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Know the West

Five shots in Denver

In 2013, anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts shot a man in the Holly, a historically Black neighborhood in Denver. What really happened that night?

On the last evening of summer 2013, five shots rang out in a northeast Denver neighborhood known as the Holly. Long a destination for African American families fleeing the Jim Crow South, the area had become an “invisible city” within a historically white metropolis. While shootings weren’t that uncommon here, this particular shooter’s identity came as a shock: Terrance Roberts, a revered anti-gang activist, whose attempts to bring peace to his community had won praise from his neighbors as well as from the state’s most important power brokers. Why did he fire that gun? The following is an excerpt from The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood, by Julian Rubinstein, out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 

Denver, Colorado

Sept. 20, 2013

Terrance Roberts took off his shirt and climbed up to the roof of the small building that housed his community youth organization, Prodigal Son. Under one arm, he carried a sledgehammer.

Across the street in the sun, next to a pair of basketball courts, a group of Blood gang members watched. “Climb like Tarzan,” one of them sneered.

Terrance, who had big eyes and a trim beard, tried to ignore the taunt. Now 37, he’d spent the last nine years of his life working to end the gang violence he’d once been a part of. Prominent activists, influential clergy, two Denver mayors, even law enforcement had all praised his efforts. Not that any of it came easily.

The roof was only one story up. Once on top, Terrance looked out at the young gang members, several of whom he knew. He had grown up in the neighborhood and had been a Blood. Tattooed on his left arm, in ornate cursive, was “ShowBizz,” his former gang name; across his muscled chest was “Damu Rida”; damu was Swahili for “blood.”

Terrance had never been on the building’s roof before. It offered him a commanding view of Holly Square, a 3.6-acre space about five miles east of downtown Denver. The Holly, as it was known, was legendary in Denver’s African American community. For decades it was the site of a shopping center and served as the community hub. In 1968, a police shooting in the parking lot became the pivotal moment in Denver’s civil rights movement. In the 1980s, the square became an open-air drug market, and the headquarters of Denver’s first Blood gang. Now it appeared to be finding a new identity.

A high-profile redevelopment of Holly Square was coming to fruition, and Terrance had been an integral part of it. In the middle of the square was a new Boys & Girls Club that he had campaigned for. Terrance had planned a peace rally for that evening, in advance of its official opening. He wanted residents to come together to promote gang unity and an end to the violence that had flared again in recent months.

The day, however, had begun inauspiciously. When Terrance got to the Holly, he had run into Aaron Miripol, the white CEO of the local nonprofit that bought the square in 2009. As they greeted each other, two men rattled the chains around the club’s front doors. “It’s not open yet,” Terrance called out.

“Gentrifiers!” they yelled back.

As Terrance turned and headed back toward the Prodigal Son office, he had his first encounter of the day with the Bloods. Five of them were under the gazebo next to the basketball courts, smoking “spice,” a synthetic marijuana, and acting rowdy. “I already told you, you can’t be over here if you’re going to be like that,” Terrance told them. He had a lease to maintain and operate the courts. Drug use wasn’t permitted.

Terrance, age 17, soon after being “put on” the hood as an official Blood, flashing gang signs, circa 1993.
Courtesy of Julian Rubinstein
“These are our courts.”

“Whatever, snitch,” said Hasan “Munch” Jones, getting up from the table. Terrance looked at him. Hasan was 22, thin but wiry. He had a long face and two big front teeth, from which he got his gang name. “These are our courts,” Hasan said. He tugged a front pocket of his pants, showing Terrance the butt of a knife that was clipped inside.

Watching from outside the Prodigal Son office, Bryan Butler, one of Terrance’s gang outreach workers, called out to Terrance. Bryan had also grown up in the neighborhood, and knew Hasan. He couldn’t hear the threat Hasan had just made, but he could feel the tension.

“T!” Bryan yelled. “We gotta go.” Bryan wanted to get Terrance out of the Holly to let things cool down. Prodigal Son’s board had raised a couple thousand dollars for new office furniture, and they planned to go to Ikea. After the peace rally, they would move the Prodigal Son office across the street and into the Boys & Girls Club.

But when they returned to the Holly a few hours later, the group of Bloods milling around the courts had grown. One of them pointed to a bulky camera on the roof of the Prodigal Son building and accused Terrance of collecting evidence for the police.

Oh, yeah? Terrance thought. I’ll show them. And so there he was on the roof, with a sledgehammer. He walked over to the camera, which looked like an old battleship gun. As far as Terrance knew, it had never worked. As the Bloods watched, he took a deep breath and swung the heavy hammer into the camera, again and again.

Terrance Roberts circa 2011 at a Colorado Camo Movement event.
Courtesy of Julian Rubinstein

ACROSS THE STREET, a working police HALO surveillance camera — Denver’s first — sat atop a utility pole. At 5:50 p.m., 10 minutes before the peace rally was to begin, Hasan entered the frame, on a low-rider dirt bike, looping in and out of light traffic, his oversized white T-shirt puffing like a parachute behind him.

