Despite tragic childhood, slain teen loved life

By Aozora Brockman, Amanda Gilbert, Ciara McCarthy and Patrick Svitek
Special to Homicide Watch Chicago

Gina Barrett was fixing her hair, getting ready to go to a party in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood one Saturday evening in March. Arrell Monegan, Gina’s 16-year-old cousin, was already there. He texted her impatiently, waiting for her to arrive.

The cousins were close. They talked about everything together.

“And he kept texting me like, ‘Cousin, where’s you at? Where’s you at?’” Barrett, 17, recalled. “As soon as I got done with my hair, I texted him back like, ‘I’m on my way.’ And he never texted back.”

As she left her house, Barrett took one last look at her Facebook news feed and noticed a shocking status from a family friend: Monegan was dead. His last text had flashed across the screen of her cell phone just minutes earlier.

Monegan was shot at about 7 p.m., March 16 in the 2400 block of West 58th Street, according to a police report.

He was standing on the sidewalk with two other people when someone emerged from a nearby gangway and fired several times in their direction, said Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Daniel O’Brien. They ran away when they heard the shots, but Monegan was hit in the back and collapsed on the sidewalk.

Police arrived about five minutes later, and Monegan was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in serious condition, according to the report and the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. He was pronounced dead at 8:23 p.m.

The medical examiner’s office ruled Monegan’s death a homicide. The gunshot wound to his back had killed him. The investigation into Monegan’s slaying is ongoing and no arrests have been made, O’Brien said. Police believe it was gang-related.

The location of the party Monegan mentioned in his texts and why he was standing outside remain unclear.

A makeshift memorial surrounds an aging tree near the corner where Monegan was shot to death. Dozens of empty liquor bottles sit at its roots. A cardboard poster covered with notes like “R.I.P. Boogie” is wrapped around the trunk.

Monegan’s friend ShaRoyce Orr said she at first mistook the sound of the rapid gunfire for the trains a few blocks to the east. Nonetheless, she rushed out of her house to see what was happening.

When the gunshots were over, I saw him lying on the ground,” Orr recalled. “And he was laying there, and I just start to panic.”

Orr, a senior at Thornwood High School, knew gun violence was a daily threat on Chicago’s South Side. But she had never seen it this close.

“He was the first person I lost that was close to me,” Orr said.

Despite a hectic childhood marked by tragedy, Monegan grew up an outgoing, upbeat teenager who doted upon his younger cousins, relatives say. His mother died in a car accident when he was just 3 years old, so he was primarily raised by his grandmother and aunt, shuttling back and forth between their homes in the Robert Taylor public housing complex.

Monegan’s short dreadlocks framed an ever-present, radiant smile that made friends and family happy to be around him, family and friends said. He seemed to draw people to him. His aunt, Tarina Monegan, said more than 600 people signed the memorial book at his March 25 funeral, most of whom she did not know.

“He was always outgoing, liked to play ball, liked to have us laughing and talking and cracking jokes on each other … loved listening to music,” she said.

Monegan was especially captivated by Chicago’s up-and-coming rappers, including Englewood native Chief Keef, said Barry Nelson, Arrell Monegan’s 19-year-old cousin.

After his mother’s death in a car accident in 1999, Arrell Monegan and his younger sister Gloria Howard, 15, lived intermittently with Tarina Monegan and his grandmother Jean Monegan. Both Tarina Monegan and Jean Monegan lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side.

“He was a good kid, just a lot of stress on him moving back and forth from my grandmother to my mother,” Nelson said.

The cousins grew up together in the Robert Taylor Homes, and when the Chicago Housing Authority tore it down, Arrell Monegan’s already-fractured community was torn even further apart. The friends he had made there scattered throughout the city.

“It’s like once they closed the projects down, everybody just separated,” Tarina Monegan said. “It was like … we just didn’t know nobody.”

After Monegan’s uncle was shot to death in 2008, his grandmother became sick and could not take care of the children any longer, Tarina Monegan said. Monegan and Gloria moved with Tarina Monegan and their cousins to Gage Park, living near the intersection of West 57th Street and South Artesian Avenue.

Tarina Monegan moved again after a few years, but because her nephew connected with many friends in the neighborhood, he returned to the area to spend time there and ultimately moved into a house there with his friends.

Arrell Monegan still kept in touch with his aunt and cousins, however, and Tarina Monegan said she would frequently stop by to catch up with him.

“I would go over there on Artesian and sit and talk with him, hang with him for a couple hours and we would walk to the store, walk around, go to the park, you know, just have our usual routine,” Tarina Monegan said. “Sometimes we would sit and talk about his mom and he would talk about how he want things to go right with him and his sister…I used to always tell him, ‘Don’t worry about it, as long as I’m here, y’all not gonna worry about nothing.”

Since Barrett and Monegan were about the same age, they were very close, and she said he would call her to hang out, even when she was still at school.

Arrell Monegan was also close with his younger relatives, family members said.

“All the baby sisters and cousins, they loved Arrell,” Barrett said. “He used to play with them all the time. He took them to the store, he would have 50 cents and he would split 50 cents with like five kids to get them some bubble gum.”

Among his circle of friends, Monegan was often the center of attention as well. Orr, who knew him from hanging out on South Artesian Avenue, said that he could turn around the dullest of parties.

He was known for his spontaneous “boppin’,” a Chicago-based form of dancing in which the dancer gradually moves lower and lower while flailing their arms and feet. His boppin’ soundtrack of choice was “Hang With Me” by P. Rico, another South Side emcee.

If they played his favorite song, he would just get up and start dancing and then encourage the rest of us,” Orr said. “He would just get up and start boppin’ and tell everyone to follow him.”

Monegan’s friends knew him as  “Ace Boogie,” a nickname that meant he was “number one,” said Carm McGee, a cousin.

“He was always the biggest card in the deck,” McGee said.

Monegan dropped out of school in the eighth grade, family and friends said, but he recently talked about returning to get his high school diploma.

“He was going to school and everything but once he got to eighth grade, it just turned all bad for him,” Nelson said. “He couldn’t take it, so he started hanging out on the block, you know, with his friends or whatever.”

Tarina Monegan understood the pressures that Monegan and her children faced in Chicago, and had been planning to move the family to Iowa for a fresh start.

“I said, ‘Next time I come over here, I’m gonna be tellin’ you, ‘Go get your stuff and we goin’!’ and he’s like, ‘Auntie, I’m so ready to go, I’m so ready.’ So he was ready to get out of there,” she said.

Gage Park, which covers about 2.2 square miles on Chicago’s Southwest Side, is one of the most impoverished and poorly educated neighborhoods in the city.

The community area has Chicago’s fourth highest Hardship Index, an overall measure of six socioeconomic indicators. More than 1 in 5 households are living below the poverty level and more than half of residents did not graduate from high school, according to census data.

In 2012, Gage Park was home to six fatal shootings, according to the Chicago Police Department’s count. So far this year, five people have been shot to death in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood — it’s not really a good neighborhood,” Orr said. “The South Side of Chicago, they shoot a lot. You just have to be very aware.”

Monegan’s family still plans to move to Iowa in July.

“I’m not sad about (Monegan’s death) because I’m trying to think about what he did for me and what’s best for him,” Barrett said.

(This story was produced for Homicide Watch by students in the “Chicago, Journalism and Social Change” class at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Funding for the reporting was provided, in part, by the Alumnae of Northwestern University’s Gifts and Grants Committee.)

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