For William Crawl, 71st Street served as an anchor and safe haven in a life fraught by mental illness. But he was killed there Wednesday night when he was caught in the middle of a gun fight.
As a teenager, William Crawl hung out with his buddies at the pizza parlors along the buzzing retail corridor on 71st Street in South Shore.
Years later, homeless and struggling with mental illness, he returned to the street.
“He’s been out there, like a mailbox, for years. Doesn’t matter if there’s snow or cold. He didn’t bother anybody, wouldn’t hurt a fly,” said Lincoln Brown, a barber and one of several shopkeepers who said they regularly offered Crawl a place to warm up, a bite to eat, and odd jobs to make sure he had a few dollars in his pocket.
On Wednesday evening, Crawl, 49, was standing outside a convenience store that he counted on every morning for free coffee when he found himself caught in the middle of a gun fight.
Seeking refuge, Crawl ran inside the store but apparently didn’t realize the shooter outside was exchanging gunfire with people inside the store. He was fatally shot in the back of the head. A 16-year-old boy involved in the gunfight was also shot and killed.
News of Crawl’s death spread fast and hit hard.
“We’re a Christian barbershop, so I try not to curse in here. But it’s a damn shame,” said Brown, who works across the street from where Brown was killed. “Some people live a lifestyle where that comes with it. He wasn’t that. He was a good person.
“I wish they’d stop this senseless killing,” Brown added as he cut a man’s hair with electric clippers. “They’re driving good people out of the city. We can’t take it no more. We’re getting tired of it.”
Crawl didn’t always live on the street.
One of four siblings, Crawl grew up just blocks from where he was killed, the son of a police officer and a nurse, according to his brother, Anthony Crawl, 53.
He graduated from South Shore High School, where he played basketball, and spent a semester at Chicago State University.
“He loved dressing up, he loved cars, he loved jewelry, he loved all those things anyone else would love, and he loved to work. He had a few jobs,” Anthony Crawl said.
He also had five kids and a wife.
“But mental illness kicked in and he found his own way of dealing with it, and we had to find our own way of dealing with that,” said Anthony Crawl, who lives on the South Side and works as a prep cook at a suburban restaurant.
“We tried to get him into the hospital and get him the help he needed, but you can’t make someone do what they don’t want to do,” he said.
His family tried to keep tabs, and sometimes Crawl would find his way to one of their homes to shower, eat and sleep.
“He was a kind person, he was a loving person and he helped people whichever way he could,” Anthony Crawl said.
“He helped older ladies carry their bags, he’d help them home. People, they trusted him, although he was mentally ill, they trusted him. That’s why he gained so much support and no one judged him because mental illness can happen to anyone,” he said.
“Our parents are still alive and we’re focused on paying attention to them and keeping them together,” he said.
Crawl had been in and out of the lives of his own kids. Anthony Crawl said he could not imagine the pain they, too, are going through.
There will also be a void on 71st Street.
“It’s going to be different around here without Will. He didn’t deserve that,” said an employee at a chicken and fish shop steps from where Crawl was killed.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Maged Salem, who owns the convenience store where Crawl died, and gave him coffee and donuts every morning, along with a few bucks for cleaning garbage from the adjacent parking lot.
“It’s sad,” he said.