This past Spring Denver Police arrested a father and son, nicknamed Big Mad Dog and Little Mad Dog, in the fatal shooting of a 37-year-old man near a liquor store in northeast Park Hill.
It wasn’t much of a surprise to residents who live in the neighborhood sandwiched between Colorado Boulevard and Quebec Street and bordered on the north by I-70 and on the south by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—or 28th Avenue or 26th Avenue, depending on whom you ask. In the past five years, there have been 12 murders, more than 150 aggravated assaults, and at least 25 reported rapes. In 2008, four members of a gang threw Molotov cocktails onto the roof of the neighborhood shopping center and burned it to the ground.
But on this summer day, at the corner of East 33rd Avenue and Hudson Street, all is calm. A mailman walks his route; dogs bark in the distance. A few men gather outside the run-down Holly Food Market and watch young women in tight pants roll strollers along the sidewalk, past the low-slung brick bungalows with trimmed grass out front. Terrance Roberts studies the scene from outside his office at the Prodigal Son Initiative, a nonprofit that offers outreach and services to neighborhood children, gang members, and their families. A bullet hole, edged in rust, scars a metal wall just over his left shoulder.
The former member of the Bloods street gang in Park Hill lifts his 205-pound frame from his seat, adjusts his camouflage Colorado Rockies cap, and walks toward the corner market. Roberts pushes past the glass door, a collection of tattoos cascading down his outstretched arms. He walks across the shop’s chipped linoleum, opens a refrigerator in the back, and grabs an iced tea. He stops to pick through a wooden table piled high with potatoes and wilting heads of lettuce that are bathed in the glare of fluorescent lights. “This is an embarrassment,” he says, as he sets his bottle on the counter and hands over a couple of dollars. He gestures toward the wall of tobacco products—cigarettes, cheap cigars, rolling papers—stocked behind the man working the register. “I know y’all refilling them Swisher Sweets every day,” Roberts says as he points at the thin cigars. “But you can’t replace some vegetables?” The man behind the counter silently hands over the change.
Outside, Roberts opens his drink. He points at the red facade along the market’s west side: three bullet holes, quarter-size tears in the wood, just about head high for an adult man. Roberts lets out a short laugh that sounds like a grunt. “These kids,” he says, “don’t fuck around.”
Months later, it seemed everyone was saying the same about him.
It’s a cold night in late September, and the 37-year-old Roberts is on the patio at a Cherry Creek restaurant, a half-filled water glass and an uneaten plate of sushi on the table in front of him. Three days after posting $100,000 bond for shooting an alleged Park Hill gang member five times just before a neighborhood rally, one of Denver’s best-known community activists doesn’t have much of an appetite.
He’s hunched at the shoulders; his face is drawn. His soft brown eyes belie his usual street confidence. He’s wearing his ball cap, a solid black T-shirt, and baggy black jeans he’d recently purchased for $10 at Walmart. He apologizes for his appearance, says he’s been living out of hotels since his release from jail, that the pressures have weighed heavily on him. He’s worried about paying his bills, about a potential prison sentence, about his four children, about the bangers from his old ’hood who would love to even the score from behind the barrel of a semiautomatic. “In a week’s time—in a second’s time—I became jobless, homeless, and I’m on the run,” he tells me. “I can’t go back to my community.”
He’d made his way around the city earlier that afternoon. He visited his kids, talked to his public defender, then relinquished control of Prodigal Son to a childhood friend. With a few pen strokes, the past nine years of Terrance Roberts’ life disappeared.
If only it were as easy to erase these facts: At 6:05 p.m. on September 20, at the site of two basketball courts he’d helped build for the neighborhood, Roberts fired five shots from a 9 mm automatic Jimenez pistol and paralyzed 22-year-old Hasan Jones, whom Roberts had known for four years. The final two shots were fired while Jones—reportedly a member of Roberts’ former gang—lay bleeding on the concrete. According to a Denver Police Department probable cause statement, Roberts screamed, “Fuck you!… Fuck that nigga!” just before he was arrested. Roberts, who is claiming self-defense in the attack, has been charged with first-degree attempted murder, assault, and various weapons possession charges. Because Roberts is a habitual offender, another felony conviction could mean life in prison.
