EDITOR'S NOTE: This report is an installment of The Ripple Effect, an occasional series in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times that looks at the toil the city's violence epidemic has on the families and friends of murder victims. In this installment, multimedia journalist Jessica Koscielniak and video producer Peter Holderness explore the life and death of 19-year-old Ashley Hardmon and the void her family must now face with her loss.
Tiffany Hardmon trembled in the arms of her husband, Anthony, as they slowly walked down the center aisle of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on the West Side.
At the front of the church, the white-and-pink open casket stood vertically, holding the body of their 19-year-old daughter, Ashley Hardmon.
It’s exactly what Tiffany Hardmon requested for her “princess.”
“My baby ain’t gonna be looked down on,” Tiffany Hardmon, 39, said earlier in the week while planning funeral arrangements with Reliable Funeral Services director Anthony Hardman.
Ashley Hardmon — affectionately known as “Muffin” — was shot in the back of the head while standing with friends in the 4800 block of West Potomac about 9:40 p.m. July 2.
The Hardmon Five
Anthony and Tiffany Hardmon raised their brood in the West Side Austin neighborhood — first Latasia, now 21, then Ashley and then Anthony Jr., now 14.
They took their children to church, attended Latasia’s cheerleading events, Ashley’s basketball games, Anthony’s football games. The children abided by strict curfews, did homework under a parent’s watchful eye. The family cleaned the house together.
They called themselves “The Hardmon Five”.
Ashley's father, who wasn't always such a straight arrow, left his gang friends more than a decade ago to be a better parent to his kids. He once dodged a bullet on the corner opposite of where his daughter would be gunned down.
“I always taught my children to be better than me,” Anthony Hardmon, 42, said. “My kids were always my priority. That’s just how I was raised.”
He had just picked up his middle child from Paul Simon Chicago Job Corps where she was working in the pharmacy technician training program.
That was a Monday.
Tuesday night, gunshots rang out.
Now Ashley’s luggage, a black trunk with silver latches and sports bags of clothes, sits in the middle of the floor of the room she shared with her sister. Ashley’s wooden bed still lacks a mattress; it was something she and her mother were planning to buy.
For the one night she was back home again. The night before she died, she bunked with her sister, the pair sleeping head to toe.
Latasia still has to sleep there — as much as she hates it. She sits on the edge of her sister’s empty bedframe, her face buried in her sister’s favorite Puma jacket.
Latasia was wearing the jacket the day after Ashley died. She had walked to the corner of West Potomac Avenue and North Lamon Street. She found her sister’s blood on the ground and wiped it across the coat’s tan front.
Tiffany doubts she will ever wash Ashley’s jacket again. Not that one.
The Hardmons were packing for a family reunion in Arkansas when they heard the shots in their neighborhood. Then a bang on the door. Then shouting:
“MUFFIN WAS SHOT.”
Mourning AshleyThe extended family headed north to Chicago where they’d be together for Ashley’s homegoing service. Instead of spending time in Arkansas with family Saturday morning, they join an anti-violence CeaseFire rally in honor of Ashley’s life in La Follette Park.
Then, on the porch where citronella coils burn to keep the bugs away, the stories begin.
But now, all those stories are about Muffin.
“Muffin” liked to eat junk. ... She ate flour. ... Baked corn bread from scratch.
She always asked for her Auntie "Pookie’s" credit card. She loved basketball. She was crowned “Dutchess” of the 2012 prom court at Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy.
Coffee shows up in the morning, thanks to a neighbor. Then cans of soda and bottles of water. Then wine and tequila for the family still sitting on the porch after sundown.
There’s pans of chicken, fish and ribs as well as a White Castle Crave Case too, delivered by friends who just want to help.
Anthony Hardman, Reliable Funeral Services director, arrived at the house in charcoal gray minivan after days, he admitted, of avoiding them. Ashley used to run around his funeral home when Tiffany worked for him back in the day.
Hardman used light-hearted humor to get through the planning, saying it “takes the sting out of death when someone dies.”
In the peacefulness of the Hardmon basement, the arrangements are made. Ashley’s daddy remains upstairs. He cannot yet deal with the reality that Ashley is gone, though he will choose the day he would bury his daughter.
“We buried a lot of kids,” Tiffany said to Hardman, “never thought it would be mine.”
Tiffany gathered the ladies of her family Sunday to find an outfit for Ashley. They searched all over the North Riverside Mall: Lady Foot Locker. Finish Line. And finally Champs.
“I won’t put her in a dress,” Tiffany said earlier. “She was an athlete, her lifestyle was her own.”
Mr and Mrs. Hardmon decided to dress their daughter in her favorite color and attire — a new red Adidas tracksuit with matching white-and-red-shell-toe Adidas Superstar shoes.
Latoyah Smith — the best friend of Ashley’s sister — styled her hair and gracefully stood watch as Ashley’s body was prepared.
Ashley had only ever allowed two people to brush her hair – her mother and Latoyah.
"It just felt like the right thing to do ...," Latoyah said."No mother is stronger enough; no sister is strong enough to do it."
Police said a week after Ashley was gunned down on the corner that they didn't believe she was the target. No one was in custody.
Then came the day they had been preparing for but none of them were ready. No one could sit still.
The backbone of the Hardmon family paced the hallway, then the kitchen. A shot of Crown. Followed by a glass of moscato. Anything to calm Anthony’s nerves. Since he saw her laying in the street, the day of Ashley's funeral was the first time Anthony had seen his “princess.”
He was the last to dress for the service — in a tracksuit like the rest of the relatives.
Tiffany stood up but could barely stay upright as two white stretch limousines pulled down West Kamerling Avenue.
"[That] really affirmed that this was real," Tiffany said.
More than 1,200 people gathered at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church to say farewell to Ashley. Standing room only for the celebration of Ashley's 19 years.
Friends and family mourned, prayed and sang. Her little brother needed to do more.
Anthony Hardmon Jr., 14, walked to the pulpit and stood tall, demanding the respect of the entire church.
“That right there is my heart,” he said of his sister. “That’s my childhood. That’s my everything.”
“We should be burying our grandmothers and fathers. I shouldn’t have to be carrying my sister to this hearse.”
Ashley was carried to her final resting place by a white horse-drawn carriage. Her father wanted his daughter as close to his mother as possible. Lilies, carnations, and roses were thrown on her casket as it was lowered to the ground. Folks in the crowd gathered around her grave wept and cried out the name by which they knew her: “Muffin.”
The family had gone as far as they could go as the Hardmon Five.
Tiffany leaned over her daughter’s grave. Her voice lost its sadness and grew determined.
“Rest assured ... as long as I have breath in my body, there will be justice for Ashley.”