Don Hardge Fired His AK-47 Into a Crowd Of Teens, But He Swears He's No Killer

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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.

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Leslie Minora