On its face, the shooting was an unbelievable fall for a man who appeared to have traded a life of crime to become one of Denver’s most outspoken and respected antigang advocates—the one-time villain who’d transformed himself into a neighborhood hero. The son of a once crack-addicted mother, Roberts had dealt drugs, was gunned down at the height of Denver’s gang wars in 1993, and had served more than a decade, off and on, in state and federal prisons. By all accounts, he was an original Park Hill gangster who survived lockup and came out a changed man. Roberts found God, renounced his Bloods affiliation, and took on the Sisyphean task of reducing violence in one of Denver’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. Handsome, with a crooked smile, a trimmed beard, and a personal story of death, poverty, and redemption, he had an outsize presence in his community. He was equally at ease hammering out a gang truce at a nearby park or throwing on a button-down shirt to meet wealthy philanthropists for an afternoon fund-raiser. “I think everyone’s sad about this,” says Nate Johnson, aka Nyke Nitti, a Denver filmmaker and musician who befriended Roberts more than five years ago. “That’s not the Terrance we know.”
Roberts says Jones tried to attack him with a knife on that late summer day. He doesn’t deny firing the pistol, and even now he shows no remorse. “I’m not trying to be a martyr for the antigang movement,” he says. “I’m preferring this a lot better than a wheelchair, getting my teeth kicked out of my face, or possibly being dead.” Jones’ family, meanwhile, has denied the knife accusation and argues Roberts was not the model citizen he wanted people to believe he was. They’ve claimed in media reports that Roberts was on a slow, quiet slide to irrelevancy and that Park Hill residents had stopped trusting Roberts, stopped believing in him. The shooting, they’ve said, was Roberts’ desperate, frustrated attempt to assert his waning power. “He wanted to do well, but, in the end, he didn’t really know his place in the neighborhood,” says LaQuan Starks, a childhood friend who once served on Prodigal Son’s board of directors. “With Terrance, it was like there was a good angel and a bad angel, and they were always fighting with each other.”
Before the gangs moved in, before the drugs and the crime, before a fire threatened to incinerate the neighborhood’s heart, before failure and reclamation, and then failure again, there was the Holly Square Shopping Center: 2.6 acres of concrete studded with massive steel beams. For more than 40 years, “the Holly,” as locals called it, was an economic and social hub of northeast Park Hill, a touchstone for young men and women for whom growing up there came to define what it meant to be a survivor—to be poor and black and proud.
Kids learned to ride their bicycles in the lot off 33rd and Holly Street; teens stole their first kisses in the shadows behind the Safeway supermarket. Denver’s black community had been scarred by the discontent of the 1960s—white flight, forced busing, riots—but northeast Park Hill had always survived. Maybe it was because of the Holly, because of the families there, because of the pride. Maybe it was an innate toughness, the idea that people here could stand for something, that a community could get better if everyone simply stuck together and believed.
And they did believe. They believed even as the businesses began to abandon the neighborhood in the late 1970s, when the Safeway pulled up and left, when the first wave of dealers and pimps moved in. They believed even as a new generation of kids calling themselves Bloods—imitating their brethren in Los Angeles—dressed in red (or burgundy or green) and began settling arguments with AK-47s instead of fists. They believed even as northeast Park Hill became synonymous with the very worst of city life: pervasive poverty and crack cocaine and stabbings and shootings and death.
They even believed in 1990, when the battles were escalating between Bloods in Park Hill and rival Crips who lived east and west of the neighborhood’s borders—when a 14-year-old kid named Terrance Roberts pledged himself to gang life. Back then, you didn’t have to look hard to find hundreds of teenagers like Roberts: poor, virtually parentless, raised on petty crimes that later would escalate to misdemeanors and felonies. In a way, their fates were written long before they stepped onto the Holly. “The streets call everyone when you live in the ’hood,” says Atiba Collins, one of Roberts’ childhood friends. “It was like, ‘We are Generation X, and we will X your ass.’” Like so many others, Roberts got family, protection, respect—something that felt like stability—from gang life. It offered power to young men who’d be afterthoughts in most any other community. Roberts ran with other neighborhood boys and sold crack and cheap Mexican weed at the Holly. On weekends, he’d go off to the Kmart and buy a case of ammunition; he’d steal a car and lead a drive-by on the Rollin’ 30 Crips in nearby Five Points; he’d saw off a shotgun in his grandmother’s family room. “Terrance was the guy you always trusted to have your back,” says Billy Wooten, a former Blood who grew up with Roberts. One day after school in the early 1990s, Wooten was about to get jumped by six Crips who’d followed his bus into Park Hill. “They were gonna beat me right there,” Wooten remembers. “Then I hear these gunshots, and I think they’re shooting at me. But it’s not them. Out of nowhere, I see Terrance running up the alley with a .38.”
