FOX 32/SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - Penny Gearhart, a fixture in the Uptown community for her work with StreetWise and other homeless programs, was killed Wednesday afternoon when she was caught in gang crossfire on the North Side street where she lived and often worked.
The 57-year-old Gearhart was walking with a 58-year-old man when they were caught in the middle of a gang-related shooting about 3:15 p.m. on a sidewalk in the 4500 block of North Sheridan, according to Chicago Police and the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Someone in a passing vehicle opened fire, striking both victims, police said.
They were taken to Illinois Masonic Medical Center, where Gearhart died at 3:48 p.m., according to the medical examiner’s office, which said she lived on the same block where she was shot. An autopsy showed she was killed by a bullet that struck her arm and went into her chest.
The man was shot in the leg and was listed in good condition, police said.
StreetWise posted a statement on Facebook concerning the death of Gearhart, who worked as a vendor for the publication.
She was “an active participant in the StreetWise community. You may remember Penny as a vendor in Uptown or on restaurant row on Randolph. She regularly visited the offices to join our writers group and help out with whatever was needed,” the statement said.
“She was caring and compassionate and had a larger-than-life personality. She was a loving mother and grandmother, and her sudden and tragic loss is felt throughout the StreetWise community.”
Suzanne Hanney, a StreetWise editor, posted a statement on Facebook saying she was “stunned and saddened when I came to work and learned that Penny Gearhart … was killed … a block east of our offices. According to various media reports, gangs use that stretch of 4500 North Sheridan Road as a stash for drugs. However, Penny was an innocent victim.”
“Penny and a friend were walking down the street when gang members started shooting,” according to the StreetWise statement.
Police said two sets of rival gang members opened fire at each other, and neither victim was thought to be the intended target.
Gearhart was also active at the Inspiration Cafe in the 4500 block of North Broadway, where restaurant-style meals are served to the homeless and poor.
“It is with incredible sadness that we share the news that one of our long-time community members, Penny Gearhart, was killed during a drive-by shooting yesterday in Uptown,” a statement from Inspiration Corporation, which runs the cafe, said on Facebook.
“She was an innocent bystander to the crime, and we deeply mourn her loss in this senseless tragedy. Penny was a shining star at Inspiration Cafe, a wonderfully kind and warm person who was loved by our entire community.”
Hanney recalled that, “In our July 18 edition, Penny had written about her favorite things of summer as part of the StreetWise Writers’ Group. She loved barbecues, picnics and going to Lincoln Park Zoo with her grandkids because it was always fun and free of charge. She also liked the music and food at Chicago festivals.
“More hauntingly, when I went indexed my emails for her name just now, I found another piece she had written about two young boys who got killed gangbanging after a shootout and then a high-speed car chase that resulted in one of the cars running over a baby stroller and killing the 1-year-old inside.
“One of the young men killed was the paternal uncle of [Gearhart’s] 3- and 6-year-old grandsons, so she didn’t know how she would explain it to them.”
Gearhart finished her story by writing, “My prayer and fervent plea is for the young men of the community to take stock of themselves and see how precious life is. The killing must stop. CEASE FIRE!,” according to Hanney.
“Personally, Penny was someone I saw often when I visited the vendor area. She was a sweet person who said she looked to those of us women in the office for strength.”
“There were two innocent people shot and it was gang-related,” Tressa Feher, chief of staff for Ald. James Cappleman (46th), said. “We have had issues there in the past but it’s been quite a while.”
Police pod cameras were installed late last year on the corner of Windsor and Sheridan, just steps from where the shooting took place, Feher said.
Police were also checking security cameras on the block that may have captured the shooting.
A mail carrier said she was in her postal truck when she heard three or four shots.
“It was a really loud gun. That’s about all I can tell you,” she said.
“It's kind of scary. It's unfortunate that innocent people get caught in the crossfire when that happens,” said resident Benjamin Peckenpaugh. “It's quaint, it's quiet. I mean you usually people asking for change and stuff, but I’ve never seen any violence.”