We are excited to share an exclusive excerpt from THE HOLLY: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood, a new book by journalist Julian Rubinstein that was recently featured on All Things Considered.
In 2013, Rubinstein began to look into why well-known anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts shot a young gang member at his own peace rally in Denver’s historic Holly Square. Rubinstein moved back to Denver, where he’d grown up, and found himself deep inside a shadowy world of gang violence, undercover federal law enforcement operations, and the gentrification of a historic African American landmark known as “the Holly.”
The book, which can be purchased here, is an explosive story that sheds light on the issues rarely seen or covered. Among the findings are the misuse of informants and the questionable operations of America’s premiere federal anti-gang and anti-gun program, Project Safe Neighborhoods. It also draws parallels between the civil rights movement and present-day America by asking whether activists in gentrifying communities are being targeted by those in power.
The following is an excerpt from the book that details alleged ties between Denver officials and active gang members:
The Department of Justice-funded quarterly magazine National Gang Center devoted the bulk of its Spring 2015 issue to Denver. “Planning for Successful Summer Programs” was the headline.
In 2014, a community-led campaign dubbed “Safe Summer, Safe Holly” ensured a violence-free summer where children could learn, grow and play . . . During the 90-day period, not a single act of violence was reported . . . Based on this success, there are more plans for redevelopment in the area and, more important, a sense of pride among community residents.
[Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver Director] Paul Callanan said it best: “These programs bring unity and a sense of welcoming to our communities. By fostering neighborhood connections, through safe activities for youth and families, by deterring violence, identifying and connecting families to needed resources. Ultimately, it inspires community pride and connectedness within neighborhoods.”
I didn’t recognize what I was reading. The summer of 2014 in the Holly in Denver's Northeast Park Hill neighborhood had been marred by a spike in gang shootings that caused the city to block the main road through the Holly with concrete barricades, sparking community outrage. The Denver police’s own publicly available statistics recorded fourteen violent crimes in Northeast Park Hill between June 1 and August 31, the reporting period. One was a murder; eleven were aggravated assaults. That didn’t include the drive-by shooting on May 30, blocks from the Holly, that the police alleged was committed by Hasan Jones, the gang member Terrance Roberts shot at his peace rally after being attacked by him.
The rise in shootings had led the local police district to implement the sonar ShotSpotter system in the neighborhood, typically used in war zones. Meanwhile, as if to announce their reclamation of the Holly, several OG Bloods recorded a gang rap video on the roof of the building where Terrance had run Prodigal Son, his anti-gang program, before he had been arrested for the shooting.
The next time I saw Terrance, who was awaiting trial in the shooting case, he’d moved. He said too many people knew where he was staying. Now he was living in a suburban subdivision, in his mom’s basement. He had put out some of his awards and trophies in the dark, carpeted room.
With northeast Denver’s gang war sharply escalating, Terrance was determined to get involved. He called his own independent anti-gang summit, featuring several Crips and Bloods who had been working with his anti-gang Camo Movement.
The meeting was held at Lowry Community Christian Church, on the Aurora-Denver border. Terrance hadn’t been in touch with most of the participants since the shooting, and they hugged one another as they arrived. “I really miss you brothers,” Terrance said. Some had complicated histories. “I’ve been shot by someone in this room,” Gerald Wright, who had been a Crip, said. “I’ve been shot by a few people in this room,” Terrance said, shaking his head. They all laughed.
They discussed what they could do to help the situation. “Can’t none of us in here stop what’s going on,” Gerald said, “but us being older we have some influence on those younger cats. Just do something different. If you want to live, you have to do something different.”
“They’re too far gone for a program,” another former gang member said. “They want to make some money. They need some employment.”
“We can’t stop nobody from banging, but we can set an example,” Terrance said. Positive mentorship, they agreed, was critical. The discussion ended with acknowledgments of their own struggles with PTSD. They resolved to start a men’s support group.