Roberts was a fast riser. He was kicked out of George Washington High School, bought a .25-caliber handgun, sold drugs. He paid cash for a ’65 Impala with gold rims. He got ink, a Bugs Bunny flashing the Bloods sign. He took on a new identity: CK Showbizz. CK was short for Crip Killer.
Bizz, as he was known, quickly became a young man who could make things happen. Wearing a red T-shirt and a red bandana stuffed into a back pocket, he had no problem ambushing Crips, beating rival drug dealers, or blasting away with an Uzi. “He was insane,” Starks says. “It was like he could die tomorrow, and he didn’t give a damn.” At night, Bizz would hole up in a crack house, smoke bud, and drink with his friends—a bunch of guys on the floor, drunk and high, with the lights off in case someone was planning a drive-by. Twice, he says, he was smoking when bullets blew out the windows of the house he was in.
For a teenage kid, Bizz was afforded almost unmatched responsibility: He managed drug schemes, called in hits, and settled beefs. He could fight and he could shoot straight and he didn’t back down. But what made Bizz the model “gangsta”—that brash fearlessness that bordered on a death wish—also made him the perfect target.
One night in August 1993, Bizz found himself stacking cash alone in yet another crack house, this one a few blocks from the Holly. The lights were out, and $1,300 was sorted neatly on the floor. He grabbed fists full of ones and fives and tens. Then he stood up and flipped on a light.
One of my first meetings with Roberts was on a late-spring morning last year. I was beginning a reporting project I hoped would shed light on this overlooked corner of Denver, and a friend suggested I seek out Roberts. He was waiting for me outside Prodigal Son at the corner of 33rd and Hudson, just across the street from where he once sold crack to his friends’ mothers. A couple of blocks away, a car was stopped in the middle of the street, doors open, a wall of flashing police lights behind it.
Roberts wanted to take me around his block. First, though, he showed me several bullet holes in a metal wall outside the office he shared with his friend, state Senator Michael Johnston, whom he met four years earlier as the two were becoming more prominent in the community. Roberts took me inside, where Prodigal Son was housed in a few aging rooms. On one wall was a schematic drawing of the $5 million Nancy P. Anschutz Center, a project several years in the making that now was almost completed at the site of what once was Holly Square.
In Roberts’ own cramped office, the tangible symbols of his success were everywhere. Mementos—like the MLK Marade Community Recognition Award—hung from walls and were stacked on shelves. A recent photo of Roberts and President Barack Obama, whom Roberts met twice, was pinned to a wall above his computer.
He leaned back in a small chair, and we talked about the neighborhood. Roberts shared his story of growing up in Park Hill, how he was nearly killed in that crack house 20 years earlier when he’d turned on the light. In case I doubted him, he pulled up his shirt to reveal a thick scar that ran up his belly. His “zipper,” he called it. “The bullet went right through my back,” he says. “Cracked my pelvic bone.” He told me about building Prodigal Son, about the gang arson that leveled the Holly in 2008 and nearly consumed the community’s spirit with it. He told me about how, for months, the city left the remains for folks to stare at, drenching the ruins every few weeks with a fire hose to make sure it wouldn’t burn in the summer heat. “I knew the city wouldn’t leave something like that in a white neighborhood,” he says. “I got real angry, and I knew I had to do something about it.”
And so he did. He took me outside, and we walked across Hudson Street to the old Holly. The block was still known as a haven for crime, but there were only a few young women nearby. The outlaw behavior that had defined the place for decades seemed to be slowly receding. Roberts wanted to show off two basketball courts he’d helped complete a year earlier on a small section of the former shopping center’s property. He showed me the peace mural he organized, which local artists and neighborhood kids had created out of 10 steel beams from the old storefronts; he pointed out the two gazebos he’d planned and helped build. He took me to a playground and to the small soccer field he’d developed and now oversaw. Although the land technically belonged to a group called the Urban Land Conservancy—which paid $750,000 for the block in 2009 and allowed Prodigal Son to complete the projects—Roberts thought of it as his. It was clear he enjoyed giving tours of his work. He pointed to the adjacent Anschutz Center, which would house a Boys & Girls Club, a community resource group, and—come fall—Prodigal Son’s new office.
