Was Benjamin McKinney the victim of mistaken identity, or was his death tied to the phalanx of associates he considered childhood friends?

This is the question homicide investigators have pondered since the evening of July 4, when a trip to a corner store led to a homicide and few real answers in the weeks that followed.

Only more questions.

McKinney, 30, the youngest of four siblings and father of two, had spent many of his formative years on the West Side of Chicago near Augusta and Kildare. At the time of his death, he lived on the South Side of Chicago and had worked for the Jays Potato Chip factory for nearly five years.

His older sister, Tymikee Brown, says he was planning to marry his current girlfriend and the mother of his sons, 10-year-old Micheal and 5-year-old Centrell.

“He had many plans for the future. He wanted to get married and build a life with his children and girlfriend,” said Brown, the most vocal participant in the on-going investigation. “He worked two jobs just to assure that he could make that happen.”

Brown contends her brother was not only giving of his time and money to the family (including last Christmas when he purchased presents for the children of several relatives), but he could also be counted on to support community efforts.

Two years ago, he aided in an investigation that exposed a disparity in the ways minorities were charged at the pumps as opposed to whites on the West Side.

McKinney, however, did have one Achilles heel that left him vulnerable to the type of violence that would end his life-his loyalty to the friends and associates he grew up with, not all of whom were following an example of good citizenship.

According to his relatives, McKinney was never in trouble with the law and had no propensity for violence; however, he had a strong loyalty to friends on the West Side who admittedly had a history with the latter and even more with the former.

“[Our mother and I] talked to him several times about being careful who he associated with,” said Brown. “But he wanted to mentor those he grew up with that were trying to get their lives free of substance abuse and street ties. Some he was able to help and some he wasn’t, but he never stopped associating with them, regardless of how their life turned out.”

“Friends were friends, as he saw it, and the fact that they had been incarcerated didn’t change that,” said Marie Sommerio, McKinney’s mother.

His compassion for current and former offenders, in fact, could be traced back to his earlier days when his father was incarcerated. It motivated McKinney to study criminal justice at Malcolm X College.

However, the odd thing about the details surrounding his death is the way his friends from the community have slowly become less involved in solving the murder as time has gone on. This despite the fact that it allegedly happened in full view of witnesses with whom he had gone to the store.

The only confirmed details in the case are as follows: McKinney was traveling with a female friend and two other male associates by car to the store. The group stopped by one store at Madison and Cicero.

For reasons not yet known, they also decided to travel to another store at Augusta and Cicero. Either after he exited the vehicle or when he returned to the vehicle, he was shot five times and died in the early morning hours of July 5 at West Suburban Hospital.

The eyewitness accounts of the case have yet to fill in the many blanks.

One witness claims that McKinney was shot accidentally by a group of gang members who mistook him for a man who owed them money.

Another eyewitness said they saw McKinney engage in a heated verbal altercation with a group of men in a car.

Still another witness testified that they saw McKinney hugging and talking to a female friend who was with another male friend at the time-one who seemed visibly annoyed by McKinney’s touchy-feely expressions toward his female companion.

Are any or all of these accounts relevant to finding the murderer(s) of Benjamin McKinney?

Brown believes the friends McKinney traveled to the store with know more than they are telling and she even wonders if the actions of those in the car suggest possible involvement.

“The driver of the car actually dropped out of sight for a few weeks before he was finally questioned about the case,” said Brown. “He says he does not know anything, but when I went near his house to talk with him about what he saw, he refused to even acknowledge me. I really think he knows more than he is telling.”

The investigation continues.

Brown and Sommerio have been working with Crime Stoppers (they have offered a reward of $1,000 for information leading to the capture of the assailant) and hope that the case is not treated as another “black male shot in the ‘hood” afterthought.

“I am working my hardest to assure that this case is not swept under the rug and dismissed because my son was young, on the West Side and hung out with friends with criminal records,” said Sommerio. “He did so much to help out those who needed him. He never turned his back on anyone who was in need. It’s up to the community to do the same.”