Terrance also reached out to Aqeela Sherrills, in Los Angeles. Terrance, Aqeela, and other anti-gang leaders around the country were closely monitoring what was happening in Baltimore. The city’s Bloods, Crips, and Black Guerrilla Family gang members had laid down their arms and banded together in protest against the police for the death of twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray, Jr., who died in police custody. Baltimore’s unified gang members had become a political force in the streets, demanding justice for Gray. Police had teargassed them and made arrests. Then, on the day of Gray’s funeral, the Baltimore police announced that they had received an anonymous “credible threat” made by gang members, stating they were “teamed up” to “take out” police.
The allegation by the police raised eyebrows with anti-gang activists who recognized it as the same threat that the LAPD had claimed gang members made during LA’s peace movement in the summer of 1992, and later in Newark and elsewhere.
Baltimore’s gang members had refused to take the blame for making the threat. “We’re not about to allow y’all to paint this picture of us,” one told a local Baltimore TV station. Days later, the Baltimore police were forced to retract the claim. Though the retraction didn’t make news outside Baltimore, gang communities spread it through social media.
On April 28, 2015, the day after Gray was buried in Baltimore, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock appeared on the steps of city hall with two dozen of Colorado’s highest-ranking law enforcement officers, including the attorney general, the Denver district attorney, the U.S. attorney, and members of the FBI, DEA, ATF, and Homeland Security. It was the official kickoff of Denver’s new Project Safe Neighborhoods effort.
“We stand here together to announce a coordinated and multilayered approach to halting the gang violence that is playing in some of our northeast Denver neighborhoods,” Mayor Hancock said. The previous day, a gang member was murdered as he left the funeral of another murder victim. “It has to stop, and we’re gonna pull out all the stops to assure that it does.” Some neighborhoods, Mayor Hancock said, would go under “twenty-four-hour surveillance.”
Missing from the group at city hall was Leon Kelly, or "Rev," founder of the oldest anti-gang program in Denver, Denver, Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives. Rev was in his downtown office, and when I arrived, he was on the phone, inquiring about adding names to an insurance policy for a van. A black pistol was holstered on his hip.
“Doing all this paperwork, man,” Rev said when he hung up. He held up a packet. “Gang Violence Interruption Program — that’s us,” he said. He said it was his contract with the city. “Two hundred seventy thousand dollars,” he said proudly. “Two-seventy.”
Rev said he was going to be in charge of eight interrupters who would work in Five Points and Northeast Park Hill. He said he had hired four former Crips and four former Bloods who would make up a council. “We’ve never had a council as such,” he told me, “a group of OGs who have been established in the neighborhood. And we come together and make decisions as to what needs to happen.”
He said that on the Blood side his team was Carl “Fat Daddy” McKay, Rodney “Big Rod” Jackson, Sheria “Drettie” Hicks, and Pernell “P. Lok” Hines. I tried not to blink. Not only did I believe that they were active and influential OG gang members, but Rev himself had told me that some of them had “probably” put the word out to the younger guys to attack Terrance. “The city saw the influence I had on them,” Rev continued. He held up a long index finger. “There is one Reverend Kelly.”
I asked how he got them on board. “There’s things I’ve done personally with these guys that nobody else knows,” he said. “Nobody. Sometimes I feel like the godfather. ‘I’ll grant you this favor but I may never need you in life again. But if it ever come a time that I need you’ — he raised his finger again — ‘for whatever reason, I will call you. And I will expect for you to come.’ ”
The only inference I could draw was that he’d helped them on their criminal cases.
“We’re going to be housed in Park Hill,” he added.
“By the Holly?” I asked.
He raised his eyebrows. “We’re going to be in Terrance’s old place,” he said.
It took all I had to get out of Rev’s office without revealing my shock. I ignored a lot of calls from Terrance that week. I didn’t want to be the one to relay the news to him that the people he thought had attacked him were among those about to take over his old office. Instead I attended Rev’s weekly “Flippin the Script” program. As part of the Department of Corrections parole program, newly released inmates from Denver’s gang community were required to come weekly, for lectures by Rev about peer groups and decision making. The meetings were held at the Church of Scientology.
The huge building occupied prime real estate in LoDo. So that I couldn’t go elsewhere in the church, a staffer escorted me straight to the classroom, which had ivory busts along the walls and rows of student desks. In the back, a folding table featured bread and supermarket lunch meats and cheese, curled in rolls. Copies of a chapbook, The Way to Happiness, were also on the table. On its cover was an image of Rev, in a powder blue suit and black fedora, with the Denver skyline behind him.
