Michael Santiago needed a gun.
He was a former gang member who had snitched on his old crew and now feared for his life. So Santiago purchased a pistol on the street and kept it in the kitchen just in case.
Whether he needed to show his 6-year-old son the weapon, however, is something that will likely haunt Santiago for the rest of his life.
On Saturday night, Santiago’s security scheme went horribly wrong when his son found the loaded gun. The boy, who has not been named by police, then began playing “cops and robbers” with his younger brother, 3-year-old Eian, when the gun suddenly went off.
The bullet struck Eian in the face, killing him.
The Chicago shooting is the latest in a seemingly incessant string of American kids being killed by guns, often shot by other kids. This summer, another toddler was fatally shot by her 7-year-old brother in Washington. Earlier this month, an 11-year-old boy in Tennessee was charged with first-degree murder after shooting his 8-year-old neighbor with a shotgun after an argument over puppies.
In the most recent case, however, it is the father who had been charged with a crime. Santiago, 25, has been charged with felony child endangerment for allegedly showing his eldest son where he kept the unprotected pistol.
The terrible family tragedy was set into motion when Santiago bought the weapon that would tear his own family apart.
Santiago was once a member of the Spanish Cobras, the second largest Latino gang on Chicago’s North Side, but he had gone straight by testifying against one of his former Cobra colleagues.
“In a videotape statement the defendant said he kept the gun for protection because he was a former gang member who snitched on a gang member in a murder trial,” prosecutor Joseph DiBella told a Cook County criminal courtroom on Sunday, according to the Chicago Tribune. Santiago bought a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver from one of his Cobra connections.
But if Santiago was worried about protection, he was looking for threats in the wrong places.
“The gun was purchased off the street,” DiBella said. “It was kept loaded, and it was wrapped in pajama pants on top of the refrigerator.”
If that wasn’t insecure enough, Santiago allegedly decided to show his eldest son the deadly weapon.
“About a week prior to the shooting, he showed his older son where he kept the gun,” DiBella told the court, according to the Tribune. Santiago “took the gun from on top of the refrigerator, unwrapped the pajama pants and explained to the 6-year-old that the gun was only to be used by adults.”
On Saturday night at around 9 p.m., while Santiago was managing Papa Ray’s Pizza restaurant and his wife was at the grocery store, the boy climbed up to the top of the refrigerator. He and his younger brother, Eian, were playing cops and robbers.
They needed a gun.
The boy pointed the pistol at his brother and pulled the trigger. The bullet struck Eian in the face as he was eating mac and cheese, according to the New York Daily News.
The boys’ grandfather was the only adult at home to hear the shot. When the mother learned of the shooting, she called Santiago at work.
“He was in shock,” family friend George Rayyan told the Daily News. “He couldn’t understand his wife, she was crying so much.”
Santiago thought the refrigerator was too tall for his children to reach the handgun, Rayyan said: “He said in his eyes, that was the best spot, on the back of the fridge, because the kids couldn’t find it.”
“The gun shouldn’t have been there,” he added, “but everyone makes mistakes.”
“Confused why god chose such a young innocent kid is all that’s going through my head,” Rayyan wrote on a GoFundMe page he set up for the Santiagos after the shooting.
Police, however, have not been so forgiving: In the eyes of the law, it’s Santiago who is at fault.
According to DiBella, the prosecutor, Santiago has confessed on camera to showing his son the gun and where it was kept. Authorities have charged him with felony endangerment of a child. If convicted, he could spend between two and 10 years in prison.
On Sunday, Santiago wiped back tears as DiBella recounted the child-on-child shooting, according to the Tribune. The prosecutor asked for a $1 million bail, drawing gasps of disbelief from Santiago’s family, the Tribune reported. But Judge James Brown took pity on Santiago after his attorney asked for a lower bond so the father could be with his grieving family.
“This is the ultimate tragedy,” Brown said, according to the Tribune. “And whether I said a $1 million bond or a lower bond, it’s not going to bring back this child.
“I’m sure the defendant did not intend for this to happen, but it happened,” Brown added, before lowering the bail to $75,000. “And it’s what happens when people have guns who shouldn’t have guns. That’s why we’ve had 2,300 people shot in Chicago so far this year.”
Brown wasn’t the only person to connect the child’s death to the broader issue of crime in Chicago.
The city, which has long battled gang violence, has seen a surge in shootings this year. Last month was the deadliest September in 13 years, with at least 60 homicides, according to the Tribune. Weekends with at least 50 people shot are becoming routine. And there have been 2,439 shootings in Chicago so far this year, nearly as many as the 2,587 all of last year, according to the Tribune’s “Crime in Chicagoland” Web site.
Santiago’s wife, Angie Lasalle, said her husband felt compelled to buy the gun because of crime in their Humboldt Park neighborhood.
“WE LIVE IN A TERRIBLE NEIGHBORHOOD,” she wrote on Facebook. “ANY GREAT MAN N FATHER WOULD WNT TO PROTECT HIS FAM. WE CNT EVEN GO OUTSIDE WITHOUT SOME SHOOTN IT WAS AN ACCIDENT PLEASE NO ONE WANTED THIS TO HAPPEN.”
Yet, prosecutors weren’t the only ones to blame Santiago for their son’s death, and Lasalle defended her husband online.
“PLEASE LET MY FAMILY GRIEVE IN PEACE,” she wrote, while also encouraging people to donate money to the GoFundMe page. “LEAVE OUT ALL YOUR NEGATIVE N RUDE COMMENTS TO URSELF.”
“OmG NO ONE KNWS THE PAIN IM GOIN THRU,” Lasalle wrote on Sunday night. “I CNT BELIEVE HES GONE MY BEAUTIFUL BABY BOY!!!I CNT FEEL CNT EAT SLEEP OH MY SWEET BABY BOY I MISS U SOOOOO MUCH.”
Facebook photos show Lasalle and Santiago laughing and cuddling. One picture shows Lasalle smiling as she is surrounded by three of her children.
The boy’s grandfather, Hector Salgado, told the Tribune the shooter “thinks his brother is in the hospital sick.”