Hasan was a second-generation Blood. His father, Isaac “Ice” Alexander, was a legend in Denver’s underworld and one of the first Bloods in the city, an “OG,” or Original Gangster. Terrance grew up with Isaac a few blocks from Holly Square.

Hasan had become a key figure in the Holly, and in Denver’s gang war. He was the Bloods’ so-called YG Regulator, a designation bestowed by the OGs. It meant that among the Young Gangsters, Hasan was a field general, feared and revered. Law enforcement called this type of gang member the “trigger puller” and claimed they were responsible for as much as 90% of a gang’s violent crime.

Terrance felt duty-bound to keep the neighborhood’s violence at bay. He had recently emerged as the charismatic founder and leader of the Colorado Camo Movement, a citywide gang unity initiative. In fiery speeches, he challenged warring gang members to become community activists. Denver’s gang violence began to decline for the first time. More recently, the city of Denver had selected Terrance’s organization to be part of its prestigious federal Project Safe Neighborhoods effort, America’s premier anti-gang program. Denver hoped to become a national model for combating gang violence, and Prodigal Son was fighting the battle on the front line.

Terrance spoke to Hasan every chance he could, hoping to show him another path. Recently he’d taken Hasan to a Denver Nuggets game in box seats. Hasan was an especially personal project for Terrance. Not only did he know Hasan’s father, but Terrance also saw himself in Hasan. Terrance, too, had been the YG Regulator.

After climbing down from his roof, Terrance went home to get ready for the rally. He showered and shaved his head, and, though he wasn’t particularly religious, he got down on his knees. He’d had a couple of visions involving the Holly. One was about putting up a youth center. That one had come true. The other was one he hadn’t told anyone about. It was that he would end up having to shoot someone there. The threats he faced earlier in the day had not come out of the blue. Terrance feared there were others behind Hasan’s threat, in particular the OGs, guys he’d known most of his life. Several of them hung around a new shop at the other end of the block. Terrance had become suspicious of the place and wondered about these men’s motivations. But even for an insider like him, it had become difficult to know what was really going on, who was pulling the strings. The neighborhood was changing quickly. The associations and entanglements among politicians, funders, developers, police, gang members and informants were more complex than ever. He had recently acquired a 9 mm pistol. He prayed for no one to get hurt.

Terrance in Colorado’s Fremont Correctional Facility in 2002 or 2003, serving a sentence for shooting at another Blood’s car. He had disavowed his gang membership and would be released in 2004.
Courtesy of Julian Rubinstein
“I think something’s going to happen to me.”

He put on a pair of jeans and a camouflage Nuggets hat, and placed the gun in the trunk of his SUV. As Terrance knew, calling someone a snitch was a threat that had to be acted upon — even, or especially, on a day that was supposed to symbolize peace and progress. On his way back to the Holly, he called his father, George, a street preacher. “Pops, I need you up at the Holly,” he said. “I think something’s going to happen to me.”

At about 5:45 p.m., he pulled into a parking spot next to the “peace courts,” the basketball courts he’d built over the ruins of the old shopping center. “Sa-whoop,” he heard when he got out. It was the Bloods’ alert call. “The snitch is back,” he heard one of the Bloods say.

Hasan appeared, on his low rider. He stopped in front of Terrance. “On Bloods,” Terrance heard Hasan swear, “I’ma be back over here in a minute to fuck you up.” He pedaled away.

Terrance looked around. It was a cloudless evening. The sun was slowly sinking over the Rocky Mountains. On the courts, young men waited their turn to play. Across the street, state Sen. Mike Johnston, D, an Obama education adviser with whom Terrance shared office space, was hosting an event to support a public school funding initiative.

To some, nothing appeared amiss. To Terrance, it seemed that the threat he feared was about to unfold. He watched Hasan swing onto 33rd Avenue. Terrance went to his SUV to get his gun.

Minutes later, Sen. Johnston’s event ended, and attendees streamed out of the office. Next to the courts, about a dozen Bloods, including Hasan, moved toward Terrance. “This is our neighborhood,” one of the Bloods said.

“Put the gun down. They’ll think it was you.”

Three gunshots pierced the air. People ran out of the square while others ran in. Another shot came, and another. The courts were suddenly empty and quiet. Next to them, Hasan Jones lay faceup on the ground. Terrance walked backwards, holding the gun in one hand. He could hear his own breathing. Gang members he recognized scampered for cover behind parked cars. Others raced toward Hasan, with a hand over their waist as if they had a weapon. Sen. Johnston appeared on the courts, near Terrance. “Put the gun down,” Johnston told Terrance. “They’ll think it was you.”

Terrance heard footsteps coming from 33rd Avenue. Two Denver police officers charged into view. Their guns were trained on him. Terrance’s other vision had come true. “Drop your weapon!” a police officer shouted. “Drop your weapon!”

Downtown Denver seen from Red Rocks.

AT THE TIME OF TERRANCE'S ARREST, I had long ago left Denver, where I’d grown up, for the East Coast. I was living in Brooklyn, where housing costs continued to rise, and neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant that once had been considered dangerous were gentrifying. Some of these communities would also receive Project Safe Neighborhoods grants, about which there was little public reporting.

