By Jeremy Gorner and Robert McCoppin
11:50 PM EST, January 1, 2013
Chicago ended 2012 with 506 homicides, according to an unofficial tally released Tuesday — the first time the city has topped 500 since 2008, and a 16 percent increase over 2011.
While police officials were counting up the homicide toll from a difficult year, the family members of one of the last Chicago homicide victims of 2012 were remembering him as a caring family man and rapper, and thanking police for making an arrest.
Christopher Thomas, 28, was in a local business in the 200 block of East 51st Street in the Washington Park neighborhood on the South Side about 5 p.m. Sunday when Yecary Harris approached him and exchanged words with him, according to Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Terri Gleason.
The men then walked out of the business and two witnesses said they heard a gunshot and turned to see Harris shooting Thomas repeatedly, Gleason said.
"He looked out for his family," said the victim's sister, Chrystal Kyles, who believed the killing was a case of mistaken identity.
Crime experts caution not to read too much into year-to-year increases in homicides, especially since 2011's and 2010's 435 homicides were the lowest the city had seen in more than 40 years. But Chicago's tally in 2012 was the highest since 2008 and the second-highest since 2003.
Although it's difficult to pinpoint a single cause for last year's increase, statistics show the biggest spike came in the early part of 2012. Experts and some law enforcement sources believe the unseasonable warmth that hit Chicago during that period contributed to a homicide tally that, through early April, was 66 percent higher than it had been at that point in 2011.
The city was hit especially hard in March — the warmest March on record in Chicago — when it logged 53 homicides, up from 23 in March 2011.
Some law enforcement sources have also said the disbanding of two specialized units that swooped into "hot spots" to reduce violent crime may have contributed to the increase. Since police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was installed in May 2011 as the city's top cop, he's eliminated those strike forces, whose success relied on swarming streets, intimidating and harassing gang members, and clamping down on any violence in the neighborhoods they targeted.
But McCarthy decided last year to move those roughly 450 officers to beat patrols with the hopes they would have more meaningful and positive interactions with the community. He's replaced the strike forces with "area teams" to be used for saturation missions that are smaller than the old units but can be deployed by commanders closer to problem spots.
For his part, McCarthy has said the proliferation of guns on Chicago's streets and the division of gangs into smaller factions are to blame for the homicide surge.
Many within the department and the police union have argued that more cops are needed on the street to combat gun violence.
After the fatal shooting of Christopher Thomas on Sunday, suspect Yecary Harris, ran to a nearby car and got in the passenger side, police said. Witnesses directed responding police after the vehicle, which went north at high speed on the Dan Ryan Expressway, then exited at 43rd Street and hit a car before stopping.
The men were taken into custody at 43rd and Indiana Avenue as they tried to run away, police said, and investigators recovered a weapon.
Harris, 30, of the 8300 block of South Anthony Avenue, was charged with murder, and the driver, Rodney Harris, 31, of the 900 block of W. 76th St., was charged with aggravated fleeing and was cited for failing to stop at a stop sign and driving on a suspended license, police said.
Yecary Harris, who has prior convictions for possession of a firearm and aggravated kidnapping of a child, was ordered held without bond Tuesday, and Rodney Harris, who has five prior felony convictions, Gleason said, was ordered held on $400,000 bond.
Thomas, of the 5100 block of South King Drive, was a family man who had spent Christmas with his 9-year-old daughter and had bought her earrings, relatives said.
"He had three sisters and he was always making sure we were OK," said sister Chrystal Kyles.
She said that when the shooting occurred, her brother, a local rapper, was just stopping to get something to eat on his way to a recording studio.
"It's terrible that these shootings are continuing to happen," she said. "We're fortunate because at least someone was charged and justice will be served. We're grateful for how the police handled the situation."
Tribune reporter Liam Ford contributed.