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Childhood Savagery Revisits Chicago's Tough South Side : Crime: Boy, 5, is dropped to his death by youths demanding he steal candy for them. Brother's rescue fails.

October 15, 1994|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — In the brutal pecking order that passes for childhood in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on Chicago's near South Side, Eric Morris already had three strikes against him the night he died. He was five years old, he was too weak to fight back and he wanted to do the right thing.

On Thursday night, Eric Morris fell to his death, dropped from the window of a 14th-floor project apartment by two older children angered because the boy would not steal candy for them.

Chicago police said that the two older youths, just 10 and 11, dangled their tiny captive out of the window, fighting off a rescue attempt by the boy's older brother. Police and neighbors said Derrick Morris, 8, grabbed his brother's arm but lost control as another youth attacked him.

Then Eric Morris fell.

"It's just cruel," said Joanne Mitchell, 28, an 11th-floor tenant of the Wells project. "What goes on in a child's mind to do that to a baby? What kind of kids are we raising?"

Children kill and are killed in almost every American city. But Chicago seems to have carved its own grim niche this summer. Over the past month, South Side neighborhoods have repeatedly become scenes of childhood savagery that dwarf even the fictionalized terrors of "The Lord of the Flies."

First, there was Robert Sandifer, an 11-year-old murder suspect known as "Yummy" to his friends. He was shot in the head, allegedly executed by two fellow adolescent gang members because they feared he might surrender to police. Days later, Chicago police arrested yet another unnamed 11-year-old and charged him with the bludgeoning murder a year ago of an elderly neighbor.

On Friday, Chicago police detained two youths whose names they would not reveal, charging them with first-degree murder in Eric Morris' death. Police said that both of the suspects have confessed their roles in the boy's death. But because of their young ages, they face only a maximum of 5 years' probation or commitment to a state juvenile facility until they are 21.

"Instances such as these are not easy," said Chicago Police Detective Commander Charles Smith. "It's very sad when a five-year-old is killed."

Police said that the Morris boys and the other youths went into the high-rise project building shortly before 8 p.m. Thursday. Although the Morrises lived in a low-rise nearby, they were not stopped by Chicago Housing Authority police assigned to monitor the entrances, police said.

Neighbors also criticized the housing authority for not moving fast enough to board up abandoned apartments. Housing Authority spokesman Steve Canty said that more than 6,300 of the agency's 48,700 units are vacant, but insisted that abandoned units are boarded up quickly "if they can't be made usable quickly."

The Morris boys were led to an abandoned 14th-floor unit that police described as a "clubhouse" where neighbors say youths used to smoke marijuana and crack.

The older youths tried to persuade the Morris boys "to steal candy," Smith said. When the boys refused, Eric was "dangled out the window and then pulled in" by Derrick.

But then Eric was grabbed and "dangled again." As Derrick tried again to pull his brother to safety, another youth "bit and scratched" Derrick. In the confusion, both Derrick and the older youth let Eric go.

"It was horrible," said Monique Jackson, 14, who watched from outside the building as she was returning from a nearby market. "He came down waving and screaming."

One of the suspects had been arrested at least six times, according to law enforcement authorities, on charges ranging from unlawful use of a weapon to aggravated battery with a fist. The other youth has one referral to juvenile court on a theft charge, authorities said.

In the maroon-brick low-rise units where the Morrises live, there was astonishment at the way he died, but no surprise about the youths charged with his murder.

"That boy used to steal candy from my younger brother," said Shawn Jackson, 11. "And last summer, he hit me in the eye with a slingshot."

There was no one inside the Morris residence. Toni Morris, the child's mother, had been hospitalized in shock at her son's death, neighbors said. And Derrick Morris was being treated for bites, scratches and bruises he suffered as he tried in vain to pull his brother to safety.

As dusk fell, a horde of children gathered around Joanne Mitchell as she stood near the Morris home. Some hit each other with sticks. Others clutched the hands of older siblings, wondering what the talk was all about.

"Derrick was doing everything a brother should do," Joanne Mitchell said. "That boy's a hero. But what's this going to do to him, seeing his brother die like that? This ain't the kind of thing that's supposed to happen to little boys. I don't care where you live."

Times staff writer Judy Pasternak and Times researcher John Becham contributed to this story.

* NO SALE FOR TOY GUNS: Some chains say they won't sell 'realistic' toy firearms. D1

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