About a month after my wife’s mom died suddenly, we received a phone call from Brian Peterlinz with some more unbelievably bad news: Our good friend Mark Evans had been found dead – murdered outside his Chicago home.
Mark – “Atwood” to his friends – knew countless people from all walks of life, and many of them came together. There were memorials at the site of course, but a number of us got together and came up with a large reward. Matt Geyber and I spent a few Sunday mornings around the neighborhood putting up reward posters and meeting people who lived in and around the area. Not everyone there is a gang-banger.
A few weeks after Mark’s death, another person was found shot dead in an alley not far away. What was especially significant about this 15-year-old is that Mark knew his family – they had rented the apartment downstairs.
Eventually, police discovered that the 15-year-old and three others had allegedly woken Mark up late at night (he probably opened the door thinking it was a friend needing a place to crash) in order to take Mark to an ATM and rob him.
When Mark was killed, the 15-year-old apparently talked too much about it – maybe afraid of what had happened. I don’t know.
But police say he was killed to silence him about Mark’s murder, and their work eventually led to the arrest of Jorge Pena, whose trial started today. The trial is for the murder of the 15-year-old, but Mark was mentioned several times in terms of motive for this killing.
I’m not a courtroom artist, but below are a few sketches of Mr. Pena.
The trial began opening statements in which the prosecutor laid out his facts and the defense attorney pronounced his strategy – the defense is essentially claiming that Pena was no longer a street gang member and that other members are framing him because of that.
The first witness was the 15-year-old’s mother. She tearfully identified photos of her son and left the stand. She is a tall, beautiful woman, originally from Sudan and – in spite of her son’s involvement – the two families have become close. I learned today that Mark was a friend to them, which did not surprise me.
The next witness was a man who described Pena and the boy arguing the night of his death. He claimed Pena pushed the boy and told him he talked too much. He was drinking that evening, but did not waver in his description.
The second witness was even more compelling – a then 13-year-old girl (now 16)who described her encounter with the boy and seeing Pena maybe loading a pistol, saw Pena run from the alley shortly after hearing gunshots and finally discovering the boy’s body. It took weeks for her to come forward and tell the police. Her testimony was very emotional and she was clearly upset when she first took the stand – at times having to pause due to tears.
The final witness of the day was a woman who at one time had a short “intimate” relationship with Pena. She testified that Pena told her he killed Mark and the boy with two different guns, and that the guns had been disposed of.
For each witness, the defense asked if the street gang had threatened them to testify – all denied it.
It’ll be up to the jury to sort out the truth of this – I tend not to put much credence with the defense’s approach but I recognize that I’m biased. But I also know the defense is not calling any witnesses (at the moment) – their case will be that the prosecution did not prove their case. It is their job to put up the most effective defense they can in all cases.
But, as mystery writer and professional court advocate Michael Allen Dymmoch says, there will be no winners in this trial. A young man maybe about 18 on trial for murder. A 13-year-old who found a dead body and a year later became pregnant and dropped out of school. A woman of around 40 with at least two daughters who – until about a year ago – was a full voting member of a Chicago street gang who had liasons with at least one barely-legal boy.* A 15-year-old boy with his entire life ahead of him., cut short in part due to his involvement in a street gang.
And, of course, Mark.
At best, we may get a killer off the streets. But, that’s what we need to do.
* Updated to correct for Pena’s age