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DECATUR — Zachary M. Pherigo, 17, of Decatur was arraigned in Macon County Circuit Court on Monday on a charge of first-degree murder in the shooting death of a 2-year-old Decatur boy.

Pherigo was also charged with aggravated battery with a firearm, aggravated discharge of a firearm and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon in the death of Justin Lee Murphy Jr.

The 2-year-old was shot in the torso at 8:40 a.m. Saturday in the 1400 block of East Wellington Way, Macon County Coroner Michael E. Day said. He was pronounced dead in the emergency room of Decatur Memorial Hospital at 9:35 a.m. after doctors and nurses lost a hard-fought battle to save him, Day said.

A sworn affidavit filed by Decatur police officer Erik Ethell described the shooting from Pherigo’s account of the incident. It said Pherigo, the toddler’s uncle, was babysitting the boy, and the two went outside to play “cops and robbers.” Pherigo was holding a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun he told police he had found a day earlier near a dumpster behind the strip mall in the 3700 block of North Woodford Street, the statement said.

Pherigo told police he had hidden the gun outside his home and retrieved it before playing with the toddler. He told police he “took Justin down to the ground” as part of the game and told him to “stay down” as he tried to get up. They were both seated on the ground at this point, moments before the shooting, according to the statement.

“Zachary stated he then pointed the gun to the 2-year-old’s right side and told him, 'Don't move,'” Ethell wrote. “Zachary stated the gun was making contact with Justin's right side near his back. Zachary stated he then pulled the trigger not realizing the gun was loaded, shooting Justin one time.”

Pherigo told police he picked up his nephew and carried him inside, using a blanket to try to stop the bleeding. He then retrieved the gun, put the spent shell casing in his pocket and placed the weapon in a cabinet above the refrigerator, he told police. Ethell said police found the gun there after getting a search warrant at 1457 Wellington Way. More ammunition was found in the gun's magazine.

Macon County State's Attorney Jay Scott said Monday he could not comment on his judgment of the facts that led him to file the first-degree murder charge. He said Pherigo is being treated as an adult because the law covering juveniles does not allow first-degree murder charges to be filed against someone who is 17.

Pherigo "without lawful justification, knowingly, personally discharged a firearm, a handgun, at Justin L. Murphy ... knowing said act created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm ..." Scott's office said in court documents filed in support of the murder charge.

Murder is a Class M felony, the most serious, with a potential sentence of 20 to 60 years, plus a 25-year enhancement for use of a firearm, if convicted. Aggravated battery with a firearm is a Class X felony, aggravated discharge of a firearm is a Class 1 felony and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon is a Class 4 felony.

Pherigo appeared in court accompanied by his parents on Monday. Bond was set at $500,000. Assistant Public Defender Steve Perbix was appointed to represent Pherigo before the court ruled there was “probable cause” to support the defendant's arrest for murder. Perbix did not return a call seeking comment on the case.

Pherigo was being held in the Peoria County Juvenile Detention Center following his arrest by Decatur police on Saturday. He is due back in court on Oct. 25 for a preliminary hearing.

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Macon County Courts Reporter

Macon County courts reporter for the Herald & Review.

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