Locked Up at 14 for an Infamous Murder

DANVILLE, Ill. (AP) — On a late summer night just two months out of elementary school, Derrick Hardaway stepped into a car for a short ride and a deadly mission that changed his life.

He was 14, his brother, Cragg, 16, when they lured another gang member — an 11-year-old — to a lonely railroad underpass, promising they'd get him out of town to elude police. Instead, he was shot in the head in a murder that sent shock waves across the nation.

The haunting face of Robert Sandifer — nicknamed "Yummy" for his love of cookies — stared out from the cover of "Time" magazine. Everything about the story was tragic: an 11-year-old gang member with a long rap sheet, killed by his own for fear he'd spill secrets, buried with his stuffed animals.

And the aftermath: Two teens ordered to pay the price for delivering him to his death.

Now, more than 13 years later, Derrick Hardaway, one of those teens, remains behind bars, serving a 45-year sentence for his role in the murder. He says he is sorry, he knows he hurt many people and he sees the world a lot differently than he did as a cocky kid who envisioned a life of crime.

"The 14-year-old was blind," he says in a husky, barely audible voice. "Hardheaded. Know-it-all with dreams of being a drug dealer. Now ... the 27-year-old me? A lot smarter but still have a lot to learn. Willing to listen more. And appreciate things a lot more."

Such as? "Life," he says.

The terrible events that unfolded in 1994 should serve as a warning for kids everywhere, says Steve Drizin, a lawyer and Northwestern professor who represented Hardaway.

"This is probably the most compelling morality tale of why young teens should not get involved in gangs," he says. "It may seem like fun and games for a while. But there will come a time, when you're not only asked but forced to do something that could destroy another person's life, as well as your own."

Hardaway, who turns 28 in March, knows many of life's big moments have passed him by: High school. College. Saying goodbye to his father, who died suddenly in 1998. Seeing his 12-year-old son, Marshall grow up; the boy was born shortly after he was locked up.

"Being young, you're not really thinking," he says. "You have it in your mind, I can ... get away with a lot of things. Once reality sinks in and you get caught ... you get to thinking and realizing all the things that you're going to miss. It hurts. It really hurts. Some days it's easier to make it through. Some days you just feel like, 'I can't do this no more.' "

Sitting in the Danville Correctional Center , his slender face framed by a thin mustache and goatee, his hair coiled tightly in a single braid, Hardaway tells a story of a life that began unraveling in elementary school.

He and his brother, he says, were members of the Black Disciples street gang on the South Side. By age 12, he says, he was peddling crack cocaine, getting a $25 cut for every $100 sold and pocketing maybe $250 a week.

But his 19 brushes with the law as a juvenile, whether they were for drugs, gun possession, or something else, usually turned into a quick trip to the police station or court and back home. His mother tried to stop him from getting into trouble. His father punished him harshly when he did.

His mother, Ernestine, says she and her husband, Cragg Sr., set curfews and cautioned their kids about gangs that dominated their neighborhood. "You can talk, talk, talk, but until they see what happens, they didn't hear us," she says. "They just got hooked up or pulled in. ... They didn't have to join a gang to buy shoes or have money."

But her younger son says he couldn't resist: "Nice cars. Money. Women. ... Name recognition. It just seemed powerful."

One tragedy snowballed into another in late August 1994, all revolving around "Yummy" Sandifer, a kid whose life seemed doomed from the start. By age 3, his body was scarred, burned and bruised. Child welfare workers, arguing he was abused and neglected, had him removed from his house. He lived for a time with his grandmother, but was eventually made a ward of the state.

By age 11, he was a tattooed, loyal gang member with dozens of arrests, including armed robbery, burglary and car theft.

According to court records, this is how events unfolded:

Aiming at rival gang members, Sandifer allegedly shot into a crowd — and mistakenly killed Shavon Dean, an innocent 14-year-old girl, and wounded two others. During the police manhunt that followed, gang members, fearful the boy would reveal information about their organization if arrested, ordered him killed.

