By Kevin Guilfoile
The story is sort of the anti-Hoop Dreams.
That documentary box-office hit, which premiered in 1994, was about a pair of black high school students in Chicago who were counting on basketball success to lift their families out of the projects. And while neither William Gates nor Arthur Agee ever made it to the NBA, they both managed to find better lives for themselves, even if those lives were punctuated with too familiar urban tragedies. Gates became a pastor. Agee committed himself to promoting education for inner city youth.
The same year that film premiered, Chicago learned about two other kids from the projects, although we didn't know their names right away. In October of 1994, ten-year-old Jessie Rankins and 11-year-old Tykeece Johnson dropped five-year-old Eric Morse out a 14th-floor window of a CHA high rise, allegedly because Morse refused to steal candy for them. The murder shocked Chicago, dominating the headlines for months. Rankins and Johnson entered a youth prison in 1996 and we haven't heard much about them since.
This week the Chicago Tribune published a chilling update. In 1996 Rankins sexually assaulted another inmate, earning another nine-year sentence. In 2000, Johnson was released from juvenile prison only to return to jail two years later, this time as an adult, for drug possession and robbery. In 2004 Rankins was released, but returned twice in the next year for parole violations. In 2005 Johnson was convicted for attempted armed robbery but was paroled six months later. In 2006 Rankins was sentenced to four years for stealing a dog. He's just been released this month.
Gary Marx's reporting is all the more amazing for the fact that he got Johnson to talk to him at all. Because he had been sentenced as a juvenile, Johnson had never been identified as one of Eric Morse's killers before this profile. "I want the readers to know I'm not a horrible person," he told Marx. "The people who know me know that I ain't no dangerous person."
"What we did, it was like an unhuman beast that had no feeling whatsoever and I live with that every day and every night," Rankins said.
Rankins has a prison tattoo over his heart. In a photo taken by the Trib's John Smierciak, you can see a crude sketch of a gravestone inscribed, "Eric Mores, 1984-1994." Both the spelling of Eric's name and the year of his birth are wrong.
Eric Morse's brother, Derrick Lemon, was an eight-year-old witness to the crime, so small he had to sit on a phone book during the trial. He received a $1 million settlement from the CHA for Eric's death. Derrick has served time for weapons and burglary convictions, and is currently awaiting trial for allegedly killing his aunt's boyfriend at a 2006 barbecue.
And then there's LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman. They were 14 and 15 when their neighbor Eric Morse was murdered. They spent a year reporting on the case for National Public Radio, interviewing Eric's mother, former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, and the father of one of the assailants, who was serving his own prison sentence at the time for aggravated battery.
Jones and Newman's documentary went on to win nearly every major award in broadcasting.