Saturday, October 25, 2008

Jennifer Hudson's Family Tragedy: Sister Pleads for Release of Son; Mother, Brother Found Shot to Death on Friday in Chicago

Julia Hudson pleads: 'Just let my baby go'

October 25, 2008 at 10:47 PM | Comments (49)

The sister of Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson pleaded Saturday for her son's safe return as police pressed her estranged husband for information about the boy's disappearance and a double homicide in the family's Englewood home.

Authorities have been looking for Julian King, 7, since finding the bodies of Hudson's mother and brother Friday afternoon.

The boy (right), who answers to "Juicebox" and "Dr. King," is an easygoing child who prefers reading and hanging out with his grandmother to playing outside, said his mother, Julia Hudson. "I don't care who you are, just let my baby go," she said, standing with the boy's father, Greg King, outside Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side. "I just want my son back. He doesn't deserve this."

The family's nightmare stands in stark contrast to Jennifer Hudson's dream life of the last four years. After winning a 2007 Academy Award for her role in "Dreamgirls," the actress encouraged her mother, Darnell Donerson, to leave the neighborhood where she had lived for nearly two decades.

Donerson, 57, steadfastly refused. She enjoyed sharing her large house with her family and socializing with neighbors in the 7000 block of South Yale Avenue.

The decision to stay in Englewood, an area often plagued by violence, endeared Donerson to the community but may have cost authorities precious hours in searching for Julian. Despite their affection for her, neighbors have grown so accustomed to hearing gunshots that no one thought to call the police when shots rang out about 9 a.m. Friday.

"Jennifer's mother was used to living in this neighborhood," longtime family friend Tonia Russell said. "She was set in her ways, but she was safe here. People are used to hearing gunshots late at night and in the early-morning hours. When you hear them you just turn off the lights and lay low. People seldom call police."

Authorities believe the shootings began with the gunman firing through a door and striking Hudson's brother, Jason, 29, a law-enforcement source said. The shooter then entered the house and continued to fire, hitting Hudson's mother when she entered the room.

When a family member discovered Donerson's body about 3 p.m. Friday, there was no sign of Julian. Jason Hudson's body was found later. Police searched the house again Saturday afternoon in case Julian was hiding inside. Shell casings were recovered from the scene.

Authorities issued an Amber Alert for both Julian and his stepfather, Michael Balfour, who had recently separated from Julia Hudson. Police arrested him at his pregnant girlfriend's Southwest Side apartment at 6 p.m. Friday, but the boy was not with him.

Authorities are still seeking a white Chevrolet Suburban, plate number X584859, belonging to Jason Hudson. Police are using Balfour's cell phone records to try to trace his whereabouts Friday. The FBI also was called to assist in the investigation.

Balfour, 27, has not been charged in the slayings. Police described him as a suspect Friday in the Amber Alert but called him a "person of interest" Saturday.

Jennifer Hudson was in Florida promoting her new movie, "The Secret Life of Bees," when her sister phoned to inform her of the slayings. Julia Hudson said the actress began screaming and then made plans to return immediately to Chicago.

About 1:25 a.m. Saturday, Jennifer Hudson identified her mother's and brother's bodies at the Cook County medical examiner's office.

"That was very horrible," said a close associate of Hudson who accompanied her. "But otherwise she has been OK. She is being very strong."

Balfour's mother on Saturday again denied he would harm his estranged wife's family. He and the Hudson siblings were childhood friends, Michele Balfour said.

Balfour, who had been working as a baker in a Loop restaurant, assumed financial responsibility for Julian when he married the boy's mother in 2006, Michele Balfour said. "Why would he do this? That was his son," she said. "He helped raise him."

Michele Balfour said Donerson had asked her son-in-law to leave the house last winter and he agreed because he resented his wife's family's meddling.

Family friends said the couple recently had a dispute over Julia Hudson's car. Balfour sold the 2003 Chevrolet Impala without her consent and she called police, neighbor Chiquita Stanton said.

