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

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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.

"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.

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Leslie Minora