Two months shy of his 16th birthday, Tearius Pettis was riding his bicycle south in the 1300 block of Philo Road in Urbana about 6:30 p.m. Saturday when at least one shooter — possibly two — directed a hail of gunfire at him.
They were difficult shots to fire from the shooter’s location — the driveway at 1309 S. Philo Road toward Pettis, riding in the bike lane at 1305 S. Philo. That’s why all but one of the nine shots fired missed.
Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup said one bullet hit Mr. Pettis in the left side of his back, causing massive damage to his internal organs.
A witness said a nurse who stopped at the scene tried to assist Mr. Pettis but failed to detect a pulse and informed an arriving police officer that “he’s gone.”
Urbana Police Lt. David Smysor said Monday that authorities have made “good progress” in their effort to identify the perpetrators. He declined to say whether there were two shooters, but did say that there was more than one person riding in the white car that left the scene at a high rate of speed.
Witnesses told The News-Gazette that the white car left the scene by heading north on South Philo Road and going right past Mr. Pettis’ body that was lying on the east side of Philo Road in the northbound bike lane.
Charles Arnold, who lives at 1305 S. Philo Road, said he heard a series of gunshots, rushed to open his front door and saw Mr. Pettis “already on the ground.”
“He was trying to run away,” Arnold said.
The boy’s bicycle was laying on the ground in the southbound bike lane directly in front of Arnold’s house.
Another witness said she is very familiar with gunfire and correctly estimated nine shots were fired. She described herself as “stunned” that Mr. Pettis was struck “because of the distance” between the shooter or shooters and Mr. Pettis. Smysor said authorities “recovered nine shell casings.”
Urbana Police said the fatal shooting is the city’s first homicide in 2020. Authorities said there have been 13 confirmed shootings during the first three-and-a-half months of the year, eight of them taking place in southeast Urbana. During 2019, there were 33 confirmed shootings in Urbana.
‘Crime of opportunity’
Smysor said authorities believe that Mr. Pettis was the intended target of the shooting but that the event itself was a “crime of opportunity.”
“I don’t believe there was an ambush that they had planned,” he said,
Witnesses said the men in the white car were parked in a driveway at 1309 S. Philo Road when they apparently saw Mr. Pettis riding his bicycle toward them. Without waiting for him to get closer, shots were fired.
Smysor said the shooting resulted from “bad blood between Mr. Pettis and other people in the community.”
In a statement issued after the shooting, Urbana Police urged “anyone with further information, photographs or video recordings” to call the department at 217-384-2320.
The targeting of Mr. Pettis, who was a student at The Pavilion in Champaign, raises troubling prospects for the future. If he was, as police say, a victim of retaliatory violence, that could foreshadow future acts of violence by friends of Mr. Pettis against those they believe are complicit in their friend’s death.
Rietz concerned? ‘Yeah.’
Champaign-Urbana has been the scene of a series of shootings over the past six years that stem from continuing conflicts between rival groups of impulsive young males.
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz characterized them as members of “alliances” that lack the more formal organization associated with gangs.
Asked if she is concerned that the shooting of Mr. Pettis will prompt a series of retaliatory acts like the 2014 fatal shooting of Rakim Vineyard in Champaign, Rietz replied, “Oh yeah.”
Mr. Vineyard, 22, was shot in the back as he walked on a sidewalk in broad daylight on Beardsley Avenue in Champaign.
Between the date of Mr. Vineyard’s shooting and the 2017 arrest of Joshu’ah Young, there was a series of retaliatory and counter-retaliatory shootings.
A jury found Young guilty of Mr. Vineyard’s murder. Just 16 when he shot and killed Mr. Vineyard, Young was 20 when he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the crime.
Friends and supporters of Mr. Pettis and his family held a vigil Sunday evening on South Philo Road near the scene of the shooting. Remnants of the event — candles, roses and a teddy bear — were left in Mr. Pettis’ memory.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.