Death at An Early Age
09/19/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
EVEN IN THE ANNALS OF CHILDREN killing children, to which new chapters are being added with depressing regularity, it was somehow uniquely disturbing. To the very end, Janie Fields couldn't bring herself to believe what people were saying about her 11-year-old grandson Robert "Yummy" Sandifer. Standing on the front porch of her small frame house in south Chicago's tough Rose-land neighborhood, Fields insisted that Yummy—so-called for his love of cookies—was not the minimonster being described by the police and the press. As she told it, the wiry 4'8" youngster liked to tinker with his bike and stereo and was devoted to his two dogs, a bloodhound named Lady Long Ears and his Chihuahua, Piccolo. "He's a nice kid," said Fields, still clinging to the present tense, "until he gets with the wrong group."
The trouble was, in all his short life he was never far from those wrong groups—the drug gangs of the inner city. So it was that on the evening of Aug. 28, while perhaps tending to unspecified gang business, Sandifer opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol in his neighborhood and accidentally killed Shavon Dean, 14, a cheery high school freshman who had hoped to become a beautician. One of three children, Shavon was acquainted with Sandifer, but was not friendly with him. The tragedy came full circle three days later when Sandifer, whose bedroom was decorated with posters of typical teen icons like Michael Jordan, as well as gang slogans, was himself found shot to death under a desolate railroad viaduct, evidently executed so that he could not implicate his cohorts.
In retrospect, perhaps no one should have been surprised by what happened. Robert's prospects had never been bright. His mother, Lorina Sandifer, now 29, who has a history of drug abuse and at least 30 misdemeanor arrests, had her first child when she was 15. Robert, whose father, Robert Akins, is serving time in Wisconsin on drug charges, was the third of her seven kids.
It did not take long for Robert and his siblings to come to the attention of child welfare authorities. Before he was 3, after social workers had investigated the family on three separate occasions, Robert, his two brothers and one sister were taken from their mother on the grounds of cruelty and severe neglect. (Authorities were unsure who had inflicted the physical abuse.) "When Robert came into the system he had cigarette burns on his butt, his neck, his arm, and linear marks all over his body—where he'd been beaten with an electrical cord," says Patrick Murphy, Cook County public guardian since 1978. "Neighbors claimed that his 5 ½-year-old brother was watching the kids 12 hours a day while the mom was off."
The court awarded legal guardianship to the children's grandmother Janie Fields, then in her mid-30s. Soon, though, Fields was overwhelmed by the task of controlling the kids. (At various times the household contained as many as 19 children.) Robert stopped going to school regularly when he was 8 and spent his time roaming the streets of Roseland, which for all its poverty and crime is far from the most blighted of Chicago's inner-city neighborhoods. "He was an ordinary kid, no trouble to me," says Danny Prear, his coach at the public pool where he was on the swimming team. But others who knew him say he was becoming deeply involved in serious crime. "Yummy was bad; bad, bad," says Shshana Simmons, a friend of Shavon's. "He broke into people's houses and stole cars." At some point he became an apprentice thug with a drug gang called the Black Disciples.
In 1993 child welfare workers once again intervened, this time moving Sandifer and his siblings to a state-run shelter. Assistant public guardian Ann O'Callaghan recalls her shock last year when she first encountered Robert. "I'd heard that he was heavily into the gang structure," says O'Callaghan, "and here was this little kid with his brother, and they were wearing these little matching brown outfits."
But no boyish camouflage could conceal the menace Robert had become. Last November he and one of his brothers were sent to Lawrence Hall, a residential center for troubled boys on Chicago's north side. He soon ran away from Lawrence Hall and never returned. In February, Robert pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery and was sentenced to two years probation. With that the youth services system essentially ran out of options for him. "There are no secure facilities in the state for these violent kids," says county guardian Murphy. "And it takes from six months to two years to get an out-of-state placement." But as Murphy sees it, the truly heartbreaking fact is that there was little that could be done. "By age 3, Robert was a sociopath," says Murphy. "With a ton of intervention—three or four years in a great facility—we might have made him into a nonviolent sociopath."
Instead, he was arrested in June on a stolen-car charge and in August on a burglary rap. Despite his age—in fact, to a certain extent because of it—authorities were helpless to take any meaningful steps to halt his slide. He was too young to be held in jail or held with older, hardened juveniles, but too dangerous himself to be placed with young offenders.
On the evening of Aug. 28, Sandifer began his final spree by shooting a neighborhood student, Kianta Britten, 15. "Kianta was coming down the street, and Yummy asked him what gang he was related to," says Britten's mother, Patricia. "Kianta said he wasn't in a gang, and Yummy pulled out a gun." Sandifer's first shots missed Britten, but the next two struck, one hitting him in the stomach, another catching a nerve, which has left him partially paralyzed. Two hours later, Sandifer opened fire on a nearby group of boys playing football, some of whom were believed to be rival gang members. At that moment, Shavon was walking to a friend's house munching corn chips from a bag. Just yards from her home, she was struck in the head by a stray bullet.
In the three days after the killing, as police combed the city for him, Robert was given refuge by the Black Disciples. On Aug. 31, according to investigators, he was sitting on a neighbor's porch, apparently waiting for his grandmother to pick him up. At that point, say authorities, two alleged fellow gang members, Cragg Hardaway, 16, and his younger brother, led him to their car. According to police, the younger brother, whose name is being withheld because of his age, later told them that Cragg had taken Robert into the underpass. The brother said he heard three shots, and that Cragg came back to the car saying, "It's done." Cragg reportedly insisted that he had merely handed Robert over to another youth at the viaduct. In any case, shortly after midnight Robert's body was found, his head in a pool of blood, dirt and glass.
At his funeral last week, friends and relatives tried to give some meaning to a young life wasted. But ultimately there was really only sadness, an emotion well suited to a world where children carry guns and adults carry their coffins. "Something very, very wrong is happening; everyone is trying to grapple with why," says Patrick Murphy softly. "I suppose there are a million reasons."
BARBARA SANDLER and GRANT PICK in Chicago