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

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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.

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Leslie Minora