IT WAS the kind of night that drove people outdoors, the hour late enough that homework and dinner were done, the dusky sky clear enough to give a brief respite from the week's incessant rain.
In Feltonville, Latoya Smith plopped her baby in a stroller and sat on the stoop outside her rowhouse on 3rd Street near Annsbury. Two girls shared Blow Pops and played jump-rope and hand-clapping games on the sidewalk.
A mile away that Wednesday evening, a man climbed on his motorcycle parked at Fisher and Rising Sun avenues. Two young thugs watched, their minds on mayhem.
Though just 18 and 20, respectively, Donta Cradock and Ivan Rodriguez already had racked up 13 arrests between them. And though they were wanted on bench warrants, they had no plans to lie low.
Still, no one was expecting the catastrophic carnage that would unfold only minutes later.
Fleeing police after allegedly stealing the motorcycle at gunpoint, Cradock plowed his car into Smith's stoop, killing the three children - ages 7, 6 and 11 months - and critically injuring Smith. Yesterday, relatives still reeling from the previous night's horrors learned that Smith, 22, had succumbed to her injuries, too.
With citizens and vehicle-safety advocates questioning whether a police pursuit preceded the tragedy, police officials hurried to quell such criticisms, saying that the incident never evolved into a pursuit. They even took the unusual step of playing police-radio communication before the crash to demonstrate that no pursuit had occurred. (See accompanying story, Next Page.)
"In this situation, it did not get to that point," Commissioner Charles Ramsey said. "He's [Cradock] the one who killed those people. No one else but him. It was reckless. Hopefully after this is over, we won't see him on the street anymore."
Still, Ramsey added, a pursuit would have been justified in this case. Departmental policy allows pursuit if an officer believes it will prevent someone's death or serious injury, or if it's necessary to nab someone who committed or tried to commit a violent felony or who possesses a weapon.
Road-safety advocates AAA issued two statements yesterday, raising pursuit concerns. In the first, it called for an inquiry into the police pursuit. But after police officials denied a pursuit had taken place, a spokeswoman amended the statement to: "Philadelphia Police say an officer was following the suspect, but not in 'hot pursuit.' Nonetheless, something went horribly wrong when the suspect crashed in a group of innocent bystanders - and many questions have yet to be answered."
Ramsey and Capt. James Clark tried to answer those questions during a crowded news conference yesterday morning.
They said that the saga started just before 7:30 p.m., when Cradock and Rodriguez cruised in a borrowed silver Pontiac up to the unsuspecting biker, flashed a .357 Magnum and allegedly demanded the man's bike. Rodriguez hopped on the Yamaha and sped off, while Cradock fled in the Pontiac toward Roosevelt Boulevard, Clark said.
Neither noticed the Good Samaritan who quietly followed Cradock. On the Boulevard, the Samaritan flagged down an officer on routine patrol, told him of the robbery and pointed out the Pontiac, Clark said.
The veteran officer surreptitiously followed Cradock south on the Boulevard, as Cradock weaved from the outer to inner lanes, until Cradock stopped in traffic near 4th Street, which merges with 3rd at the intersection. The patrolman, a couple of cars back, instructed Cradock over a loudspeaker to get out of the vehicle, police said.
Instead, Cradock jumped the median, turned left and sped down 3rd Street, striking some other vehicles along the way.
Trapped in the traffic, the officer couldn't initiate pursuit, Ramsey said. But he saw Cradock turn down 3rd Street and soon followed, searching down side streets as he tried to relocate his quarry.
In seconds, he found a smoky scene that witnesses say will haunt them for life.
The mangled car sat wedged between a tree and utility pole. Bodies sprawled everywhere, some dismembered.
Neighbors who sprinted to help found little to do.
"When I close my eyes, I can see the little girl in half. I can't take this," said Abby Aponte, a block captain who lives catty-corner to where Cradock crashed.
Emergency crews quickly cordoned off the area. Gina Marie Rosario, 7, and Aaliyah Griffin, 6, were declared dead at the scene. The baby, Remedy Smith, had been hurled from her stroller by the impact and died soon after at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. Latoya Smith died at 7:15 a.m. yesterday at Albert Einstein Medical Center.
Yesterday morning, neighbors and relatives created a memorial at the scene.
But the candles, stuffed animals, flowers and signs couldn't erase the evidence of calamity. Paramedics' discards, a single flip-flop and an open bag of animal crackers lined the gutter.
And Cradock's path of destruction remained tragically clear: A sheared-off sapling, a tree skinned of its bark like a banana, shattered glass, a splintered utility pole, Smith's dislodged steps and a wrecked, bloodied storm door still hanging precariously from a neighbor's doorjamb.
"All this over a bike?" neighbor Jimmy Borras said angrily, surveying the scene yesterday.
Cradock and Rodriguez were charged with murder, robbery and related offenses, Clark said.
Rodriguez has five prior arrests, including for car theft. Police said they arrested him at his home on 8th Street near Lycoming, recovered the stolen motorcycle and seized three rifles from the house.
Cradock, who lives on Rockland Street near B, was supposed to be locked up in a juvenile-detention facility but in April he was granted a weekend furlough, from which he never returned, investigators said. He has eight prior arrests for assault, burglary, terroristic threats, fleeing to elude police and gun offenses, including having a weapon on school property, police said. He had a revolver on him when he was arrested, Clark said.
Cradock was paralyzed from the waist down in the crash, a police source said last night.
On 3rd Street yesterday, relatives wasted no thought on the destructive duo.
They sobbed and embraced as they remembered the girls and accepted well-wishers' condolences.
Remedy would have celebrated her first birthday today.
The older girls were new friends; Aaliyah lived on the block, while Gina Marie, who lived in Kensington, was there to visit her grandmother.
Brieanna Richards, Gina Marie's aunt, remembered her as a "girlie girl" who loved princesses and "High School Musical" while still appreciating the antics of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Aaliyah was a kindergartner excited to start first grade and ride the school bus in September, relatives said.
"She loved coloring and writing her name and numbers," her grandmother Vanessa Boyer said. "She was proud to do it."
Aaliyah, nicknamed "Pooka," had a younger brother and sister on whom she doted.
"She took very good care," Boyer said. "She loved her sister and brother. She would play with them and make faces at them to make them laugh."
Boyer and her family moved to the street six months ago. She said that she didn't often let Aaliyah play on the sidewalk because the street was unsafe.
"We were looking for another place to live, because everyone was telling us they had shoot-outs [and] robberies [here]," Boyer said.
Smith's sister surveyed the memorial yesterday and sobbed.
"I just want them back," cried Porscha Canada, 18, who lost a 3-year-old niece in a 2007 car accident and her 18-year-old brother to gun violence in 2005. "[I take it] day by day. It's a day-by-day thing."
Latoya "loved that little girl," said Boyer, adding that Smith was always with her daughter.
Neighbors complained that the tragedy may have been inevitable.
"[Motorists] come off the highway and just zoom down the hill like it's a race track," said Sheila Williams, 40. "Something needs to be done about this street here. Because look what happened - three innocent babies, lost."
And the area lacks a playground where children can safely play, leading many tots to find their fun on the sidewalk, neighbors said.
"No matter who you are, this is a tragedy for our neighborhood," said Borras, the neighbor. *