The first installment of a two-part online exclusive to "Direct Fail."
Read "Direct Fail" to learn more about how the Summer of Violence impacted the juvenile justice system.
Five-year-old Aleszandra Berrelez—everyone called her Alie—had round cheeks, a quirky smile and too-big brown eyes that she hadn’t grown into. It was May 18, 1993, around 4 p.m., and she was wearing an Oshkosh denim jumper and eating pizza with some kids, including her three-year-old brother, in a parking lot of the Englewood apartment building where she lived. And then, she wasn’t there.
The police came, and her little brother did the best he could, telling the cops “the old man” took his sister. He even walked to an apartment door and pointed at it, but it wasn’t enough for an arrest, and they didn’t even know what they were looking for; they needed to find Alie. A massive search started, while the Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News did what they could and ran pictures of Alie on the front page. They found her a few days later at the bottom of a 20-foot ditch full of rock and scrub in Deer Creek Canyon, about 14 miles away from her home. Her tiny body had been stuffed in a khaki duffel bag and thrown down the embankment.
If the violence had stopped there, maybe things would have been different, but the Denver metro area was already roiling. Just three weeks before Alie was found, Ignacio Fabian Pardo was hit in the head by a stray bullet from a gang fight in City Park that ricocheted off a railing near the polar bear exhibit at the Denver Zoo. He survived. Broderick Bell Jr. was shot in the head. Andrew Cordova, just three, was shot in the arm. The News ran a picture of him on the cover as he sat on a sofa in his grandmother’s house with a white bandage wrapped around his chubby toddler arm. He looked dazed—scared.
He wasn’t the only one. Each day seemed to bring more news of violence—and death, until the local media dubbed the apparent crime wave the “Summer of Violence.” Parents, politicians, pretty much the entire population was spooked. The violence seemed so random, so young. Governor Roy Romer called a special session to address all the violence.
The special session was a very productive 10 days. Thirty-three bills were introduced and 11 laws were passed Some changes were subtle (the Division of Youth Services became the Division of Youth Corrections). Others weren’t, like a controversial decision called “direct file,” which allows prosecutors to file charges against kids between the ages of 14 to 17 directly in adult courts without going before a judge.
Today, we know who killed Alie—and it wasn’t a teenage killer. His name was Nick Stofer, and while the police suspected him all along, they only had circumstantial evidence. He was a man who lived in the apartment complex, in the very apartment that Alie’s three-year-old brother pointed to. He died in 2001. What changed? DNA testing. Eighteen years later, police used DNA evidence to test past blood and hair samples and find a match.
That’s not the only thing that changed since 1993. The convictions in the Central Park jogger case were vacated (DNA evidence implicated another man). We know more about the adolescent brain. We know that mandatory sentencing laws doubled—then tripled Colorado’s prison population. And we know that there was no Summer of Violence. There were only two more homicides in 1993 than the year before. Teen crime was up, but overall crime was steady. In short, Colorado has had worse winters than the Summer of Violence.
All of which begs the question: Did the Summer of Violence legislation—direct file—need to happen?