Julia Hudson complained on her MySpace page about losing the car and suggested she now depended upon her brother, Jason, to drive her to work. Michele Balfour said her son co-owned the car, but only Julia Hudson's name is on the registration.

Stanton said Balfour threatened to take the boy away if Julia Hudson continued to "play him." But she considered him harmless because he was "keen to stay out of jail" after serving prison time on a 1999 attempted murder and carjacking conviction. Balfour's family said he stole a car with other teens and hit a tree while the driver was on the hood.

Friends and neighbors paid tribute Saturday to Donerson and Jason Hudson, describing them as down-to-earth people unfazed by Jennifer Hudson's stardom.

Jason Hudson, a mechanic, would throw impromptu barbecues in the front yard and invite neighbors. At 450 pounds, he loved to eat and wasn't embarrassed about it, friends said. Friends and relatives said he had been on a "troubled path" -- which court records show included a misdemeanor conviction and several arrests -- but was working on turning things around. "He was trying to get his life figured out," said John Buckner, who said he was Hudson's second cousin.

Russell recalled a young Jason sneaking a jar of pickles from his mother's pantry and handing one to each of his friends before selling the rest to a neighbor for 50 cents apiece. When Donerson caught him, Jason apologized and sheepishly offered to give his mother the profits. She just laughed.

"They are the same family we have known all these years," Russell said. "They haven't changed and I will miss them dearly."

Though she abhorred stage mother behavior and shunned the spotlight, it was Donerson who first encouraged her daughter to try out for "American Idol." Jennifer Hudson had no formal training, but her mother believed in her talent. "God gave her voice, and her mother also gave her that voice by believing in her," Russell said.

Donerson was equally devoted to the rest of her family, friends said. She cared for Julian while Julia Hudson worked as a school bus driver.

"She did everything for him. She got him ready for school. She got him ready for bed," Julia Hudson said.

As she mourned her mother's and brother's passing Saturday, Julia Hudson clung to the thought of her son's safe return.

"My greatest fear has already happened," she said tearfully. "My greatest hope is for him to come back."

Tribune reporters Mary Owen, Sara Olkon, David Heinzmann, Jeff Coen and Stacy St. Clair contributed to this report.

--Gerry Smith, Deanese Williams-Harris and Angela Rozas, Chicago Tribune

Nephew still missing in Hudson case; FBI called in

October 25, 2008 at 2:14 PM
Chicago Tribune

Authorities continued to search for the 7-year-old nephew of Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson today, a day after her mother and brother were found slain in the mother's South Side home.

The missing boy, Julian King (right), was the grandson of Hudson's mother, 57-year-old Darnell Donerson, who along with Hudson's brother, Jason Hudson, 29, was found fatally shot in the home Friday in the 7000 block of South Yale Avenue. Police Friday night said initial reports indicated the slayings might have been domestic-related.

The victims died of multiple gunshot wounds and their deaths were ruled homicides today, said a spokeswoman for the Cook County medical examiner's office.

The FBI has been called in to help on the possibility that the child has been taken across state lines, Chicago Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said today.

FBI spokesman Ross Rice confirmed the FBI has been asked to help but said that doesn't necessarily mean the boy was taken out of state. He said the FBI can get involved in the disappearance of any missing child, whether kidnapped or a runaway, and said the goal is to help police find the child as quickly as possible.

Hudson's family members have planned a press conference at 3 p.m. at Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church, 4526 S. Greenwood Ave., where they will make a plea for the boy's return, police said.

Police are "looking everywhere" for the boy, including returning to the scene of the murders, Bond said. She would not comment on the cooperation of the suspect, saying that police consider him only a person of interest, and added they are talking to others as well.

Community leaders called for a hundred volunteers to meet in front of the Hudson family house at 3 p.m. today to search for the missing boy.

