're on the outside. They ain't even in jail, and they're just serving time. They got enough time served now."
He thinks there were four victims of the death of Eric Morse.
"In a way, the kids that did it, they're victims." In January, they became the youngest boys ever sentenced to a maximum-security prison. "They'll never have a bedroom, live a life where they gonna live in a house like other kids. They still
"Derrick, Eric's brother, is going to have to live the memory of knowing his brother got killed and being there when it happened and running down the steps trying to catch him. He's always going to remember that."
"And fourth, Eric's a victim. He died."
Lloyd and LeAlan understand the killers they call "Johnny" and "Tyrone" in their report, but they're not unduly forgiving.
"Yeah, they were bad," they say, virtually in unison.
"Look at their record," LeAlan says. "It speaks for itself.
"Was the community they lived in bad? Yes.
"Was their home life bad? Yes.
"Everything in their life was bad!"
"Nothing was good," Lloyd adds.
These two reporters use a remarkable turn of phrase to describe the two boys who pushed Eric to his death.
"They've been falling since birth," LeAlan says.
"Falling! Falling!" says Lloyd.
How many kids who they know have been in trouble with the law?
"Probably over 50 per cent," LeAlan guesses.
"Everybody," says Lloyd, with a small giggle.
How have you escaped?
"We didn't escape it yet," LeAlan replies. "I'm still here. I've found an oasis in the jungle, in the desert."
Lloyd? "I've found a tree to hide in for the night."
"Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse" can be heard on the National Public Radio news program "All Things Considered" at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. tomorrow on WJHU, 88.1 FM.
Pub Date: 3/20/96