Chicago shocked by murderous end to South Side story

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WASHINGTON - The Chicago police named him only as Robert. He was 4 feet 8 inches tall, 11 years old, and wanted as a prime suspect in the random shooting murder of a girl of 14, writes Rupert Cornwell. Yesterday the search apparently ended, when a body believed to be his was found with a bullet in the back of the head, beneath a highway overpass on the tough South Side of the city.

Even in a Chicago long inured to street gangs, guns and senseless killings, the short and bloody tale of Robert Sandifur, culminating in his gangland-style murder, has stunned public opinion.

Before last weekend, he had already compiled a criminal record that career hoodlums normally take a lifetime to achieve. He had been prosecuted at least eight times for burglary, armed robbery, car theft and arson, and convicted twice. But because of his age he was put on probation.

On Sunday evening, Robert is believed to have added murder to that list. In a first incident, he is suspected of firing at a group of boys on a street corner, seriously wounding a 16-year-old.

Two hours later he apparently did the same to another group of teenagers a few blocks away. Another boy was wounded, while a stray bullet hit 14-year-old Shavon Dean and killed her, a few yards from her house.

According to police, the attacks may have been part of a gang initiation ritual. In Chicago and other big cities, older gang leaders often recruit children to deal in drugs and to gun down rivals, thus avoiding the long prison sentences that they would face if they committed the crimes themselves.

Robert, though young even by these brutal standards, was ideal material. 'This is a tragic, tragic case,' said the public guardian who represents child defendants in inner-city Chicago courts. 'This kid never had a chance. He was a time-bomb waiting to happen.' At three, he was taken from his mother after social workers found his body covered with cigarette burns, bruises and rope marks. They transferred Robert to his grandmother, but she made no attempt to control him.

Repeatedly, he ran away and was finally made a ward of of the state of Illinois. He had been due to be moved to a juvenile centre in another state when Sunday's shootings occurred. Robert Sandifur's murder was the 79th and last in Chicago during August.