After the shooting that left him temporarily paralyzed below the waist, Roberts spent the rest of ’93 recovering from his wounds, then went back to the streets where he was fiercer than ever. “He became a totally different person,” says Collins, his childhood friend. “Like, ‘I’m going to kill everybody.’”
Roberts had his first child, a son, when he was 18, but fatherhood didn’t slow him down. He went back to hustling, to beating up rivals, to popping off rounds. “He started doing these things in broad daylight,” one friend says, “like he was daring everyone to challenge him.” He moved in and out of his grandmother’s house, which made the home a target.
Then in 1995, just before he turned 19, he was nailed for two felonies: aggravated robbery and menacing with a gun. He served a
one-year sentence, a time marked by prison-yard gang fights and stabbings. After his release, he returned to Park Hill. He was arrested again in 2000 after spraying another Blood’s car with a MAC-11 and was hit with a felony weapons violation. The offense got him a six-year sentence, during which Roberts eventually tired of being a Blood and getting roped into what he’d come to see as meaningless gang-related prison battles. He’d often sit in his cell and think about friends who’d died back home. He’d imagine how it would feel to be removed from the day-to-day stress of being a hustler, to be free from looking over his shoulder every minute. “I’d just start crying,” he says. “I didn’t want to be like that anymore—the pain, the drama.”
At one point, he picked up a Bible and began reading. Among his favorite Biblical stories was the parable of the prodigal son, about a young man who leaves his family, wastes a fortune, and nearly starves to death before returning home to be redeemed. Someone suggested he check out a biography on Martin Luther King Jr., and Roberts soon was studying King’s concepts on nonviolence. He then read books on Mahatma Gandhi. “I thought Gandhi was a homosexual who died because of a hunger strike,” Roberts says now. “I come to find out, not only was he an attorney, but he went back home and fought for his people.” After Gandhi, he moved on to Leo Tolstoy; then he saw a television program on the Chicano activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. “So I researched him,” Roberts says. “And I’m just like, Whoa, these dudes are warriors. This is why I became a Blood. This is what I want to do for Park Hill.”
Soon, Roberts was helping lead prayer groups. He promised himself he wasn’t going back to the streets, and he quietly began telling friends on the inside. “I didn’t like pretending I was so angry,” says Roberts, who found unlikely support among some of his most-hardened gang associates. “I didn’t want to be like that anymore. I couldn’t handle all that pressure. I was carrying all of Park Hill on my back. I was finally just like, ‘You guys can carry that.’ ”
In 2004, Roberts was paroled early and immediately began planning his nonprofit. Among the first people he met with was LaQuan Starks, his old Park Hill friend. “Terrance still had an ankle monitor on,” Starks says. It would have been easy to dismiss Roberts’ ideas as pie-in-the-sky fantasies of a newly freed man, “but you could see the effort was there,” Starks says. “He wanted to help save our neighborhood. How are you going to say no to that?”
Roberts got a job at Einstein Bros. Bagels, then sought out Leon Kelly, a minister who’d run the Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives program and had known Roberts since his Bloods days nearly 15 years earlier. Kelly, who’d seen more than his share of well-intentioned failures, was impressed with Roberts’ transformation. “Terrance said he wanted to do what I did,” Kelly says. “I saw a young warrior who was willing to make it happen.” Roberts pulled together a small group of business owners and began to gather his first pledges. Several months after he got out of prison, Roberts filed articles of amendment with the Internal Revenue Service. For him, there was only one name that would fit what he was about to do: Prodigal Son was born.
He started modestly, with an after-school program that worked with a couple of dozen kids from the neighborhood. He then moved into gang intervention, trying to keep children from getting sucked into his old life. On holidays, he’d call anyone he thought might need a little help. “Whatever Terrance was doing [as a Blood], he would go full with it,” says Wooten, his old gang friend. “He was the same way with this.”
