Jody Gardner and Reggie Hart Jr. went to visit 17-year-old Chris Harrison on a Wednesday night.
Soon, the narrow hallway outside Harrison’s family apartment in Normal was filled with gunfire—just feet away from families with kids up late watching cartoons. Neighbors called 911 to report gunshots and men running around. Harrison chased his visitors into a nearby stairwell, where authorities say he fired more than 20 rounds into their bodies from an AR-15.
When it was over, Gardner and Hart were dead. Gunsmoke hovered in the stairwell as first responders arrived. Harrison allegedly pointed police to a trash bag in his apartment containing the AR-15, a handgun, and shotgun. They also found 190 grams of pot, scales, and packaging materials.
“I don't know why they went over there,” said Gardner’s girlfriend, who asked that her name not be used for her own safety. “Maybe it really was to try to handle (their disagreement) in a better way. Not to be like crazy like this. It was not supposed to happen like this.”
RELATED STORY: What Happens When You Get Shot With An AR-15?
Police have not disclosed a motive or what brought all three men into that pressure cooker environment the night of April 25. Six weeks later and two miles away in Bloomington, two other young people were slain by gun violence in an apparently unrelated incident. That shooting was followed by a third incident June 18 where three adults were killed and a child wounded in what has become unprecedented and escalating violence in the community.
A joint investigation by The Pantagraph and GLT reveals the three men involved in April’s shooting at Lancaster Heights each passed through a community safety net intended to stop at-risk youths from reaching the point of no return. But when youths are able to access stolen semi-automatic rifles, the consequences turn deadly that much quicker.
PASTS AND FUTURES
Chris Harrison had little contact with the law before his arrest on homicide charges.
His mother, Nora, attended college and completed a master’s degree. In her comments to juvenile court services when Harrison was sentenced for possession of alcohol by a minor, she described her son as goofy, funny, caring and protective of his family. As part of the alcohol violation, Harrison participated in Normal Police’s Youth Intervention Program for at-risk kids in 2015.
Harrison was diagnosed with ADHD in junior high and struggled at Normal Community High School, court records show. His mother told juvenile court services the school was “geared toward two-parent families.” He enrolled in YouthBuild, an alternative school for kids who have difficulties finishing high school and need help with job skills.
Jody Gardner’s journey to that apartment complex wasn’t any easier.
Gardner’s life began when he was pulled from a dumpster shortly after birth by Chicago Police and handed over to his great-grandmother, who raised him for his first 12 years. His on-again, off-again relationship with his mother brought him to Bloomington-Normal in 2010.
Records show he had the ability to be an honor roll student. But he was suspended repeatedly from NCHS for smoking pot and stealing, records show. In 2014 he was held at a juvenile detention center after being accused of stealing a bike.
“I’ve had time to think in here and nothing has distracted me and I’ve decided that I don’t want to be locked up so I better start doing good,” Gardner, then 16, told court services staff.
Court documents and interviews with family and friends show Gardner wasn’t content where he was. Like Harrison, Gardner enrolled in YouthBuild and became its poster child. He was an aspiring rapper. Before he died, at age 20, he enrolled at Heartland Community College with hopes of becoming a welder.
“We are heartbroken over this situation and the impact it has had on so many people we care about,” said YouthBuild Executive Director Tracey Polson.
One of Gardner’s childhood friends was Reggie Hart Jr., age 20 when he died.
“They were like glue,” said Gardner’s girlfriend, who is three months pregnant with Gardner’s child.
Hart showed behavioral problems starting at age 3, juvenile court records show. By first grade, he was diagnosed with ADHD but resisted medication. At 9 he tried to choke his mother with a bungee cord and was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, according to court records.
Hart was moved to the Regional Alternative School in seventh grade because of ongoing disciplinary issues, records show.
His parents knew him differently—as someone who loved sports and played football, who was playful, outgoing, and knew “the difference between right and wrong,” court records show.
Hart and Gardner’s friendship got them into trouble before. Both were caught up in a theft case in 2012, and Hart’s mother asked the court to keep the two boys away from each other using a so-called “no contact” order, normally used to separate victims from perpetrators.
All three were swaddled in—but escaped from—an array of community programs designed to help them.
“The community in general has a whole host of different options that are available to us,” said Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner. “Could we have more? We certainly could. But at some point, it's a choice that they have to make, and they have to want to have that help.”
TEMPORARY PROBLEM, PERMANENT SOLUTION
Their lives brought them together at Lancaster Heights. Police say the apartment complex is no hotbed of criminal activity. It’s popular with families with children, walking distance from a Target, Kroger, and several churches. Police reports show the building at 1444 E. College Ave. where Gardner and Hart died has no recent history of serious crime.
Willie Simmons and his wife, Juliet, were attracted to Lancaster Heights’ peaceful environment when they were looking for a new place to live in February. The couple admitted recently that the April shooting caused them to briefly question their choice of a unit just south of the incident.
