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Jury convicts man of murder for ramming SUV full of teens

Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune –

A Cook County jury today convicted a reputed gang member of murder for ramming a car into an SUV and causing it to crash, killing one and injuring seven other teens.

Prosecutors said Shalimar Santiago, 30, mistakenly thought that rival gang members were in the SUV and had shot at him earlier that night in August 2009.

Santiago was also convicted on seven counts of aggravated battery for the injuries to the other seven passengers.

Stephanie Herrera, a student at University of Illinois at Chicago who aspired to be a doctor, was killed.

Santiago’s attorneys contended the crash was a tragic accident.

Santiago’s attorney, Crystal Carbellos, told jurors in her closing argument today that police developed “tunnel vision” in their investigation and tried to make the facts fit their theory of mistaken identity.

The testimony of the seven surviving victims could not be trusted because their stories were inconsistent and many of them had been drinking at Chicago nightclubs before the crash, Carbellos said.

“They are trying to turn this simple but tragic traffic accident into a first-degree murder case,” said Carbellos, an assistant public defender. “They’re trying to ram this down your throat. Don’t buy into it.”

In his rebuttal, Assistant State’s Attorney Mark Shlifka likened Santiago to a hunter pursuing his prey and said police simply followed the evidence in the case.

“This was no accident. … This was an act of revenge, retaliation and gang nonsense,” Shlifka said.

The jury had begun deliberating shortly after 3 p.m.

Prosecutors have alleged that hours before the crash, Santiago was driving with a gang associate and his girlfriend, Josie Soto, when a bullet pierced the rear window and struck his fellow gang member.

After they drove the wounded man to a hospital, Santiago and Soto were headed down Chicago Avenue at about 4 a.m. when Santiago spotted the Navigator he thought belonged to the Latin Dragons who had fired at them.

In previous testimony before a grand jury, Soto said Santiago passed the Navigator slowly enough for her to get a look at the driver. Then she said Santiago yelled, “There go them Dragons!” and gave chase, eventually ramming the vehicle at Augusta Boulevard and Central Park Avenue.

Soto testified earlier this week that she was “wasted” the night of the crash and could not remember telling the grand jury any details.

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