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CHICAGO—Melissa Ortega, a third-grader at Chicago’s Emiliano Zapata Academy, moved to the U.S. with her mother just six months ago. After making their way from Mexico to California, the two settled in the Windy City, where much of their family already lived.
But instead of a new beginning in America, Araceli Leaños is now preparing to bury her young daughter.
On Sunday, the 8-year-old Ortega was killed by a stray bullet when a gang member tried to gun down a rival in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, police said, identifying the girl for the first time since the shooting.
“Like many immigrants, Melissa hoped for a better life here: she wanted to learn English, she wanted to experience Chicago snow, she wanted to get a build-a-bear, she wanted to make Tik Tok dances with her friends,” the family said in a statement first provided to ABC7. “At age 8, she was a girl full of hope and had her whole life ahead of her. She sought to achieve the American Dream but was instead given American Violence.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) said the shooting took place shortly before 3 p.m. on Saturday. Ortega was walking with Leaños on Pulaski Road when “they heard shots and discovered the 8-year-old had been struck by gunfire.” She “sustained a gunshot wound to the head,” and was transported to Stroger Hospital, where she was pronounced dead less than two hours later.
Neither of them was the intended target. The gunman—or gunmen—are “known offenders,” according to police, who say the bullets were meant for a 26-year-old man who was struck twice in the lower back and survived.
“No one is in custody at this time,” CPD said in the email. “Area Four detectives are still investigating.”
Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown on Monday said his department has “very strong leads” about the individual responsible for Ortega’s death and noted that “authorities will be relentless in our efforts to pursue any and all gangs involved in this tragic shooting.”
In front of Fifth Third Bank, near where Ortega was shot, community members and activists had set up altars to remember the child by Monday afternoon. A shirt was strung on one of the altars with Ortega’s school logo, and signs on light posts read “SOS Chuy Garcia”—apparently a reference to the local Democratic member of Congress—and “Love our children.”
On Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Ortega family released a statement asking for privacy, noting they are trying to “grieve and process her loss.”
Baltazar Enriquez, president of the Little Village Community Council, told The Daily Beast that the shooting served as a fresh call to action for more mental-health resources in a neighborhood in dire need.
“We see that our community is very traumatized. The children are traumatized. The victims are traumatized,” Enriquez told The Daily Beast. “So that trauma has now led into violence.”
What is most heartbreaking, he added, was that the Ortega family had left Mexico for a better life, only to get a rude awakening. “It’s unfortunate that they find violence here,” he said.
An internal report obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times provides a bit of additional detail, identifying the actual target as a member of the Gangster Two-Six street gang, which has recently been locked in a deadly feud with the rival Latin Saints and the Latin Kings street gangs.
According to the report, Ortega and her mom were inadvertently caught in the crossfire when a man dressed in all black ducked out of a nearby alley and began shooting.
Surveillance video reviewed by investigators showed the man, who has not been publicly identified, chasing the 26-year-old east on 26th Street, continuing to unload his weapon.
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Upon hearing the shots, Melissa and her mother began running towards a bank, where she felt her daughter “go limp,” the report states. That’s when she realized her daughter had been shot twice in the head, offering a slightly different account than the CPD’s official statement.
Investigators recovered at least 13 spent 9mm shell casings from the scene, as well as one fired round and one bullet fragment, according to the report.
The intended target has been arrested 13 times and convicted of two felonies, according to the police report. He is currently in critical condition at Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
Ortega was shot while running errands with her mom, the family’s statement said. She had gotten hungry and asked Leaños if they could get burgers. Leaños told her to wait until after they went to the bank—and that’s when bullets began to fly.
“Melissa didn’t get to enjoy her hamburger from McDonalds,” the statement added. “A stray bullet reached her, and a crowd of people came to aid. We want to thank everyone for their condolences and prayers; however, we wish people would come together and help us bring justice.”
In a Spanish-language interview with Univision, Leaños described Melissa as a “sociable” and “fun girl” with a calm demeanor. Begging those responsible for her daughter’s death to come forward, Leaños promised that "with all my heart that I forgive you" for what happened to her daughter.
“We came here with a dream, and terribly, it was not like that,” Leaños said in the interview with her eyes closed.
The internecine battle between the Gangster Two-Six organization and its adversaries has spilled over into the community all too frequently.
Last May, a group of Gangster Two-Six members in a Honda Accord, meaning to target a group of Latin Kings, shot into an SUV driving in the same Little Village neighborhood where Melissa was killed. But instead of gunning down their enemies, they struck a 2-year-old girl who was riding in the car with her parents and 9-month-old sister.
The girl survived, but her injuries required knee surgery and extensive physical therapy, officials said at the time. An 18-year-old Chicago man was arrested and charged with attempted murder. A 9mm handgun was found beneath the front seat of the Accord, which reportedly belonged to the 21-year-old driver’s mother, according to authorities. The driver was charged with aggravated battery.
A month earlier, an alert was issued to all Chicago police officers that the leaders of a local faction of the Latin Kings had “instructed… members to shoot at unmarked Chicago police vehicles.”
Over the summer, the longtime leader of the Latin Kings asked to be released from prison after 50 years behind bars. He remains incarcerated, according to federal prison records.
The Emiliano Zapata Academy, where Ortega went to school, said in a statement, “Our thoughts are with her family during this difficult time. This loss is sure to raise many emotions, concerns, and questions for the entire school, especially our students.”
On Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “Losing a child, under any circumstances, is horrifying. And the circumstances in which this family lost this precious, precious child is almost unspeakable. I can’t get into a lot of specific details, but I can tell you the detectives have been literally working 24/7, that there are some promising leads, and I hope we’ll have more substantive announcements soon.”
Leaños hopes that people have not given up on a safer Chicago, pleading for others not to become “habituated” to this sort of violence.
“We want safer neighborhoods, we want our kids to live long lives, we want authorities to patrol our area, and although we want Melissa back, we hope you will help us maintain her memory,” she said. “Please don’t let her die in vain.”
As of Monday, the GoFundMe page set up to assist the family with funeral expenses had raised over $45,000, more than doubling its initial $20,000 goal. Ortega will be buried in Los Sauces, the small town in the Mexican state of Tabasco where she was born.
For Alderman Michael D. Rodriguez, who represents Ward 22—including part of Little Village—the shooting was both a tragedy and an opportunity to see justice served.
“We can’t get anything accomplished if we don’t come together,” he told The Daily Beast. “I still believe in our community.”
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