“I’m scared because I’m 65 and I want a place to lay my head comfortably,” said Willie Simmons.
Simmons recalled loud reverberations of “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom” followed by a field of flashing lights across the parking lot. Visible in the chaos was a sign of what the gunfire left behind.
“One laid under a tarp all night,” Simmons said of the body he saw.
A letter from Lancaster Heights management reassuring residents the area was safe put Simmons at ease.
“You can have this stuff wherever you go,” said the former Cook County resident.
Authorities say the dispute was possibly drug-related, and Harrison faces drug charges on top of the murder counts. Harrison’s public defender, Carla Barnes, declined to comment on specifics of the case, including whether Harrison will claim self-defense. Authorities say Harrison fired the AR-15, but how he allegedly acquired the handgun and shotgun isn’t clear.
“We’ve just started reviewing the materials from the state. We ask people to be patient. There may be more to the story,” Barnes said.
Gardner and Hart were feuding with Harrison in the week leading up to their deaths, according to Gardner’s girlfriend.
“I just had a bad feeling something was going to happen to him,” she said. “I don't care if they did something. It's not reasonable to shoot somebody with a gun like that.”
The day after the shooting, Bleichner called it a “senseless act.”
“There's a devaluing of human life that is going on in society that is very concerning to me,” Bleichner said. “People are picking permanent solutions to a temporary problem.”
An AR-15 is a very permanent solution—especially if it’s in the hands of a 17-year-old.
Police say there’s a noticeable shift in gun culture among local youths—from hybrid gangs passing around a shared gun, to each kid wanting his own gun, to now each kid wanting multiple guns. This year alone Bloomington Police has seen five examples of three different gangs posting on social media with long guns (weapons that are not handguns or shotguns).
BPD crime analyst Jack McQueen said youths have become “hyper-infatuated” with weapons.
“Something’s changing for us as we watch these groups,” McQueen said. “That (shooting at Lancaster Heights) fits in with that idea, where you got a kid or a young adult that's infatuated with traditional handguns and now has moved on to long guns.”
McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers has seen a similar trend.
“For me, the concern I have is not the increase in amount (of gun crimes in Bloomington-Normal). It’s the lowering of the age of people I see with guns committing crimes,” Chambers said during an interview last fall. “When you’re talking about 15- or 16-year-olds running around with stolen handguns, that’s a problem.”
Social media has made it easier for kids to show off their gun or escalate disputes, McQueen said. A local judge even recently ordered a youth to refrain from posting certain types of content on social media, he said.
Public defender Art Feldman, who represents juveniles in criminal cases, said such orders—and similar ones keeping two at-risk friends apart—are not usually effective.
“They are as close as family, if not closer,” Feldman said. “It’s impossible to monitor kids every minute. They can communicate on social media and other devices.”
Harrison is charged with illegally possessing three stolen guns, including the AR-15. (Police won’t comment on the specifics of the Harrison case, including where Harrison allegedly got the guns.)
Police say that’s common; most guns used in crimes are stolen. But few stolen guns are ever recovered. In Bloomington, only 10 to 15 percent of reported stolen or lost guns are recovered, McQueen said. Bleichner said the same is true in Normal.
About one-third of stolen guns are taken from homes, and another third from vehicles, McQueen said. Expensive long guns like AR-15s are especially attractive, he said. AR-15-style weapons have been used in most all of the deadliest shootings this decade.
Last fall, a Carlock resident told sheriff’s deputies his AR-15—and a companion 37mm grenade launcher—went missing from an unlocked gun case in an unlocked home, police reports show. That gun and launcher—valued at $2,400—remain missing.
The family of the two people killed in the separate double homicide June 10 in Bloomington questioned such easy access to guns.
"I have to get ready and bury my baby. It’s crazy. Senseless killing,” said Angel Hoskins, the mother of Taneshiea Brown. “Where are they getting all these guns from? It baffles me.”
Harrison is due back in court Aug. 6. He turned 18 on June 1 and was moved from the juvenile detention center to the McLean County jail.
When Guns Go Missing In McLean County
Here are just five examples of how weapons have been stolen in McLean County.
- Two handguns and ammunition: A man told police he was missing two weapons from an unlocked gun safe. The guns were taken in an April 2018 burglary of his Bloomington home.
- Four handguns and a car: A Chevy Impala with four handguns inside were stolen in October 2017. Chicago police later recovered the car, but the weapons kept in a locked vehicle were never found.
- Six handguns: A table and nightstand were used to store six handguns reported stolen by a man in August 2017. The home had been burglarized.
- AR-15 and a pistol: A semiautomatic rifle and a 9 mm handgun were stolen from a Normal home in October 2017. The AR-15 was stored in a closet and the handgun in a dresser.
- AR-15 and 37 mm launcher: A rural McLean County man reported an AR-15 and a launcher were stolen from an unlocked case in his unlocked residence. The weapons remain missing.
Source: Bloomington and Normal police and McLean County sheriff's department reports.
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