Like any father trying to stay ahead of his responsibilities, Don Hardge faced plenty of tension-filled, fist-pounding days as he juggled family, work and social commitments. Life as an Oak Cliff drug dealer and gang member was muddled with fights, drug deals and crack-addled customers to confront. At 18, Hardge had to move fast to stay ahead of it all. Still, he says, the money was decent and most days passed without anything going bad — or at least nothing bad enough to end up in a police report.
One Saturday three years ago, though, was really crappy, Hardge recalls. The afternoon kicked off with yet another bickering match with his baby's mother and then a brawl with a crackhead, and soon a rotten afternoon bled seamlessly into a horrific night. Before day's end, a spray of bullets — maybe from Hardge's gun, maybe not — would leave a 15-year-old girl dying on an Oak Cliff street.
But don't blame him for that, Hardge says, whatever the cops may say. Yes, he emptied an assault rifle as he stood amid a panicked crowd that night, and yes, a girl died, but that doesn't make him a murderer. Not even the justice system could call him a murderer, at least not technically.
The girl who died? Don Hardge feels sorry for the family, but he takes no responsibility.
On July 5, 2008, Hardge popped four Xanax just after lunchtime and went to see his baby girl, 4-month-old Damayia, who lived down the street with his ex-girlfriend Breanna Henderson. Hardge, called "Dunn Dunn" on the streets where he was a member of the DFW Mafia, says he visited Damayia daily, staying for 45 minutes or so to play with her or packing her diapers and toys and bringing her to his mother's house.
Hardge's own mother, like his grandmother and the mother of his child, had her first baby as a teen. For most of Hardge's life, his father was imprisoned for murder and selling drugs. Nevertheless, for reasons unclear to even him, Hardge deeply admired his dad, beginning from the first time he visited him in jail as a small child.
Hardge preferred not to stay long at Henderson's home, since his ex's mother didn't like him, and he didn't like her. On this Saturday, tension also fell between Hardge and his ex. He wanted to go out that night, leaving Henderson to tend their daughter, even though he had been at Club Cirq in downtown Dallas with his gang the night before. The pair fought, and Henderson swiped his ID from his pocket to stop him from going to a club.
It didn't matter. Hardge had other plans.
He headed home to Bella Vista Apartments in South Oak Cliff, where he lived with three friends. Here, he was on his turf. People either bought drugs from him, were intimidated by him or both. Hardge and the DFW Mafia guys didn't take much shit from anyone.
Hardge met up with a friend and walked to a corner store nearby, where they often hung out to kill time. On the way back, his friend started calling a crackhead standing in their complex a snitch, taunting him for returning from jail after only a few hours. Enraged, the crackhead, fueled by drugs sold by Hardge, snatched up a wooden fence plank and started swinging. Hardge grabbed the stick from him so his friend could tee up a punch. When the crackhead hit the ground, Hardge got on top of the man and beat him until his friend hit the crackhead with a brick. The fight's only casualty was Hardge's busted $450 watch, a beauty with a white gold face, diamond detailing and black leather band. The timepiece was a trade from a desperate customer. "Dope heads, they'll bring anything," Hardge says from jail, recalling the scene three years later. The previous day, the drug barter system — plus $50 — had landed Hardge an AK-47 assault rifle, which he intended to keep as protection for the drug house.
So far, this summer Saturday had been a bust, but the day was looking up. Another friend was stopping by to pick him up for a 17th birthday party at a rented party space called JeRenee in the 1100 block of East Red Bird Lane. "The party of the year," Hardge remembers his friend calling it.
The cushions of Hardge's brown and black checked couch covered the AK-47 until he moved them out of the way to show it off. He was used to being around guns — at least one person in almost every group of teens he knew carried one, but this was his first. Hardge smoked some pot and left in his friend's car, the rifle in the trunk.
The pair pulled up to a nearby hotel where the DFW Mafia guys were getting ready to party at Club Che, their usual spot in Northwest Dallas. Most weekends, Hardge would have been right beside them smoking weed and getting dressed, but this weekend he had no ID, needed to save money for watch repairs and had no clothes fit for a club. Dressed in a white undershirt, baggy shorts and red and black Air Force 1 sneakers, he felt better suited for the more casual party. Plus, his girlfriend was going, along with a slew of other women who would potentially come home with him.
He was armed and amped after a crappy day made tolerable by pills and pot, and "down for whatever," the phrase that gave the DFW Mafia its name.