Still, it wasn’t until four years after making the biggest transition of his life that he found his purpose. In the early hours of May 18, 2008, four Rollin’ 30s Crips threw Molotov cocktails onto the roof of the Holly Square Shopping Center and leveled the strip mall. A dollar store, a day-care center, a dentist’s office, and a salon burned in just a few hours. The attack was supposed to be payback for the death of Michael Asberry, the 40-year-old co-founder of the Rollin’ 30s, who was shot to death earlier that day in Aurora. Crips mistakenly thought it was Bloods from Park Hill who’d done the shooting. (Police later discovered Asberry’s death was the result of a feud over property and was not gang related.)
Roberts arrived at the scene that morning. Families stood and stared at the rubble. Some cried. One person told a reporter that it was worse than 9/11. Weeks passed, then months, and nothing happened at the site. The Crips and two female associates were eventually caught. Four men went to prison. One of the women, who got probation, was later ambushed and killed on her porch in the Cole neighborhood.
Roberts felt his old anger rising again, but now he thought he knew how to channel it. One day, he was at the nearby District 2 police station when he met a local television reporter. He said what was going on in his neighborhood was despicable, that something should be done about it. He was asked to do an interview, which he did that afternoon with the Holly’s ruins behind him. He said something needed to be done, now.
The city eventually scraped the Holly. Roberts organized a neighborhood cleanup on the property and 40 people showed up. By summer 2009, a small building across the street became available and Roberts and Senator Johnston agreed to open their offices there. “I needed to be as close as possible to supervise the vision I had,” Roberts says now. The land conservancy bought the Holly Square block, and Roberts advertised his idea for basketball courts. He was asked to join a new community board—called the Holly Area Redevelopment Project—tasked with redefining a six-block area that included the old Holly.
One day in 2009, Senator Johnston was speaking at the grand opening of their new office when there was a commotion on the other side of the building. Roberts ran over and saw several Bloods trying to kidnap a Crip who’d wandered into their territory. The rival gang member, Roberts says he later learned, was related to one of the men who’d burned down the Holly. “They were trying to put that Crip brother into a Caprice Classic,” Roberts remembers. Roberts pushed his way through the scuffle. “We had to snatch that Crip and hide him in the office,” Roberts says. “Then those Bloods started to surround the building.” Nearly an hour passed before Roberts says the gang members left and the Crip could be taken home. One by one, Roberts learned the names of some of the young men who’d been involved in the incident. One was a teenager known in Park Hill as “Munch.” His real name was Hasan Jones.
In the years that followed the Holly fire, Roberts’ neighborhood presence was unrivaled. He’d struck the deal with the land conservancy in 2010, which allowed him to begin what he’d come to call “interim-use development” on the Holly’s west edge. The idea was to create a mini oasis in northeast Park Hill’s heart, a sliver of land where children and families could gather and play while the community sorted out what to do with the burned-out lot. Roberts raised money throughout Denver for his vision and secured backboards and hoops from Kroenke Sports & Entertainment.
By 2012, he’d raised $250,000 to build the two courts, a soccer field, a playground, and two nearby gazebos. He opened the final development to the public that summer. Roberts and his wife, Jillian, painted concrete to look like blacktop
and arranged cleanups on the lot. During the day, Roberts kept watch for drug dealers and vandals; one night, he organized a basketball game between District 2 cops and neighborhood teenagers. “We all figured he’d be one of those leaders we’d be talking about decades later,” says Starks, the former Prodigal Son board member. “Everybody in Colorado would eventually know who he was.” Police came to Roberts to sort out the tit-for-tat of brewing gang rivalries. He was entrusted with eulogies for fallen gang members, appeared on a public-access show with Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, and created a “camouflage movement” that encouraged gangs to drop red-blue affiliations. By 2013, Prodigal Son had signed two contracts totaling $240,000 with the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver (GRID), a program run through the city’s Department of Safety that matches community services to gang members and at-risk youth.
