A gunman possibly motivated by racial and religious hatred killed a black former college basketball coach in a Chicago suburb Friday night shortly after wounding six Orthodox Jewish men as they walked home from Sabbath evening services on this city's northwest side.
In a third incident that police said was related to the others, a man matching the description of the gunman fired four shots into the car of a couple of Asian descent in another Chicago suburb later Friday night. No one was injured in that incident.
Chicago police said they were not ruling out that the 58-minute, apparently random shooting spree was a movable hate crime, but had not classified the incidents as such because the gunman was not heard saying anything about the race or religion of his victims, the legal standard for the classification.
"We're not saying it's not a hate crime," said Patrick Camden, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department. "What we're saying is that the elements for a hate crime are not there."
The only person killed in the sudden outburst of violence as the Chicago area prepared to celebrate Independence Day was former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong, who was out on a Friday evening walk with his son and daughter three blocks from their home in the upscale and heavily Jewish suburb of Skokie. The gunman fired seven shots from a light blue car at Byrdsong, 43, who was struck once in the lower back. He died early this morning at Evanston Hospital. His children were not injured.
"We are being led to believe that he was not a specific target," said Skokie Police Lt. Barry Silverberg. "This was a random act. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time."
From Skokie, the gunman continued to travel northwest and, in the suburb of Northbrook, fired the four shots at the couple of Asian descent as they passed his vehicle.
The Orthodox Jewish victims were shot at six separate locations in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, a tree-lined, middle-class community with a strong immigrant flavor and the largest concentration of Orthodox Jews in the city. By tonight, all but one of the Chicago victims -- a 15-year-old boy who was described as in good condition -- had been released from local hospitals.
Police described the gunman as a white male of medium build and between 20 and 30 years old. They said he alternated in firing a .22-caliber pistol and a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol, apparently reloading as he drove north from Chicago into the suburbs.
Chicago Police Lt. Nick Nickeas said police recovered more than 30 shell casings but did not know how many times the gunman fired at his intended victims during the drive-by rampage.
"He could have shot 50 times," Nickeas said. "A lot of those shell casings are in his car."
Nickeas said the Chicago victims were all wearing items of religious garb that made them easily identifiable as Jewish. Pressed why police had not classified the shooting spree as a hate crime, he said, "There is nothing to indicate it was a hate crime by any utterance of the suspect. He didn't say anything. You can make assumptions, but we have nothing."
"I think it's an Arab person -- someone who hates Jews," said Marina Viner, 30, a Ukrainian immigrant, who offered no evidence to support her allegation. "I'm worried, especially in this neighborhood where there are so many synagogues."
"It's crazy," said Dave Akoka, 21, an Israeli who lives in the area. "I know for sure it's not Jewish people."
Dave Goldman, 79, saw a parallel with the recent high school massacre in Littleton, Colo. "There's no prejudice here," he said. "This came from somewhere else. It was just a wild one. Like the shootings in the schools, this happens to all types of people. It comes from families not raising their children right."
Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said the time and location of the shootings made it appear to be a deliberate act of violence aimed at Jews. "A person went into a community with a heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews at exactly the time they would be coming home from Sabbath services," he noted.
Kotzin said such acts of violence are almost unheard of here. "I've never seen anything like this level of violence directed against people," he said. "The top religious hate crimes are against Jews, but they are generally against institutions, acts of vandalism. But to have this level of violence against individuals is rare and, in Chicago, unprecedented."
According to the Chicago police account, the first shooting occurred at 8:22 p.m. (CDT) Friday when the gunman left his car and shot his first victim, a 31-year-old man. He shot the other victims from the car, firing through the side passenger window, which was shattered by the gunfire. The rampage ended in Northbrook at 9:20 p.m., according to the police account.
Byrdsong was the Northwestern basketball coach from 1993 until he was fired in February 1997. He compiled an overall record of 33-72 and was 9-56 in the Big Ten. He had been working for an insurance company since then.
Special correspondent Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Two Chicago police officers interview an Orthodox Jewish man and two children near the scene of the shootings on Chicago's northwest side.