I had been raised in south Denver, in a mostly white neighborhood, in the 1970s and ’80s. My only impressions of the Holly came from an occasional story about drugs or gangs that made the local media. I felt like I’d been forewarned not to go there, and I hadn’t. But on Sept. 27, 2013, a New York Times story caught my eye: “After Violence Interrupts Progress, a Struggle Ensues in Denver.”

Terrance Roberts, an anti-gang activist, had reportedly shot a gang member, Hasan Jones, in Holly Square, at his own peace rally. Hasan had survived but was paralyzed from the waist down. Terrance faced attempted murder and assault charges, as well as possession of a weapon by a previous offender, which carried a mandatory prison sentence.

The Times had published Terrance’s mug shot. He stared out from behind a yellow jumpsuit like tomorrow was gone. “I swept up the glass. I swept up the bullet shells. I swept up the people when I needed to,” Terrance told the Times. “And sometimes they swept me up. I hope I don’t get hurt when I go back. But I’m going to go back one day.”

 “I swept up the glass. I swept up the bullet shells. I swept up the people when I needed to.” 

I was intrigued by the redevelopment effort at the Holly — it involved Denver’s African American mayor, Colorado’s oldest and largest community foundation, and the prominent billionaire Philip Anschutz — and puzzled by why an anti-gang activist would shoot someone at his own peace rally. I found Terrance’s email on the Prodigal Son website (it was [email protected]) and sent him a note. He had bonded out of jail and replied. When we spoke by phone, he sounded incongruously upbeat. He told me he was working on taking his “movement” to other cities. I didn’t know what to think, but I asked if he would meet me in Denver.

Terrance chose an International House of Pancakes on the opposite side of town from the Holly. When I arrived, he was sitting in a booth in the back. He wore a sleek black-and-white track sweatsuit and a Denver Broncos hat with the decal on. He sprang up to shake my hand. “Wassup!” he said. His beard was neatly trimmed and he wore a stylish ultrathin mustache. In each ear was a diamond stud.

I had read closely the voluminous local media coverage of the shooting, which suggested that Terrance had fallen back into gangster life and become enveloped in neighborhood beefs. Witnesses had reportedly told police that Terrance had shot Hasan five times, including twice while he was on the ground.

Terrance testifies at his trial, 2015.
Courtesy of Julian Rubinstein

It was easy to see that Terrance carried some of his past with him. The edges of tattoos on his forearms were visible. On his neck was another tattoo I didn’t understand, BIP Lil Tek 9.

Terrance was a powerful presence. Talking to him felt like entering a force field. He could talk for hours, about hip-hop or Black history or gang history. All of it seemed to come back to the Holly. He was a third-generation resident of the neighborhood. He said that except for his decade in prison from 1995 to 2004, he felt like he’d spent his whole life there. “I love the Holly,” he told me. “I’ve been shot for the Holly. Twice. All the energy you see coming out of me — I got that in Holly Square.”

Terrance had a different story about what had happened the day of the peace rally. Over the course of our first few meetings, he intimated that he believed he had been the target of a plot to remove him from his position in the neighborhood. He took issue with developers, police, City Hall and gang members he suspected were informants. The information wasn’t very coherent, at least to me, but it was clear that whatever happened cut deep, and I wanted to know more. Many of the players had known one another for years. Terrance’s grandmother, who owned a soul food restaurant in the neighborhood, had become one of the first African Americans to live there, in 1960.

I moved back to Denver, and over the next seven years, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew, I sought to understand what had gone wrong that September day, why Terrance had shot Hasan. The stakes were high. Youth violence in the neighborhood, and across America, was rising. Aqeela Sherrills, a well-known Los Angeles anti-gang activist who described Terrance as a “rock star for the peace movement,” told me that anti-gang activists around the country were watching Terrance’s case closely. As were people in northeast Denver, who were suspicious of local media reports about Terrance and suggested to me that there were political reasons behind what had happened. “I knew (Terrance) was in danger the day he started marching,” Bishop Acen Phillips, one of Denver’s most prominent African American clergy members and activists, told me. “The beauty of it was, he knew he was in danger.”

As a white man attempting to gain trust in a historic African American community, I faced certain challenges. At first, many residents didn’t want to talk to me. I persisted, eventually finding my way to the people at the heart of this story. I never imagined how entangled in the case I would become. Some truths remained beyond my reach, while other evidence continues to hide in plain sight. I came to think of northeast Denver’s gang neighborhoods as “invisible Denver.” No matter how striking or consequential, little that took place there seemed apparent to anyone outside the community.

Eventually, by luck or by effort, I managed to bear witness to an extraordinary series of events that illuminated some of the questions I had, and why people were afraid to talk about them. I pulled court cases and police records and filed open-records requests. Some of these documents provided startling revelations — about Terrance’s case, about how America’s effort to fight gang violence is waged, and about how a historic neighborhood could be fighting an invisible war in a major American city, for decades.

Julian Rubinstein is a journalist and the author of Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, which was a New York Times “Editors Choice” and finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine, as well as in Best American Crime Writing. He lives in Denver.