Hardge himself had been shot two years earlier and still has a fleshy bubble of a scar on his elbow. "I got shot!" he remembers thinking at the time, amused with twisted pride. He lost his 16-year-old best friend to a gunshot wound not long after DFW Mafia became a serious force in Oak Cliff.
"Kids now, they don't care," says Detective Germaine Walls of the Dallas Police Department's gang unit. Over the years, he's seen a gang mentality develop that is more violent with less purpose. "The violence ... it's getting worse."
Dozens of people gathered in a line that snaked around JeRenee as they waited in the summer heat for security at the door to swipe them with a metal detector. The flier announcing the party warned, "No fightin!!! Police on duty!!" Brawls between members of rival gangs or even rival high schools were expected at certain high school parties.
Hardge cut the line and paid the $10 entrance fee while his friend stayed in the parking lot, mingling with the crowd outside. Sweat coated him instantly as he walked into the room packed with more than 100 sticky bodies. He recognized hardly anyone, but that didn't matter; he was high and could still feel the Xanax ramping him up after a day that left his nerves taut. The drug widely used to calm anxiety had the opposite effect on Hardge. He felt capable of anything, like a superhero who couldn't stand still. Hardge waded through the crowd and hopped onto the stage to hang out with another friend from Carter High School.
Barely 15 minutes had passed when a brawl broke out on the dance floor, sucking Hardge's friend into a mass of contorting bodies and flying punches. That quickly, the music went dead. The party was over. While many were still in line to enter, security pushed everyone from inside out the door. As the crowd dispersed, anger hung heavy.
Neiman Ross sat slumped outside the door holding his face, bloodied when a punch to the back of the head knocked him down. He had been dancing with his cousins and friends when he and Dunngea Suber, whom he had fought with in middle school, exchanged words, then punches, setting off a chain reaction that sent the crowds running and peeling away in cars. Amid the chaos, Hardge recalls someone helping Ross outside and yelling, "I'm going to kill one of y'all niggas."
Hardge ran down the sidewalk to the trunk of his friend's car.
"Y'all need to leave," he told a group of girls standing near the car in the club's dark parking lot. He grabbed the AK as people ran in all directions, trying to get as far away as quickly as possible, as if a timer were counting down. There was too much commotion, too much anger, too much disrespect carried outside. Someone was going to start shooting.
The person helping Ross ran to a green Explorer, but Hardge never saw him with a gun. Before he could even grab his weapon and slam the trunk, he says, shots were flying in his direction from across the street. From a corner area where the parking lot dumps into the street, Hardge squeezed off several shots in that direction. Barreling toward the road, the green Explorer clipped him, knocking him to his back on the asphalt. For a split-second, Hardge thought he had been shot, but it was only the burn of the pavement. He unloaded his gun into the Explorer.
Homicide Detective Robert Quirk, who was on the scene soon after the shooting, said a bullet struck the front of the Explorer, indicating that Hardge shot the vehicle before it leveled him at the entrance to the parking lot. Though Hardge said he was being fired at from across the street, Quirk says the only shell casings found in that location were Hardge's own — two spots, 500 feet apart, same gun. "It's not like they're the same caliber from two different guns. They're the same caliber, same manufacturer of the bullets — same freaking gun," Quirk says.
Witnesses say they heard shots from two different guns, but police haven't found evidence of another shooter. Maybe the second gun was fired from a car, so there were no casings on the ground, or the noise could have been from blocks away, though Quirk says either possibility is unlikely. His investigation found no bullet holes or dents in any of the cars or buildings near Hardge to indicate he was a target.
Oddly, Quirk and his team didn't uncover any bullet marks in the direction Hardge was shooting, either. Quirk theorizes that Hardge jumped in his friend's car after shooting from the parking lot entrance, drove down the street and fired a victory round out the window in the area he claims there were other shooters. "He's a thug. He pulls out his assault rifle because he knows there's going to be trouble. Well, trouble broke out ... and he just starts shooting indiscriminately."
Hardge tells it differently: His gun empty after he peppered the Explorer, he ran for his friend's car and dove into the back through the door his buddy had left open for a quick getaway. His friend whipped around the corner and zoomed away.
Juanita Payne, 15, was at the party with her older sister and a group of friends when the fight broke out. Grasping her best friend's hand, she ran from the club and halfway across East Red Bird Lane, trying to get away from the manic crowd pouring from the party. At the far edge of the tree-dotted median, a bullet pierced her torso from behind and brought her to the ground.