"We want a posse of men and women and religious leaders to help find that child before sundown," said Ziff Sistrunk, an Englewood community activist. "We need to find this kid."

The police continue to look a white Chevrolet Suburban, license plate number X584859, in connection with the crime but they have located the teal car they included in the original alert yesterday. She declined to say where that vehicle was located.

The suspect in police custody is William Balfour, 27, who, according to public records, has one of his last known addresses listed as Donerson's home. No charges have been filed as of this afternoon.

Police believe the murders happened about 11 a.m. and started outside with the gunman firing through the door and striking Hudson's brother, according to a law-enforcement source. The gunman then entered the house and continued to fire, striking Hudson's mother when she entered the room. Police have recovered shell casings from the scene.

Police said neighbors heard the shots but didn't call police because gunfire is commonplace in the neighborhood.

Jennifer Hudson had been trying to convince her family to move out of Englewood, the source said, but they wanted to continue living in the neighborhood.

Cook County court records show Balfour pleaded guilty in 1999 to attempted murder and vehicular hijacking. He also was convicted in a 1998 case of possession of a stolen motor vehicle, records show.

Balfour was released from the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton in May 2006 after serving seven years in prison. He is still on parole, state records show.

An Amber Alert issued for Julian King Friday had named Balfour as a suspect in the slayings.

The alert remained in effect this morning. King is described as 4-foot-11 and weighing 130 pounds. He has brown eyes and black hair and was last seen wearing a striped polo shirt and khaki pants.

Balfour's mother said her son and Julia Hudson were separated and that Donerson had thrown him out of the family home last winter. While standing outside the Wentworth Area police station Friday night with Rev. Jesse Jackson, Michele Balfour denied that her son had anything to do with the slayings.

Family members said she spoke with him Friday afternoon and he seemed as if he had been sleeping. There was no trace of panic or anxiety in his voice, they said.

"I didn't raise no murderer," Michele Balfour said. "He was not a child abductor. They have the wrong person."

Wentworth Area detectives were handling the investigation.

Jennifer Hudson visited the Cook County Medical examiner's office overnight with other family members to identify the bodies of her mother and brother, according to the office.

A trickle of curious fans stopped by the Hudson family house early today to drop off stuffed animals, take pictures and mourn. There were also reports of a vigil planned at the home for sometime this afternoon.

The police tape has been removed from the 7000 block of South Yale and two Chicago police squad cars -- one in the driveway and one in the alley -- are keeping watch on the large white house in this modest Englewood neighborhood.

"I came over here because I was curious," said Tony Williams, of Hammond, Ind., who was running errands on the South Side and stopped by before heading home.

TV crews and reporters outnumbered neighbors and fans on the cold and drizzly morning. As of about noon, five stuffed animals, two bouquets of flowers and a bottle of Remy Martin have been propped up against the home's fence, which is only a few feet from the home's front door. A barbecue drum with a bottle of mustard sit on the small front lawn.

"They were just like anybody in the neighborhood," said Belinda Lattimore, who used to live in the neighborhood and returned early Saturday to pay respects.

Many said the fact that Hudson's mother still lived in the neighborhood showed how down-to-earth she was.

"It shows how they are like normal, church-going people," Lattimore said. "They weren't going to change because of fame and fortune."

-- David Heinzmann, Mary Owen, Angela Rozas and Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune

Hudson suspect in custody; boy missing

October 25, 2008 at 8:09 AM

Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson considered her mother's Chicago home a haven, a place where she could find respite from Hollywood's occasionally brutal and superficial ways.

That South Side sanctuary, however, was violently shattered Friday when her mother and brother were gunned down during a domestic disturbance, law-enforcement officials said.

The actress' 7-year-old nephew, Julian King, remained missing Saturday. A suspect in the slayings was believed to have abducted the boy, but when the man was arrested Friday night the boy was not with him.

"I just can't fathom something like this happening," said Ethel Grisom, a longtime family friend. "The entire family were just real friendly people who enjoyed being together. This is going to be devastating for them."