Just months after Prodigal Son initially signed on with GRID in 2012, Denver police officer Celena Hollis was killed in a shootout between Bloods and Crips at a City Park Jazz concert. Rollin Oliver, a 21-year-old Blood, was arrested and charged in the shooting. (He later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is serving a 26-year sentence.) Roberts mourned for both sides: for cops because they’d lost one of their own, and for Park Hill because he anticipated police retaliation. To quell hostilities, Roberts and Senator Johnston organized a rally at the District 2 community room the day after the shooting to show support for officers and to, as Roberts puts it, make sure “the police wouldn’t beat the Bloods up.” More than 100 people showed up that afternoon, and Roberts left thinking the event had been a success.
Shortly afterward, though, he says members of his former gang approached him. They asked why a rally hadn’t also been planned for Oliver, the shooter. “I said, ‘I don’t think he would mind if we didn’t do a rally for him,’ ” Roberts remembers. “They started saying things like, ‘You’ll do a rally for the police, but you won’t do one for the homie,’ type stuff. So I’m like, ‘That’s just stupid. Why would I do a rally for the guy who killed the police officer? Then they would be beating you and me up.’ ”
That moment, friends say, was when people began questioning Roberts’ perceived work with police and the district attorney. “People thought he was telling on friends, that he was snitching,” Starks says. “A lot of it was his fault. Terrance was maybe allowing police to do more with him than he should have.” Roberts claims neutrality—“I don’t work for the Bloods or Crips, and I don’t work for the police”—but says neighborhood gang members continued to try to intimidate him, and the threats were unrelenting. He won’t discuss how, or when, he acquired his 9 mm pistol, but it’s clear he felt the pressure had escalated beyond the typically empty threats of ass-kickings outside his office. It was clear, too, he wasn’t about to back away. Privately, he talked with friends about the struggle to get Bloods to understand his position, how he was trying to help people find peace in their neighborhood, how he wasn’t picking sides, how he wasn’t a snitch. “They were coming after him,” says Collins, Roberts’ friend. “I told him to get the fuck away from those fools, but Terry was like, ‘Those niggas are going to respect me as a man.’ ”
Roberts’ life was crumbling by early 2013, his friends say: He and his wife had agreed to divorce several months earlier, he was still getting heat from neighborhood Bloods, and it seemed his projects were drying up. In early spring, one of his childhood friends was murdered three blocks from the old Holly. Afterward, Roberts appeared to take a more aggressive, angry attitude. He argued over GRID projects, felt limited by the contracts’ scopes. When grant applications were rejected, he lashed out at the system, claiming everything from incompetence to outright racism. “He was frustrated about everything,” Leon Kelly, the minister, says. “He felt like the world was coming in on him. I told him he needed to tone it down. I said, ‘You’re going to intimidate supporters.’ ” Says one friend: “He definitely thought there was a conspiracy against him.”
Roberts couldn’t understand why respect for his work was fading. The Holly was being redeveloped, in part because of Roberts’ vision and his work there, but now he felt like an outsider. He says he tried to contact Ted Harms—the executive director at the Anschutz Foundation, which supported the Boys & Girls Club project—about possible funding for Prodigal Son, but his calls were ignored. (“The Anschutz Foundation never had a direct relationship or interaction with Terrance Roberts or Prodigal Son,” says Cole Finegan, a partner at Hogan Lovells and an attorney for the foundation.)
In the spring of last year, Roberts was close to suspending Prodigal Son’s operations. “The rich, white people don’t want me, and the gangsters don’t want me,” Roberts says. “I’m a vagabond.” Roberts was accused of being a yes-man to white interests, of trying to gentrify his own neighborhood.
One day this past summer, Kelly visited Roberts in Park Hill. “Terrance was troubled,” he says. “He always wants everything done yesterday. He couldn’t take a break. He wants to change lives, keep the doors open. I told him, ‘You need to slow down and balance this.’ But, really, he just wasn’t built that way. He was the prodigal son. He wanted to make good.”