The parolees — all men; most Black — stood around before the program started. Rev’s interrupters — Carl, Rodney, Drettie, and Pernell — were all there. Carl drifted away from me every time I approached, so I introduced myself to Rodney, who was eating a sandwich.
“You been talking to the wrong guys if you’re talking ’bout the Holly,” he said. “We’re the OGs.” I told him I’d be happy to speak with him, and a few days later, I spent the day with Rodney and the other Blood interrupters as they moved into Terrance’s office. Rev had billed the event as a “community cleanup” and invited The Denver Post.
Drettie wore a red hat and blue Chuck Taylors with red laces; in the gang world the style had a very specific meaning: Crip Killer. Cars passed by, with drivers and passengers hollering at them. One flashed gang signs and Drettie flashed them back. “Cut it,” Pernell said, unaware I had seen the exchange.
Carl, who wore red jeans, shook my hand but continued to avoid me. Rodney made hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill on the patio. Pernell mowed the lawn.
“Wayski,” I heard someone call. It was another nickname for Joel “Way Out” Alexander, who was close with Hasan, and had co-operated the computer repair shop with Carl. Joel was large and top heavy in black cargo pants, a black shirt, and a black baseball hat.
I walked over and introduced myself.
“You know who I am?” Joel asked me. He wore a diamond earring and a gold tooth. “Ninety-six indictment,” he said, referring to the infamous racketeering case. He gave me a fish handshake.
I told him I was doing a project about the Holly and wanted to talk to him.
“You know Rev?” he said. “If Rev says it’s cool, it’s cool,” he said. I wrote down my number, and he snatched the paper with his huge hand. As he walked away, he rolled it up in his fingers and tossed it over his shoulder.
When I got home I had several missed calls from Terrance. I didn’t feel comfortable hiding what was going on any longer and called him back.
“What’s the wiggle?” he said.
When I told him, he lost it.
“I told you I think Rev Kelly had something to do with what happened to me!” Rev’s close relationship with the OGs who were in conflict with Terrance was clear, but I hadn’t seen evidence that Rev was involved with what happened.
I had to hold the phone away from my ear as Terrance lost his temper. “They’re a police-funded mob of Black murderers!” he yelled of the OGs. “Anyone hanging out with Carl McKay or Pernell, I’m not fucking with them. That goes for you, too, Julian. If they ever come near me, if I got a gun, I’m gonna shoot ’em, if I got a knife, I’m gonna stab ’em. If I got my hands, I’m gonna fight ’em.”
Six days later, Carl McKay was arrested. Terrance was the first to tell me. The details seemed too outlandish to be true, but when I got the police report, I saw that they matched. At 2:15 p.m., Officer Derek Hancock of District 2 was driving westbound through the Holly in a patrol car, when he observed a white Buick driving erratically through the former Prodigal Son parking lot, then failing to fully stop at 33rd and Holly. Officer Hancock ran the car’s plate and found it was a fake. He flipped on his lights and pulled the Buick over.
Carl was in the driver’s seat; Rodney, whom Officer Hancock knew had previous drug arrests, was next to him. Hancock also saw an open beer and a bottle of Hennessy. He asked Carl to get out of the car so he could search it.
It was a Thursday afternoon in the Holly. When Carl got to the sidewalk, Officer Hancock sensed from Carl’s body language that he could become combative or try to flee. He called for backup.
As people in the neighborhood watched, Carl was placed in handcuffs and a search of his car began. On the car’s back seat, Officer Hancock found a bottle containing colorful balloons knotted in a way Hancock knew was common to packaging heroin. He also found a plastic bag containing what he suspected was cocaine, as well as bags of pipes and screens used for smoking crack.
The police report also contained the line that was coursing through the streets of northeast Denver. Soon after Carl was pulled over, he fumbled around looking to find his driver’s license, telling Officer Hancock he must have left it at home. While doing so, according to the police report, Carl also “stated several times that he worked for Denver Police Commander Michael Calo.”
Excerpted from THE HOLLY: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood by Julian Rubinstein. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Julian Rubinstein. All rights reserved.
Photo: Terrance Roberts (credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski)