Minivan rams SUV in mistaken gang retribution on West Side

A solution to this would be to gather all the gang members and put them into an enclosed area, say a stadium that was sealed off, and let them have at it. The world would be a better place without these lowlifes…. But, we have to remember that they have rights, cannot be racially profiled or singled out by police, had terrible home lives and therefore, are not responsi9ble for their actions, or they are insane and the devil made them do it…. What a world…

Young woman dies, and other SUV passengers are injured
By Annie Sweeney, William Lee and Matthew Walberg | Tribune reporters
August 4, 2009

A few hours before sunup, the eight young friends from the west suburbs were just trying to get home in a black Lincoln Navigator SUV when they got turned around and lost on Chicago’s West Side.

Passing the other way early Saturday was Shalimar Santiago, 27, a reputed gang member driving through the neighborhood about an hour after a buddy had been shot by someone in a black SUV, law enforcement sources said.

Within moments, Santiago allegedly rammed and sideswiped the Lincoln with his minivan, causing the SUV to flip over and hit a light pole. The law enforcement officials are calling it a tragic case of mistaken identity in which a group of people became victims of a gang feud, with deadly consequences. And this time, the weapon was a minivan.

“We tried to avoid them and they kept sideswiping us,” said Robert Thompson, 21, a passenger in the youths’ SUV. “We tried to lose them by going left but they hit us dead-on. … I remember flipping once, twice maybe, and that’s it.”

On Monday, one SUV passenger, Stephanie Herrera, 18, died in Mt. Sinai Hospital, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. The SUV driver, Joseph Penkala, 21, remained comatose in Northwestern Memorial Hospital, his family by his side.

The rest of the victims suffered injuries including a fractured vertebra, a dislocated arm, cuts that required nine staples and bruises that covered their bodies.

Santiago was arrested several hours after the crash by detectives following leads. He was charged with eight counts of aggravated battery, but charges were expected to be upgraded because of Herrera’s death. His bail was set at $500,000 Monday.

The night had started out innocently, what would be a routine evening for many young adults, according to the victims’ friends and relatives.

They were having a “boys’ night out” at some clubs downtown when they bumped into some young women they knew from their high school days, said Khanh Tran, one of the survivors.

The young adults ranged in age from 19 to 23, and were from Melrose Park, Northlake, Lombard and Bensenville. At least some of them had attended West Leyden High School in Northlake.

Penkala, reportedly the SUV’s designated driver, was giving everyone a ride home. They were in the 3500 block of West Augusta Boulevard, heading west and trying to get back to North Avenue, from where Penkala knew he could get home to Melrose Park.

According to prosecutors, Santiago and at least one other person passed them in the minivan going in the opposite direction. Santiago looked at them through the open window of his vehicle, made a U-turn, and drove up behind them, prosecutors said.

First he rammed the Lincoln Navigator from behind a couple of times. Penkala tried to flee, but Santiago pulled up alongside the SUV and sideswiped it two to three times, prosecutors said.

“Everyone freaked out,” Tran said. “Usually we’d call the cops but everything happened so fast. We told him, ‘Look, speed up and get away from the guy.’ “

In the last sideswipe, the minivan forced the SUV into a light pole. A number of passengers were ejected, and a witness told police that “bodies were flying like airplanes,” said Assistant State’s Atty. Lorraine Scaduto.

Tran, 23, helped pull two friends from the wreckage before firefighters stopped him. Tran spoke to Herrera. “I asked her, ‘Are you OK? She said, ‘I’m not OK.’ But [I told her], ‘Don’t worry about it. They’re going to get a stretcher and take you to the hospital.’ “

After the crash, the minivan took off and was found abandoned near the intersection of Augusta and Central Park Avenue.

Investigators believe Santiago chased down the SUV because he mistook it for the one used in his friend’s shooting, two law enforcement sources said. The friend was wounded.

Santiago, of the 3200 block of West North Avenue, is an alleged member of the Latin Kings who has numerous arrests, according to the sources. The man who was shot earlier that morning — at 3 a.m. at Division Street and Central Park — was a known associate of his, the sources said.

On Monday, family and friends of the victims gathered at some of their homes and Northwestern Memorial Hospital as Penkala’s family sat at his bedside and spoke of their shock at what had happened.

Penkala’s mother, Lorraine, kept constant vigil on her son Monday evening, her eyes fixed on him and her hand squeezing his, trying to get the slightest response as he lay in a bed motionless. Machines hummed around him.

She and her husband told tales of their son as an energetic, happy-go-lucky young man with dreams of earning a commercial driver’s license and becoming a truck driver.

“He’s the greatest, he was never a problem. We love him,” said his father, Howard, who could only imagine what was racing through his son’s mind as he tried to navigate to safety.

“He was probably scared out of his wits,” Penkala said. “[He probably thought], ‘Why are you guys doing this to this to us? What did we do?’ And it was a mistake.”

Mike Vollmann, Penkala’s best friend and a passenger in the SUV, said the group never courted trouble and was only looking to have fun.

“It happened to the wrong people,” said Vollmann, 21. “We’re all good kids. We don’t cause problems. We didn’t deserve this. Just wrong place at the wrong time, mistaken identity.”

Herrera and one of the other young women were active at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic church in Melrose Park, said Rev. Leandro Fossa, who said he spent time at Mt. Sinai hospital with the Herrera family Monday.

Fossa, who initially contacted the Tribune Monday afternoon through an e-mail, said Herrera was close friends with another young woman in the SUV, identified in police reports as Christina Monarrez, 19, of Lombard. He said Herrera founded a group for young adults at the church and worked to better her community, helping to register voters for the last presidential election.

“Stephanie is a girl … that wanted to change her community, a girl with purpose, a girl with dreams,” he said later in a phone call. “How do you say something comforting now?

“A just person was … unjustly killed. There are not words for that. What we say to them is we are so proud of her. She did a lot for people her own age. She made a difference. … This mistake, no family should ever pass through.”

Tribune reporters Gerry Smith, Erika Slife and Jeremy Gorner contributed to this report. asweeney@tribune.

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  1. Tales of the CHAPLUPA!!

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