When Hardge pulled away that night, he had no idea someone had been shot, let alone killed. Later, friends told him about the death, but he still didn't know who it was and didn't think he had done it.
Down the street from the club, cops pulled over the green Explorer dimpled by bullets and drove the passengers, including badly beaten Ross, to police headquarters. Detectives arrived to find Payne's orphaned black Mary-Jane shoes strewn on the street just in front of the median.
The A&E channel's true crime show The First 48 documented the investigation, and the show's cameras caught the action at the station that night. The footage shows Ross' head swaddled in a white bandage so soaked with blood that areas of gauze around his forehead looked purple. His right eye, swollen shut, protruded from his face like a bruised tangerine as he told police about the fight inside the club but said he knew nothing about the shooting. Shortly after questioning, Ross was taken to Parkland Hospital and "treated for several facial fractures, brain and eye injuries," according to the affidavit for Dunngea Suber's arrest for aggravated assault filed in late July 2008.
Recalling the night recently, Ross said he was familiar with Hardge from middle school but didn't see him there that night. Hardge didn't realize Ross was the one hurt outside, and said he didn't see Suber at all that night, though he knows him well enough that the alleged assailant later called him from jail to tell him he was being held.
Ross' cousin, the driver of the Explorer, told police he saw a man holding an AK-47 wearing a white tank top. "The same guys that Neiman was having a problem with inside the club are part of that group that was shooting the gun," the driver told police. He remembers the shooting began as they were piling into the car. Bullets pounded as they peeled away. One went through the car door, missing all six passengers but puncturing a can of soda. "It was close enough," the driver told the Observer recently, requesting anonymity because he has since entered the Army. "We were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she [Juanita] was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Police ruled out the passengers in the Explorer as suspects. Then a tipster called saying she had seen Suber with Hardge. Questioned by detectives, Suber denied knowing the shooter and admitted to punching Ross. "I really think Dunngea knows more than he's telling us," Quirk told The First 48.
Darniece Jones told police she was crossing the street with Payne when they first heard gunshots. "I'm hit, best friend, I'm shot," she recalled Juanita saying. She stayed with her, lying over her and urging her to breathe before the ambulance arrived.
The day after the party, Hardge learned the victim was Payne, whom he would sometimes see at parties with Jones. Six weeks passed before another tipster directed police to Hardge. It was well past the investigation's crucial first 48 hours, but a break is a break.
Quirk already knew quite a bit and pretended to know more when he pulled Hardge in for questioning. "I know you were shooting out there, but I also know that you have a heart here, and you didn't mean to kill this girl," he told Hardge during an interrogation broadcast by The First 48.
Hardge sat in the sterile room with his hands pulled into the sleeves of his roomy white shirt. He spoke evenly and slowly. "It doesn't matter what you say. I'm going to lose my life, my little girl. I'm going to lose everything. I didn't do this, sir."
Then came the homicide team's big break. "I fucked up. I just started shooting toward where I heard the shots coming from," Hardge told Quirk.
"What kind of gun was it?" Quirk asked.
"It was an AK," Hardge said.
"It was an AK?" Quirk asked.
Slouched forward in the shiny metal chair and staring at the ground, Hardge said, "My little girl just turned 5 months yesterday — I threw it all away."
Police headquarters would be the last place Hardge would enter as a free man for a long time.
To Quirk, that was a reassuring notion. "It feels real good to finally close this case," Quirk said on camera after Hardge confessed to shooting.
But not to killing Payne. Never to that. Hardge wants to be clear: He may have shot a gun, but he didn't kill anybody. That makes a difference — to him, at least.
"We wanted to come by and let you know we made an arrest," Quirk told Payne's father, Melvin Thomas, who stood in the garage of his pale yellow South Oak Cliff home as video cameras caught the scene. The younger of his two little girls, a solid student who hoped to become a pediatrician, had been shot down just 20 days shy of her 16th birthday. It was the summer between her freshman and sophomore year at South Oak Cliff High School.
"That's justice. That's justice right there," Thomas said, nodding his head at the news of Hardge's arrest.
The episode's ending disclaimer stating that suspects are "presumed innocent until proven guilty" seemed to be the only inkling of a chance that Hardge wouldn't be sent away for murder. As he listened to the episode from jail through his ex-girlfriend's phone, Hardge recalled recently that he felt like the "littlest person in the world."
As the case progressed, the notion of justice became less clear-cut. Hardge implausibly told authorities someone robbed the gun from him the day after the shooting, and the bullet that killed Payne was never recovered. The case against him was thinner than it first seemed. Time dragged on as Hardge awaited the outcome of a murder indictment.
