Pretty Pennington was killed by a girl fight, a handgun and an AK-47.
She’d been to a friend's wedding that Saturday night, Nov. 12, 2016 — a fun party where she danced all night, picking up her phone only to post pictures to Snapchat. Her mother, Marvella Clark, was sitting at a table and noticed Pennington’s cell phone buzzed constantly.
“I kept saying, ‘Who is this keep calling your phone?’” Clark remembers, and Pennington told her: “‘Oh Mama, don’t worry about it. She just mad because we had a fight yesterday.’”
The “she” was a woman Pennington had gotten into fisticuffs with the day before — fighting inside her moving car that ultimately ran into two parked cars. Clark says the woman had been threatening Pennington all day.
When the wedding was over, Pennington drove away with her sister and two of her best friends, but her black Chevy Impala broke down at 21st and Cleveland, near Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, according to Pennington’s family and Kansas City Police records.
Witnesses told police that a white Chrysler 300 drove up, six people got out, and the woman fighting with Pennington stood by the driver’s side.
“That’s them. That’s Pretty right there,” witnesses reported the woman fighting with Pennington said. (The woman has not been charged with a crime so KCUR is not identifying her.)
A man allegedly came up to the car at the passenger side, where Pennington's sister Marsheanna Clark, sat.
"He opened the door on the passenger side and pulled Marsheanna out first and shot her twice in the chest,” Marvella Clark says she was told by Pennington’s two friends who were in the backseat. “When he got done with her, he shot Pretty. Then when he was finished, he walked to the car and got the AK.”
Police identified Deandre “Day Day” Jackson, 25, of Kansas City, as the shooter. He allegedly used a .45 caliber handgun, emptied the clip, then retrieved an AK-47, a semi-automatic assault rifle.
Detectives found 32 spent shell casings from two different guns, police documents show.
Police and prosecutors say arguments in Kansas City are often settled with a gun, which are plentiful in the metro area. Coupled with a lack of gun control laws, the accessibility often thwarts anti-violence advocates’ efforts.
“You cannot have a culture where a gun is the preferred method of solving disputes and arguments,” says Kansas City Mayor Sly James. “And in this state, everybody’s got a gun.”
More gun shops than QuikTrips
Although the national murder rate is lower than a couple decades ago, Kansas City has witnessed a spike in homicides since 2015, ranking it among the worst in the U.S.
Legal firearms are easy to find and buy here. A KCUR analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed 525 federal firearms licenses in the nine-county metro area, outnumbering QuikTrips six-to-one. The data is from 2016, the same year murders in the metro area spiked at 201.
There were 523 federal firearm licensed dealerships in the nine-county metro Kansas City area in 2016, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (Map by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, KCUR 89.3)
The licenses cover dealerships big and small, including individual dealers operating out of homes, pawn shops, gun stores, manufacturers and big box stores like Walmart. Yet that figure by no means accounts for all the weaponry in the metro area, as the data does not reflect illegal sales on the Internet or those obtained by theft, private sales or trading.
Unlike Chicago, where most of the guns used in crimes are purchased in Indiana, the majority of guns used in crimes in Missouri and Kansas are obtained here.
“What we see is: the guns are home-sourced, home-grown, if you will,” says John Ham of the ATF’s Kansas City field division. “The vast, vast majority … of the original purchase of the gun happened in the same state, oftentimes in the same city as where the gun was used in some kind of crime.”
It’s not known where the firearms came from in the Pennington murder, and Jackson County prosecutors won’t comment on the case. But Pennington’s mother says she wasn’t surprised by the firepower because everyone has a gun.
“You can go to a gun show and collect an AK. You can go to the pawn shop and get one,” Marvella Clark says. “It’s easy.”
More gun shops, more crime?
The ATF’s Kansas City field division, one of 25 across the country, includes Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. This division has the largest number of federal firearms licensed dealerships in the U.S., Ham says. In part, that’s reflective of the Midwest’s love of hunting and sport shooting, he says.
“To some extent, there’s probably a gun culture here,” Ham says. “We think of guns maybe a little differently than big metropolis, urban areas.”
Ham says that of guns used in crimes, most are handguns that are obtained two ways: during residential burglaries or through “straw purchases,” when a person who is prohibited from buying firearms uses another person to buy a gun on their behalf, which is a crime.
