Twenty-five years ago this week, a scrawny boy known as Yummy stared grimly from the cover of Time magazine as the rock-bottom embodiment of Chicago’s entrenched gang affliction.
Robert Sandifer, whose sweet tooth gave him the nickname, lived in tough Roseland on the South Side. He stood 56 inches tall, weighed 68 pounds and, at age 11, wore a forearm tattoo tagging him as a member of the Black Disciples gang.
On Aug. 28, 1994, a gang boss put a 9-mm. pistol Robert’s elfin hand and directed him to shoot members of a rival crime clan, the Gangster Disciples.
The boy carried out his assignment that evening, wounding two enemy teens, Kianta Britton and Sammy Seay, in ambush shootings within a block of his home on W. 107th Place.
In the second attack, a stray bullet found a bystander, Shavon Dean, 14, who was killed.
Witnesses and victims fingered the shooter for police: “Yummy did it.”
Assault and homicide by a prepubescent boy would not necessarily have impelled Robert to nationwide infamy in 1994, when cynical crack cocaine dealers in many cities sought to insulate themselves from justice by using kids to do their dirty work.
No, Yummy ascended to national news because of what came next.
A Black Disciples crew leader reckoned that the naif Robert was likely to squeal under police interrogation.
The gang tasked another member, Cragg Hardaway, 16, with nipping that possibility in the bud.
After three days in hiding, Robert surfaced briefly in Roseland late on Aug. 31 and was swept away in an Oldsmobile — a loaner from gang leader Kenny Stump — by Hardaway and his brother, Derrick, 14.
They promised him safe haven outside the city, but the trip was over in a mile.
As the younger brother sat in the idling Olds, Cragg Hardaway walked Robert into an isolated pedestrian tunnel beneath train tracks at the eastern boundary of the neighborhood.
Derrick Hardaway later said he heard three shots just before Cragg scrambled back into the car. A passerby found the body at 12:22 a.m. on Sept. 1.
Detectives noted that Robert was murdered with the ice-cold efficiency of a seasoned hit man: two .25-caliber slugs to the back of the head.
Time’s headline summarized his life with an apt epitaph: “So Young to Kill, So Young to Die.”
His brief life was full-on Dickensian.
“What you’ve got here is a kid who was made and turned into a sociopath by the time he was 3 years old,” Patrick Murphy, Chicago’s public guardian, said.
He was a free-range kid, raised superficially by his grandmother following abandonment by his mother, a prostitute, and father, a drug felon imprisoned in Wisconsin.
He rarely attended school and was functionally illiterate.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley claimed that Robert had slipped through the cracks, but that really wasn’t true.
Child-welfare authorities were all too familiar with Robert, who had a long record as an incorrigible delinquent.
Caseworkers had chronicled his physical and mental well-being for years.
Robert’s body bore dozens of scars from torture and beatings — a total of 49, according to his autopsy report, including cigarette burns on his butt, neck and arms and snakelike wounds from electric-cord whippings.
A psychological exam at a state shelter months before his murder concluded that Robert was angry, discouraged and confused.
“He has a sense of failure that has infiltrated almost every aspect of his inner self,” the examiner wrote.
He felt validated as a member of the Black Disciples, but the gang pushed his lawbreaking from petty to grand. He was in police custody about 30 times in the last 18 months of his life, including for 23 felonies.
But he was judged too young and vulnerable for confinement to juvenile homes, so he was released time and again to his overwhelmed grandmother, whose chaotic house was crammed with as many as 10 children and 30 grandchildren at a time.
His murder was no mystery.
Eyewitnesses saw the Hardaway brothers drive off with Robert 45 minutes before the boy was killed. Derrick, in custody just eight hours later, confessed to his role as wheelman and fingered Cragg as the shooter.
Their involvement came as a shock to their parents, a teacher and computer engineer. Both brothers were honor students who seemed destined for college.
But like Robert himself, the Hardaways became exhibits in the juvenile “superpredator” mania of the 1990s.
In 1994, Chicago counted 930 homicides. Many of the them, including Robert and his victim, Shavon Dean, were the result of gang violence. This year, the city is on pace to record half that number.
The Hardaways were charged as adults, convicted of murder and sent to prison on long sentences — 60 years for Cragg, 45 for Derrick. No gang leader was charged, seemingly justifying the strategy of exploiting children.
Since the ’90s, various court rulings have prompted reconsideration of draconian prison terms for juveniles. Derrick was paroled in 2016, and Cragg will be eligible to apply for release in 2024 under Illinois laws.
A quarter-century after the case made national headlines, it lingers like a bad dream in Chicago.
“The damage Chicago inflicted on Robert ‘Yummy’ Sandifer, and the damage he inflicted,” the city’s Tribune said in an editorial marking the anniversary, “should haunt all of us.”