He had been behind bars for nearly three years and anticipated many more when he entered a plea agreement filed on May 27. It dismisses the murder charge and states that he is guilty of engagement in organized criminal activity. The charge is a catch-all for several gang-related offenses, but in Hardge's case, it means he engaged in "deadly conduct" as a member of DFW Mafia. On the morning of his sentencing hearing at the end of this June, a jail guard led Hardge to the holding cell in the courthouse to face a sentence of up to 20 years. Cold and nervous, he sat on the bench of the windowless cinder-block room, hoping for probation and knowing it was unlikely.
When he was called into the courtroom in his gray striped prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, he was happy to see his mother, cousins, daughter and Henderson had showed up to support him. His cousin remarked that Hardge's appearance had changed. He gained significant weight and jailhouse tattoos marked his forehead and cheeks.
Hardge's little girl, now 3, played on the benches, and his mother babysat her in the hallway when she became too energetic for the courtroom.
The gang unit's Walls testified that Hardge's tattoos were a testament to ongoing gang affiliation. Photo after photo of his old and new tattoos flashed on the projector screen — a bold "DFW" across his left biceps, three tears falling from his right eye, "Triple D Texas" across his left cheek, MOB (for "money over bitches") on his right hand, and a Champagne bottle with "DFW" on the label on his right forearm.
Dr. Reed Quinton of the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office testified that a bullet struck Payne, who had no alcohol or drugs in her blood, in the right side of her back and exited through her left side, traveling slightly upward and back to front, hitting vital organs in its path and causing her to bleed to death. But, he testified, an autopsy found no "lead snowstorm," a wake of debris in a bullet's path that's often associated with a rifle wound. "I don't think it's a very large caliber," he said.
There's no way to tell which gun did it? prosecutor Dewey Mitchell asked.
"That's correct," Quinton said.
Judge Carter Thompson sentenced Hardge to 16 years. While his family returned home, he went back to his cell. Prosecutor Mitchell felt it was important to send a message to other gang members that these cases are not taken lightly. "It's a messed-up world for those kids," he says.
Hardge's mother, Audry Kelley, feels like she lost her own child. "When somebody just snatches them away from you, you have no control," she says, sitting at the dining room table of her modest home in a neatly maintained DeSoto neighborhood. "It hurts to know that ... " she pauses, smacking her lips as tears form in her eyes. "What can I do? I can't do nothing. I can't make them let him go." She talks to Hardge often on the phone but rarely visits him in jail because that means leaving him behind.
"Guns don't have no name. Bullets don't have no name," she used to tell him years ago as a warning against random killings. When her son was initially arrested for murder, Kelley fell to her knees praying "not to let my child be the reason someone else's child died."
"We're burying kids left and right," she says. On the day of Hardge's arrest, she remembers him saying he felt a sense of relief that he could begin paying for a crime that she sensed weighed heavily on him. Her own heart felt like it was "suffocating."
"All I know is he does feel better knowing he don't kill nobody," she says, grasping at the medical examiner's non-conclusive testimony for reassurance. "He's still my baby. He's still a child — he's still my child. But in the eyes of the law, he's a grown man now."
Sitting behind the smudged glass of a stark visitors' room at the Dallas County jail and holding a phone that had been breathed on by countless murderers, Hardge says he's "100 percent sure" his bullet didn't kill Payne. "I'm sorry somebody got hurt. ... I feel for her family," he says, his lip turning up slightly as it tends to do when he's either gravely serious or on the verge of tears.
"I wasn't just out to kill nobody," he says of his plans that night. He believes that Payne either ran across the street after being shot while standing behind him or she was shot after he fled. He would have seen her running, he believes. She died only a couple hundred yards in front of where he was standing.
Hardge is convinced Payne was killed by the shooter on the other side of the median, the shooter whose existence Quirk found no evidence to support. Quirk calls both of Hardge's theories impossible based on witness testimony and crime-scene analysis. Though Hardge said in court that the darkness rendered the group with the gun unrecognizable, from jail he claims they were a rival gang and he recognized the shooter. He just didn't want to tell police.
"It's like when you're in the streets, you don't give that type of information," he says. "It's the code that I live by." Snitching couldn't help anyone now, he says. "I need to worry about myself and my daughter."
