‘It’s any parent’s worst nightmare’

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Rita Sallie, the mother of 13-year-old Schanna Gayden who was killed in gang crossfire on June 25, buried her daughter on June 30 yet can’t afford a headstone for the grave. A trust fund has been set up in Schanna’s name at Chase Bank. Donations can be made to any Chase Bank. Make checks out to the Rita Sallie Trust Agreement, account number 2048523159.

Rita Sallie sprinted to her little girl at the neighborhood playground. Through her sobs, Sallie heard her daughter struggle to breathe as police created a barricade around the bloody crime scene. Through her tears, she saw the bullet hole in her head as an ambulance screamed in the distance. Through her shock, she saw her daughter’s eyes opened but staring blankly right through her.

“My baby couldn’t see me,” Sallie says through fresh tears, reliving the memory in her mind. “She couldn’t see her mother. I’ll never forget that look on my baby’s face.”

This single image has haunted Sallie since June 25, when a gang member emptied his 9mm handgun into a Logan Square playground over a turf battle; when Sallie’s 13-year-old daughter, Schanna Gayden, stood at the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time; when the college-bound honor student hit the ground near a “Play it safe” playground sign.

Just 20 minutes earlier, Rita Sallie walked past the small neighborhood park-a half-block from the family’s Dickens Street apartment-on her way home from the bus stop after work. She gave Schanna a $20 bill to buy herself a slice of watermelon from a street vendor and told her to bring back the change.

“OK Ma,” Schanna told her mother, flashing that million-dollar smile. “I’ll be back.”

Since then, Sallie has waded through a wreckage of parental regrets: What if she didn’t give Schanna money to buy watermelon? What if she hung around the park a few minutes longer to jump in front of that wayward bullet? What if she told Schanna to go home with her instead? What if, what if, what if?

Then, maybe Sallie’s niece wouldn’t have bolted into her apartment screaming, “Auntie, auntie, Schanna’s been shot in the head!” Then, maybe Sallie wouldn’t have prayed out loud as she ran to the park: “God, tell me my niece is wrong, tell me my niece is wrong!” Then, maybe doctors wouldn’t have worked on her brain-dead daughter through the middle of the night until finally saying, “Your daughter’s heart stopped beating. We’re very sorry.”

Sallie raised Schanna, one of three siblings, to be everything she wasn’t-outgoing, open to strangers, always smiling in public. “She was everything I taught her to be and then some. She was my champion,” says Sallie, who called her daughter “my lovely” and “pumpkin pie” since she was a child.

In their close-knit community on the city’s northwest side, neighbors didn’t call Sallie “ma’am” or “Rita” or “Ms. Sallie.” They called her “Schanna’s mom.” Sallie took it as high praise. Her daughter attracted strangers’ smiles and friends’ waves like a playground attracts children, she says.

Schanna also had her life’s plans written in stone: Graduate eighth grade, enter high school and play basketball (she was a star player at Ames Middle School), get an athletic scholarship to college, attend culinary arts school, play in the Women’s National Basketball Association and retire to open a restaurant called “Susana,” her name in Spanish, she was once told.

“She had it all planned out,” Sallie says. “We had it all planned out. And then …”

And then the city’s gang warfare snuffed out her plans at what should be a universal safety zone for kids-a school playground.

Police say two alleged Imperial Gangsters stood next to each other on one side of North Central Park Avenue, an invisible dividing line from the Spanish Cobras, a rival gang. Gang members taunted each other from across the street and Imperial Gangster Mwenda Murithi, who goes by “Kenya” on the streets, ordered another gangster to get a “thumper,” a gun, witnesses told police.

Murithi then ordered 19-year-old Tony Serrano to shoot at rival gang members across the street, police said. Serrano did, missing those gang members but hitting Schanna. She fell instantly. Police soon arrested both Murithi and Serrano, charging them with Schanna’s murder two days later.

Life without Schanna

More than a month after the killing, Sallie says she still feels unspeakable rage inside her. Rage against her daughter’s killers. Rage against the city. Rage against the world. Even rage against God.

“I have so much rage I don’t know what to do with it,” she says. “All I can do is cry.”

So she does, every day, at nearly every mention of Schanna’s name, or a glance at Schanna’s last classroom certification stuck on the refrigerator (on the U.S. Constitution), or the sight of Schanna’s friends playing outside on a beautiful summer day. To help counter this, Schanna’s cheery face is now the screensaver on the family’s computer. Every time the screen fades to black Sallie jumps to move the mouse to bring Schanna’s image back to life again.

“They stole my baby,” she says crying, torn between not seeing Schanna’s image and then seeing it again, knowing she’s dead. “It’s any parent’s worst nightmare.”

Sallie, a single parent who speaks softly and thoughtfully, visits the playground daily, usually late at night so she can be “alone with Schanna.” A memorial erected there after Schanna’s death is still being added to by friends, neighbors and strangers. There, Sallie usually tells Schanna what she normally told her while she was alive-about her work day, her thoughts, her hopes, her dreams.

Sallie also pays weekly visits to Schanna’s grave, usually every Saturday, at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, taking two buses and a train to get there. There, she quietly sits atop her daughter’s grave, speaking to her as if she were alive, playfully hiding behind a tree or a headstone. But Schanna never pops her head out, smiling or giggling as she did since she was a baby.

On one recent bright, sunny day, Sallie pulls herself off the sofa in her darkened apartment to reveal another smiling photo of Schanna. Stuck to the refrigerator, it was a gift after her daughter’s funeral. Sallie walks into the kitchen and turns on a ceiling light to see it better. After showing it off and smiling, she places it back on the fridge, turns off the light and sits back on the sofa. Seconds later, the light turns on by itself.

Sallie’s mother, Joyce Mitchell, Schanna’s grandmother, walks into the living room and verbalizes what Sallie is already thinking: “Schanna is still here with us. Mmmm, hmmm. She wants us to know that. And I do, I do.”

But Sallie doesn’t believe it. Not yet anyway. She’s too filled with, first, sadness, then anger, and now guilt. She wonders if she “did something wrong” to displease God and that’s why He took Schanna away from her. She wonders about every conceivable scenario that would have saved her daughter’s life that Monday evening. She wonders what her daughter’s high school graduation would have been like, who she would have fallen in love with, and her wedding day, and her pregnancies, and her dreams, and …

Sallie keeps one particular photo of her daughter near and dear. It shows a beaming Schanna with her arm wrapped around her 11-year-old brother, Antwun. In the background, just behind Schanna’s protective arm, an ominous poster on a fence captures Sallie’s attention, sadness and regret each time she sees it.

The poster pleads: “DON’T SHOOT, I want to grow up.”

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