Jonylah Watkins' father, Jonathan Watkins, recounts moment daughter was killed

May 29, 2013 2:38:44 AM PDT
The father of 6-month-old murder victim Jonylah Watkins is talking about the moment gun shots rang out and he realized his baby had been hit.

WATCH FULL NEWS CONFERENCE: Jonylah Watkins' father recounts day of murder

Jonathan Watkins also says he's able to turn his life around because of her. Watkins says he is going to church and has a job.

He says before the shooting, he would just stand on street corners.

Jonylah's mother Judy decided not to talk publicly Tuesday and is instead focusing on working through the death of her daughter.

Watkins recounts the shooting that injured him and killed his six-month-old daughter Jonylah while they were sitting in a parked minivan in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood.

Watkins says he had just changed Jonylah's diaper. He lifted her up to kiss her when gun shots blasted the van's window.

Bail denied for murder suspect

Koman Willis, 33, of the 7800-block of South St. Lawrence Ave. was charged Monday with first-degree murder and aggravated battery. Willis was arrested after police got a break in the case last week. Willis was denied bail at court on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Watkins was in court where prosecutors spelled out how and why Willis is responsible for the crime.

They say Willis was out for revenge because he believed Watkins and others stole a video game system and drugs from Willis' mother's South Side home one month before the shooting.

"The defendant told others that he would shoot the people responsible for the burglary of his mother's home," said Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Heather Kent.

Watkins' pastor Reverend Corey Brooks would not allow Watkins to answer any questions about the alleged burglary.

Brooks says there is more to the story.

Willis' attorney says his client is maintaining his innocence and questioned the timing of the arrest.

"Now all of a sudden, there are new witnesses according to police spokesman or perhaps old witnesses who are now making new stories," said Robert Fisher, Willis' attorney.

Willis was denied bail at court on Tuesday.

"We were able to identify witnesses last week that we had not identified earlier in the investigation; they provided some key information that started the ball rolling," said Lt. Kevin Duffin of the Chicago Police Department.

Willis has been arrested 37 times, mostly for drugs. And according to court records, he was involved in a wild police chase in 2002. Police tried to stop him for a traffic violation but say he sped away, causing a fiery crash with another car. A year later, he received a three-year sentence.

Police and prosecutors say witnesses saw and surveillance videos captured Willis driving in a vehicle before and after the shooting, police say it is the same vehicle that witnesses say they saw fleeing the crime scene. Willis turned himself into police but made no admissions of guilt, and his attorney says his client is innocent.

Police say Willis had been a suspect since the beginning of the investigation. Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said the shooting stemmed from a burglary in which the baby's father was involved, and the shooting suspect was the burglary victim in a theft from his mother's home.

Jonylah Watkins was struck by a single bullet on March 11 as she sat in a minivan with her father in the Woodlawn neighborhood. The murder captured national headlines as she became another innocent face of Chicago's gun violence.

Police have not yet located the weapon that was used in the shooting or the van that police believe Willis used to escape. Willis has not confessed to the crime.

With the news of an arrest, Jonylah's parents held hands in silence while their preacher spoke for them.

"Everyone wished it could be sooner, but we know for a fact that police are diligent and hardworking," New Beginnings Church Rev. Corey Brooks said.

McCarthy said the same detective, Duffin, also led the Hadiya Pendleton murder investigation.

Brooks says much of the policework involved daily cooperation with Jonathan Watkins. Police sources have said he was likely the intended target. Watkins has a lengthy criminal past and was a gang member. While Watkins and Willis are known gang members, investigators say the motive for the shooting was not gang-related. McCarthy says the shooting was motivated by retaliation over a stolen video game system.

Brooks says if there is any good that has come from Jonylah's death, it's the fact that her father is turning his life around.

"The fact that he is working now, the fact that he is getting a GED, all of that stuff was not happening before," Brooks said.

At the beginning of the case, McCarthy says that it was difficult to get Jonathan Watkins to cooperate. McCarthy credits Brooks for helping Watkins assist police. Brooks has been speaking for Jonathan and his wife, Judy.

"The family... spent the day at the gravesite and I called Jonathan and Judy before coming here and they're very grateful and thankful," said Brooks. "Hopefully they'll be able to put this part behind them."

Brooks credits community members for giving Watkins a second chance. In the meantime, Brooks says Jonylah's father will continue to do his part to close the case. Brooks also says that Jonathan and Judy Watkins will answer reporters' questions at a press conference Tuesday.

McCarthy says that Watkins is likely not to be charged with the burglary that motivated the shooting. Willis is expected to appear in bond court Tuesday.

If found guilty, Willis could be sentenced to life in prison. Illinois does not have the death penalty.

Chicago police devoted a large amount of resources to the case. Willis had long been a suspect, McCarthy said, but "the question was whether or not we could show it in a court of law."

In March, McCarthy had said Watkins was cooperating with the investigation but that there was "a lot more" help he could provide.

At the girl's funeral, several people lamented the "code of silence" that keeps some residents from reporting crimes, cooperating with authorities or even fingering members of rival gangs who have targeted them.

Religious leaders speaking at the funeral service implored those in attendance to transform gang-riven neighborhoods.

The shooting came just weeks after the slaying of Hadiya Pendelton, a 15-year-old drum majorette who was shot a mile from President Barack Obama's home just days after she performed at the president's inauguration in Washington, D.C. Police believe she was gunned down in a case of mistaken identity.

Pendleton's death was one of more than 40 homicides in Chicago in January, a total that made it the deadliest January in the city in more than a decade. Last year, homicides in Chicago topped 500 for the first time since 2008.

However, homicides are down since then. Chicago had 109 homicides this year as of May 12, according to the latest Police Department crime statistics. That's a 39 percent drop compared with the same period last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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