About 3 p.m., a relative found Darnell Donerson, 57, fatally shot in her living room, law enforcement officials said. The family member notified authorities, who then found Jason Hudson, 29, dead in a bedroom.

Neighbors reported hearing gunshots about 9 a.m. There were no signs of forced entry to the home.

Donerson and Jason Hudson had both been shot, authorities said. Police said at least one of the victims had suffered defensive wounds.

A law-enforcement source said police had a suspect in custody but still had not located the boy. Julian (right) is described as 4-foot-11 and weighing 130 pounds. He has brown eyes and black hair and was last seen wearing a striped polo shirt and khaki pants.

The actress' sister, Julia, reported the boy missing from the home Friday afternoon, a police source said. Family friends said the boy was her son, but police did not confirm that. The MySpace pages for Julia Hudson and the suspect say they are married and that Julian is her son.

The Tribune is not naming the suspect because he has not been charged. Public records list one of his last known addresses as Donerson's home in the 7000 block of South Yale Avenue. Police said the man had a personal relationship with a member of the family, but did not elaborate.

Cook County court records show the suspect pleaded guilty in 1999 to attempted murder and vehicular hijacking. He also was convicted in a 1998 case of possession of a stolen motor vehicle, records show.

The man was released from the Illinois River Correctional Center in Downstate Canton in May 2006 after serving 7 years in prison. He is still on probation, state records show.

On Friday afternoon, scores of onlookers flocked to the corner nearest the Hudson home. They pressed up against yellow police tape for a glimpse of the white house three doors down. Evidence technicians and police officers came and went, and the house's lights stayed on as the sky grew darker and rain squalls scattered the dwindling crowd.

Many neighbors' thoughts turned to Jennifer Hudson, who returned home to visit her mother as often as twice a month if her schedule allowed. A 1999 graduate of the Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, Hudson could walk through the Englewood neighborhood without anyone hassling her or following her with a camera.

"She never had no problems with fans stalking her," neighbor Vanessa Stanton said. "She didn't even need a bodyguard [though she did have one]. The whole neighborhood block would look out for her."

Hudson famously left her Burger King job to compete in the 2004 season of "American Idol." She finished seventh and endured harsh words from judge Simon Cowell, but her powerful, five-octave range helped win her the role of Effie White in the musical "Dreamgirls."

Her showstopping on-screen rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" led to widespread critical praise and the 2007 Academy Award for best supporting actress.

Upon winning the Oscar, she became emotional as she thanked her mother for traveling to Los Angeles to celebrate the nomination. Since then, her family and their large white home have been her foundation and could pull her back to Earth should her sense of self-importance skyrocket.

"My faith in God and my family -- they're very realistic and very normal, they're not into the whole limelight kind of thing, so when I go home to Chicago that's just another place that's home," she recently told the Associated Press. "I stand in line with everybody else, or, when I go home to my mom, I'm just Jennifer, [so she says], 'You get up and you take care of your own stuff.' And I love that; I don't like when people tell you everything you want to hear. I want to hear the truth, you know what I mean?"

Donerson mostly kept out of the spotlight. When asked if she'd like to attend a recent taping of Oprah Winfrey's show, on which Hudson would be publicizing "The Secret Life of Bees," Donerson declined.

"She doesn't welcome the attention at all," Hudson recently told Australia's Sunday Telegraph. "She's the complete opposite of those stage mothers who say, 'Oh, that's my daughter, aren't I great?' She doesn't want the attention, while at the same time she's extremely proud and happy for me."

Jennifer Hudson was in the Tampa area at the time of the slayings and planned to immediately head to Chicago. Her sister, Julia, met police at Wentworth Area headquarters late Friday.

--Robert Mitchum, Angela Rozas and Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune

Tribune reporters James Janega, Robert K. Elder, Deanese Williams-Harris, David Heinzmann and Stacy St. Clair contributed to this report.