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Boyfriend accused of shooting black men in retaliation for girl’s death

May 12, 1997

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) _ Leif O’Connell loved Annie Fulford so much that his friends used to tease that she had him wrapped around her finger.

But four months before the young couple were to announce their engagement, O’Connell watched as Fulford was gunned down in a robbery in which four black men were later charged.

Police say O’Connell’s sorrow took a hateful turn: O’Connell and a friend, both white, are accused of killing a black man and shooting five others in a twisted attempt to even the score.

None of the victims had anything to do with Fulford’s death.

``We are alleging they were randomly selected via race,″ said Tom Trenerry, head of the St. Joseph County Special Crimes Unit.

O’Connell’s arrest stunned his family and friends. Six months ago, they said, he was a warm, friendly young man with big plans for his future.

``He was not prejudiced,″ said David Fulford, Annie Fulford’s father.

``Neither he nor Annie were,″ added her mother, Carol.

Fulford and O’Connell, 23, had been dating almost a year. He had picked out a ring, and they planned to announce their engagement on April 17, her 18th birthday.

``All they talked about was getting married, settling down and giving me grandkids,″ Carol Fulford said with a sad smile.

But on Dec. 27, the couple walked into a drug-related robbery at the mobile home of Annie’s older brother, Mike Fulford. As O’Connell sprayed Mace at one of the robbers, a gun went off and the bullet lodged in Annie Fulford’s brain. She died that night.

Jimmy Bailey, Taurus Foster, Curtis Medina and James Wilder were charged with murder, robbery and conspiracy. All are jailed without bail and could get life in prison.

Fulford’s death devastated O’Connell, her parents said. He came to their house every morning, sobbing uncontrollably as he stared at her ashes.

Less than two months later, the drive-by shootings started. On Feb. 12, a body was discovered on a snowy street. Robert Wardlow Jr., 20, had been shot in the abdomen.

A big, gentle man, Wardlow was known to crack jokes to lighten the tension if friends were arguing, said his great-uncle, the Rev. Rayvon Bufkin.

He lived with his mother, and the two worked together at Century Center, the local convention hall. He wanted to go to college so he could make her life easier, Bufkin said.

In the next two weeks, police heard the same story repeatedly: Two white men in a small car or Jeep would pull up behind a black man and start shooting.

On Feb. 26, police spotted the Jeep. As they followed, the police radio crackled: Two more black men had been shot. When the Jeep pulled over, a passenger got out and said, ``These two guys just shot somebody.″

The two guys were O’Connell and his friend, Jerred Kahlenbeck, police said.

O’Connell ``stated that the reason for doing this was that his girlfriend, Annie Fulford, had been murdered,″ police said in court papers. ``Leif O’Connell stated that he would feel better after the shootings.″

O’Connell is charged with murder and five counts of attempted murder. His trial is set for July 9, and his attorney has indicated he might employ an insanity defense.

Kahlenbeck, 21, will be tried separately on the same charges. Both men are being held without bail and face life in prison if convicted.

``It was such a shallow way of thinking,″ Bufkin said. ``Someone killed someone, so you kill everyone that’s the same color, creed and kind they are?″

Racial tensions simmer mostly beneath the surface in South Bend, about 90 minutes east of Chicago. There are integrated neighborhoods, but there are mostly white and black areas, too. About one-fifth of the city’s 105,000 residents are black.

A unity rally last month drew several hundred people. Community leaders want to create more opportunities for people of different races to get to know each other, said Brother Sage Gillam, director of the Urban League of South Bend and St. Joseph County.

``It kind of caught people off guard,″ he said of the revenge shootings. ``They weren’t really aware that something of that level would happen.″

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