Cragg was given the keys of an Oldsmobile Delta 88. Derrick approached Sandifer, who had been hiding, and said they'd take him out of town. Instead, he was driven to a dark underpass. Derrick was told to keep the car running and lights off, leave the passenger door open and when he heard a shot, pick up his brother. He heard three shots.

Sandifer was found dead shortly after midnight on Sept. 1, 1994, face down in a pool of blood, three shell casings next to his 86-pound body.

Hardaway says he knew what was going to happen "but there was nothing I could do to stop it." He says he went along to protect his brother. "This is my blood," he says. "It was either Robert ... or him."

He shakes his head, winces and pauses in remembering the night. He says he's sorry but also "angry ... (at) myself, the gangs. That never should have happened."

"Yummy" Sandifer went to his grave with stuffed animals, his 4-foot-8 frame draped in a too-large tan suit. Neighborhood children passed by at his wake — more, it seemed, as a sober warning from their parents than a tribute.

By then, Derrick Hardaway, quickly arrested with his brother, was embarking on a long legal journey.

His lawyers fought unsuccessfully to keep him out of adult court, presenting psychological experts saying he was remorseful, empathetic and could be rehabilitated by age 21.

Prosecutors broached the idea of some kind of plea but it would have required testifying against his brother and the gang. Nothing came of that. (There wasn't enough evidence to charge anyone else in the case.)

Hardaway was convicted as an adult and given a 45-year sentence that the prosecutor calls "tough" but "appropriate." With good time served, his probable parole date is 2016.

His brother, who was considered more culpable, received 60 years. He disputed prosecutors' charges that he was the gunman and claimed another gang member was the shooter.

Even while locked up, Hardaway held out hope for going home. A federal judge vacated his conviction, ruling his confession to police wasn't voluntary (he had no lawyer or parents present during his interrogation). But an appeals court reversed that ruling, despite what it called "gravest misgivings" that an injustice had been done.

Hardaway says he never felt wronged by his brother, they write one another and last saw each other about seven years ago in court. He says they talked of the future and he told Cragg he'll do anything to support himself — even rake leaves or shovel snow — once he gets out. "He was laughing, thinking I'm joking, but I was serious," he says.

Hardaway tries to stay busy in prison. He earned his high school diploma and says he has about 55 hours of college credits.

He got engaged last year to his 6th-grade sweetheart, Victoria Jones, the mother of their son. She has been in and out of his life since they were 11. She now lives in Iowa ; she says she moved there so her kids wouldn't be pressured to join gangs.

Jones tries to include Hardaway in their son's life, sending him report cards, bringing him to visit. She also tells her child there's a lesson to be learned from his father's situation: "If you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, you have to pay the consequences for the rest of your life," she says. "I tell him to choose his friends carefully."

Hardaway's mother has been a regular visitor over the years, but she says she has missed out on something in her life. "I didn't have a chance to mother him," she says. "I didn't have a part in watching him grow up. It makes me feel a bit empty."

In a strange way, she says having her sons off the streets was almost a relief — at least they were away from the violence.

She remembers when her sons were young, they'd take family trips to see her daughter at Southern Illinois University. She expected her sons would go to school, too, maybe a historically black college.

Now she has other plans.

She says they've talked of starting a small family business when they're released so they can be their own bosses, knowing that "no one is really going to hand them a job." Maybe, she says, they'll leave Chicago to get a fresh start.

Scott Cassidy, who prosecuted the case, says he expects Hardaway will have a future outside prison. "He's probably going to end up being a productive member of society," he says.

Hardaway has nine years left. He'll be 36 and have spent more than 60 percent of his life locked up.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to make up for that time," he says. "I just keep going. (I have) dreams of owning my own property (in) a nice peaceful neighborhood and just enjoying the rest of my time, not worrying about the 22 years I lost, but appreciating the ones I have left."