She was in the middle of a double publicity blitz for her self-titled debut album and her new movie The Secret Life of Bees, but last month, when Jennifer Hudson learned her mother, Darnell Donerson, was ailing, she put everything on hold. Right before the movie opened, “we got word that Jennifer’s mom was sick,” says Bees producer Joe Pichirallo. “She said she couldn’t do any more publicity because she needed to be with her mom.”
Her decision hardly surprised those in the actress-singer’s close inner circle. Jennifer’s family—especially Darnell, brother Jason and sister Julia—”were all very tight,” says Richard Lyons, who was Jennifer’s acting coach for her Oscar-winning 2006 film debut, Dreamgirls. “From what she told me, they did everything together. And of course when she started moving on in her career, they were all behind her. Her mom was her rock.”
Now Jennifer’s world has been shaken to the core—her beloved family foundation obliterated in an astonishingly brutal rampage. The nightmare began on Oct. 24, when Darnell, 57, and Jason, 29, were found fatally shot in the house where Jennifer grew up in the crime-ridden Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side; after those killings, Julia’s 7-year-old son, Julian, was missing from the home. A hysterical Julia, 31, immediately called Jennifer, 27, who had been in Florida with her fiancé, David Otunga. “Despite her being who she is, she is still my sister,” Julia, a school bus driver, said at a press conference on Oct. 25. “She was screaming. She flew in right away.”
For three days Jennifer prayed with her sister, offering a $100,000 reward for Julian’s safe return. But on Oct. 27 their worst fears were realized: Julian’s body was discovered in Jason’s white Suburban SUV, which had been abandoned miles from the family home. The boy had been shot in the head, but police believe his murder took place after the killings in Donerson’s house. “I just want to pray for her as much as I can, because when you feel like your rock is gone, then you feel alone in the world,” says Lyons. “I don’t know how anyone can get through something like that.”
Who committed the killings—and why—is the subject of an ongoing investigation. Within hours of the discovery of the bodies at Donerson’s home, police arrested Julia’s estranged husband, William “Flex” Balfour, 27, for violating parole for a sentence of attempted murder and carjacking in 1999. (He served nearly seven years in prison.) At press time authorities would only say that Balfour, who was Julian’s stepfather, was a “person of interest” in the crimes.
For surviving members of the Hudson family, the focus was not justice, but grappling with unimaginable grief. When the time came to identify Julian’s body at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, it was Jennifer—arriving with a few other family members—who stepped forward to handle the task. “She was incredibly strong for her family,” says spokesman Sean Howard. “She was the leader.” Jennifer positively identified Julian—a child whom Jennifer’s aunt Dorothy describes as “such a fine person, very bright.” Howard recalls that “everyone in the room was crying. But they’re a strong family. They held hands.”
The murders stunned Jennifer’s friends in Chicago as well as her Hollywood peers. “My heart and soul goes out to her,” says American Idol judge Randy Jackson, who has known Jennifer since her Idol breakthrough in 2004. “The world is an ugly place right now.” Jennifer also received condolences from Sen. Barack Obama, who had personally requested that she sing the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention in August. “Michelle and I were absolutely heartbroken,” he said in a statement.
Despite Balfour’s arrest, Chicago police cautioned that many questions remain. “We don’t know what the motive really was,” Chicago police superintendent Jody Weis said at an Oct. 27 press conference. “But clearly you have people who do know each other, so it wasn’t a case of a stranger-type homicide.” Valerie Griffin, a neighbor, says Balfour—who had been thrown out of the Donerson home last winter—would say threatening things after domestic fights. “He used to say, ‘I’m going to kill Julia and the whole family,'” says Griffin. “But I think he just said it out of anger. In my heart, I don’t believe he would do it because of the love he has for Julia.” Balfour’s mom, Michele, defended her son, saying, “They have the wrong person.”
It is the type of senseless violence Jennifer seemed destined to escape when she left Englewood to become one of Hollywood’s hottest young stars. The youngest of three children of Darnell and Samuel Samson, a bus driver who died when she was a teen, Jennifer revealed her talent early on. “My mom tells this story of when I was a baby in church,” she told Australia’s Sunday Telegraph Magazine in September. “They were teaching the choir a note, and they couldn’t hit it. I was just 8 months old, but I hit the note.”
She found jobs at Burger King and performed on a Disney cruise ship until she tried out for American Idol in 2003. Despite her impressive pipes, she was prematurely ousted by viewers and lambasted by judge Simon Cowell for the way she dressed. And yet the plucky Chicagoan got a happily-ever-after: She attended an open casting call for the film version of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls and beat out 800 other hopefuls for the role of Effie. Once again she credited her mother for helping her realize her dreams. “Anything she tells me I can do, I end up doing,” she told Sister 2 Sister’s November issue.
It was only fitting, then, that Jennifer was accompanied by her mom for her crowning night in Hollywood: the 2007 Oscars, where the first-time actress—who by now had elevated her fashion game from off-the-rack to couture—scored a Best Supporting Actress trophy for Dreamgirls. It was one of the very few times Darnell allowed herself to share her daughter’s spotlight. “Jennifer was always telling me, ‘Oh, I always gotta force my mom to come [to events],'” says Lyons. “Her mom was so proud of her but so humble.” Her success also brought great pride to her community. “If she made it, we all made it,” says local activist Bobby Israel. “Not too much comes up out of here—nothing positive. She was still just Jennifer to us.”
Despite Jennifer’s pleas, her mother refused to leave Englewood, where she owned a tidy house bordered by vacant lots. “That was her preference,” says Jennifer’s aunt Dorothy. “She could have moved anywhere.” Jennifer’s slain brother Jason lived at home, and although he’d had a few scrapes with the law, “he had a heart of platinum,” says Israel. “In this block, all we’ve got is each other.”
Jennifer herself moved out only recently and didn’t go far: After Dreamgirls, “I was giving her advice, and I said, ‘When you start making some money, buy you some real estate in L.A.!'” recalls Lyons. “And she was just like, ‘I’m happy in Chicago.'” In February 2007 she bought a duplex in the tony River North area for $537,000. In September she and David Otunga, who is also from Chicago, announced their engagement.
Beyond keeping Chicago as her home base, Jennifer found other ways to stay close with her family. On the Dreamgirls set, “Julian came several times,” recalls executive producer Patty Whitcher. “I just remember how happy he was to be with Jennifer and how proud she was of him.” During her Idol tour in 2004, “it was always Jennifer, her mom, her sister and Julian,” says her friend, fellow Season 3 contestant LaToya London. “Four peas in a pod.”
Now that bond—Jennifer’s lifeline—has been tragically broken. But those who know her best say the woman who has raised herself up against all odds before will do so again. “I’m sure it’s not going to be tomorrow, but definitely in her time she will pull through this,” says London. “Because Jennifer is just a strong person. She’s a fighter.”