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

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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.

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Leslie Minora