Certain ideals become deeply seated when you live the gang lifestyle for so long. But now, Hardge says, he's over gang life and no longer identifies with DFW Mafia or any other gang. He wants his tattoos lasered off. Resting his elbows on the counter behind the jail's glass barrier, he talks frankly and soberly as though he believes every word he says with absolute conviction. When he first landed in jail, his old crew made sure he had money and that he was all right. But the longer Hardge remained behind bars, the less he heard from the gang. His old lifestyle may have continued if they hadn't become disloyal, even though he says his gang banging had been slowing down since his daughter was born in March 2008.
In Hardge's circles, "slowing down" is a relative term. "There's a lot of stuff going on here in Dallas, Texas," he says, and drugs and weapons "ain't nothing." He says he stopped fighting and raising hell just to keep from getting bored, save for the crackhead episode his friend instigated outside his complex. He was young then, but he is a dad now.
Walking through that July day three years ago and tracing the course of his life since then, Hardge wipes his eyes only when he talks about his little girl. In all likelihood, he won't see her until she's about the same age Payne was when she was killed. "Selling dope, stuff like that, I wish I knew how to do something better," he says. With plans of earning his GED in prison and learning to be a truck mechanic or a barber, he's over his old life, for now. But if he couldn't get a job or if he had a barber business that tanked, there would always be the draw of the quick $800-$1,500 he could make in a few days of peddling drugs. "I can't lie to myself," he says, unable to deny that he would consider going back to dealing.
For now, he's periodically cutting hair in prison. His cousin is a barber, so he's familiar with the trade. Jail rules keep him from using the clippers, but he can get a razor for about a dollar, and that plus a comb has won him around 100 locked-up clients, he estimates.
Hardge talks openly about his life because he feels he's been made into an example by the prosecution and might as well make himself an example — he made a series of the worst decisions a teenager can make and thinks everyone should know his story did not work out well.
He's truly following in his father's footsteps now, and that sort of life has lost its appeal.
"This is for the birds. This is for animals," he says of his life behind bars, where he gets a change of clothes and two pairs of boxers every five days. He's due for transfer to state prison any day.
"I'm disappointed," Detective Quirk says. "I know he killed Juanita. The prosecution knows he killed Juanita. He knows he killed Juanita. But knowing it and proving it in Dallas County beyond a reasonable doubt under these circumstances is tough."
Weeks after Hardge's sentencing, Quirk tracked down Payne's father to update him, finding Thomas through his job at a commercial printing company where he works the presses. The Observer tagged along as Quirk paid his visit. Standing in the same haphazardly furnished garage where the family tries to keep cool in the summer heat, Quirk tells Thomas that Hardge had been sentenced to 16 years, not for murder, but for engagement in organized criminal activity.
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"We're going to make sure he does every day of [his sentence] ... We had a lot of people fighting for Juanita and for your family to get this boy locked up," Quirk assures him. "And we succeeded, to a point. Are we going to be able to give him some more time? Let's hope so. That remains to be seen." The prosecutor on the case, Mitchell, considers it an open investigation and says Hardge still could be charged with murder, though his attorney thinks that's highly unlikely. Hardge filed a notice of appeal weeks after his sentencing, and his new attorney requested all records relating to the case to review before filing a brief with the appeals court.
After his daughter's death, Thomas had to stop working for three months. "I'm taking it day by day. It's not easy. It's tough on me, very tough," he says. Tall, thin and wearing white basketball shorts and no shirt on the 100-degree day, Thomas pauses periodically as though silence could choke back the emotions that accompany thoughts of his daughter. Three years later, his sense of loss is stifling.
"We can't bring her back now. ... Sixteen years, I don't think that's enough. ... God's gonna give him the worst whupping he ever had," Thomas says. While Quirk is there, Payne's aunt visits with a colorful Mylar "Happy Birthday" banner, and a homemade sign on white poster board with rainbow-colored letters in carefully drawn print. "Happy 19th Birthday 'Boo Boo' Juanita," the sign reads. "We will always love you and miss you FOREVER." She brought them for a birthday celebration to take place the day after Quirk visits. Even three birthdays later, the family, tattered by loss, honors every milestone and visits her grave often.
Dorothy Thomas, Payne's grandmother, sits quietly among her company in the muggy garage, where a small fan propped up on a chair gives her little relief. "I just take one day at a time," was all she could say. The family planned to release 19 balloons from the front yard as part of the birthday celebration. Four balloons ago, they had Juanita. Three balloons ago, they thought they had her murderer. Now, they have a shooter behind bars, not a murderer, who feels the burden of responsibility only for what his behavior has done to his own daughter, not theirs.