A growing concern for ATF, Ham says, is the increase in thefts of weapons at federal firearm licensed dealers. Since 2012, when the ATF began keeping track, firearms stolen during burglaries have increased by 72.5 percent and firearms stolen during robberies are up 213.5 percent, according to ATF data.
Ham says the ATF is making investigations into thefts from licensed gun dealers a top priority.
"As ATF, working with our law enforcement partners, continue to restrict criminals’ access to firearms, those who would divert firearms from legal commerce to use in criminal behavior have to find new ways try and meet the demand,” Ham says.
Access to firearms = more murders?
To be sure, there’s lots of debate about whether or not mass accessibility to firearms leads to more murders.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research, says that in rural areas, there’s no correlation between the large number of gun dealerships and homicides. But research shows that that’s not true for cities.
“Cities with more gun shops, all other things being equal, tend to have higher homicide rates as well,” he says.
Even more importantly, Webster says, is the availability of firearms in places where gun laws have been loosened. In Missouri, since a law requiring background checks and permits for handgun sales was repealed in 2007, Webster’s research found that the homicide rate increased by 20 percent, the largest increase in the U.S.
“Some broader issues in Missouri about widespread gun availability are one factor that contributes to Missouri’s high homicide rate and suicide rate,” Webster says.
Many gun rights advocates do not believe that access to guns leads to a higher crime rate. Larry Keane, senior vice president at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, dismisses Webster’s research and says homicides are caused by many factors.
“It’s like saying the number of CVS Pharmacies somehow correlates to the heroin epidemic or drug overdoses in a particular city,” he says. “There’s just no basis for drawing a causal connection.”
The national homicide rate is down, Keane says, and it’s true that it’s considerably lower than its peak in the 1990s. Keane says that’s significant when there are more than 300 million guns in the U.S., a number the Congressional Research Service says has doubled since 1968.
‘Dead on arrival’
The firepower behind MaryAnna "Pretty" Pennington’s murder was shocking, even to law enforcement, turning a wedding into a family tragedy.
Pennington spent her last night dancing with friends and her sisters — Marsheanna, now 24, and MarJada, now 13. Caught in cell phone videos and pictures, Pennington, in a burgundy- and peach-colored dress, high heels and large hoop earrings, is smiling and singing along to the songs played by the DJ.
She came by the nickname Pretty for a reason, her family says, and she had a fearless and caring spirit, always ready to help someone out or watch another’s children.
At the end of the night, just a few minutes after Pennington drove off with her sister and friends, her mom got a call.
“Pretty called my phone and said, ‘Mama, we got a flat,” Marvella Clark says. “And then I was like, do you need me? She said, ‘No, no, no’ … but you know your mama’s instincts.”
Those mama instincts told Clark to get to her daughters. But as fast as she drove – she clocked it at just 18 minutes -- she didn’t make it in time. She arrived to see the car still running, the passenger and driver’s doors open. Police held her back.
“They got ‘em to the hospital. But I already knew one of them was gone,” Clark says, breaking down. “I heard them saying on the radio, ‘Dead on arrival.’”
The three in the car who survived told police that Deandre “Day Day” Jackson was the shooter, allegedly directed there by his girlfriend, according to police documents. Jackson faces several assault and weapons charges and is set for an October trial. His attorney didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
Now Clark is caring for Pennington’s three children, along with her daughter, Marsheanna, who is paralyzed from the neck down, and Marsheanna’s children. Pennington’s friends who survived the shootings have undergone surgeries and are still recovering from their wounds.
“He tore their bodies up with an AK. Them AK holes were so big, you can put your fist through their bodies,” Clark says. “This was so horrible, like a nightmare.”
Clark has many questions, including: why wasn’t Jackson’s girlfriend charged? Prosecutors won’t say, but a spokesman says it’s a murder case that remains open.
She also wonders why the other witnesses who were in a second car following Jackson and his girlfriend haven’t come forward or been charged with a crime. She believes Jackson and others tracked Pennington’s whereabouts that night – they knew where she was because they could see it on Snapchat and the woman knew the car because that was the place she had fought with Pennington the day before, Clark says.
“Call the tips hotline!” Clark says. “Send a tip to solve my daughter’s murder.”
Clark's youngest, 13-year-old MarJada, has some advice for others in the community:
“They just need to stop beefing over stupid stuff. Like, what is it for? What are you going to prove?” she says. “It’s stupid.”
Peggy Lowe is KCUR’s investigations editor. She’s on Twitter at @peggyllowe.