The two of us crossed back over Hudson Street and stood on the sidewalk outside Roberts’ office. I suggested that it must be difficult to create change in a neighborhood so used to consuming its own. I told Roberts I’d seen a few nearby clothing retailers that were clearly trying to appeal to his old gang by selling red shirts and fitted baseball hats I’d seen worn by kids hanging out on the street. Roberts waved me over to his SUV and flipped open the trunk. Stacked in a neat row were at least 10 camouflage Boston Red Sox hats. In the context of Park Hill street wear, the prominent “B” on the cap stood for “Bloods,” not “Boston.” “I bought ’em out,” Roberts said and then flashed a satisfied smile. He’d spent more than $250 of his own money to take a few hats off the street. He pulled out one cap and held it up. “You can focus on the negative and bury yourself, or you can go out and do something about it,” he said. “I’ve chosen to keep going.”
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.”
“Woah, these dudes are warriors. This is why I became a Blood. This is what I want to do for Park Hill.”—Terrance Roberts
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.”
Much of what happened near the Holly basketball courts on September 20 is still a mystery. Neither Hasan Jones nor his family could be reached for this story, but Aundre Moore, a friend of both Jones and Roberts, told me the shooting has left the neighborhood confused: “Everyone is still trying to figure out how this could happen. It hurt the whole community. To the outside, the shooting makes everything Terrance stood for look like nothing.” Witnesses haven’t publicly talked about what transpired in Park Hill that evening, and many of Roberts’ friends—some of whom figure prominently in that day’s narrative—declined to discuss Roberts with me.
More than 60 people are listed as potential prosecution witnesses in the shooting, including Senator Johnston, who was in the building he shared with Roberts when the shooting took place. (Johnston, who has spoken to Jones’ family, declined to comment for this story.) Denver police reports from the shooting are not available, and the probable cause statement—a document used to explain the basic foundation for criminal charges—is void of any real narrative.
Roberts, however, was willing to talk at length about the events leading up to the shooting. He describes a day in which there were multiple confrontations between neighborhood Bloods and him, his employees, and his friends. “I know there are people who feel I let them down,” he told me, “but I think I just stayed in the hot zone longer than I probably should’ve.” To outsiders, his downfall was a single moment, but for Roberts, it was a culmination of more than a year’s worth of threats, stress, and paranoia. In the end, he couldn’t escape his past. He couldn’t let Bizz fade away.
On the afternoon of the shooting, Roberts says, a group that included Hasan Jones—who was described as a “violent gang member” in a 2010 arrest report—had gathered at one of the gazebos near the basketball courts and repeatedly called Roberts a “snitch” and a “bitch.” Some of the young men pointed to a surveillance camera mounted on the side of the Prodigal Son building as proof he’d been feeding information on neighborhood crimes to Denver cops. Roberts argued with the gang members and said the camera hadn’t worked since he’d moved in. To prove he was telling the truth, he says, he grabbed a sledgehammer and a ladder. “I hop up on the roof,” Roberts says. “I’m mad.” He took at least a dozen swings with the hammer and says he knocked the camera off the building. He then carried the smashed camera across Hudson Street to the gazebo and dropped it onto the concrete. The group wasn’t convinced. They started to mock him. “I said, ‘Since I’m such a snitch, and you don’t want to get off my property, who wants to fight me?’ ” The Bloods walked away. Roberts says he went back to his office, then to his home in the Mayfair neighborhood to prepare for a Park Hill unity rally that evening. On the way, he says, he texted two longtime Bloods and told them about the altercation. “I knew what time it was,” Roberts says. One gang member called him and, Roberts says, told him “the homies are tired of you, and they’re going to fuck you up.”
Back home, Roberts says he showered, shaved his head, dressed, and prayed. “I had my face on the ground: ‘God, don’t let me get hurt. I don’t want to have to hurt anybody.’ ” He left home around 5:50 p.m. and headed back to northeast Park Hill. Roberts says he parked on Hudson Street, between his office and the courts. Almost immediately, Roberts says, “Here comes Hasan on his bike with 15 to 20 Bloods. I’m like, ‘Munch, why are you doing this to me?’ Munch says, ‘You’re going to find out in a minute.’ ” Roberts says he walked over to where he’d dropped the broken camera and saw a supermarket rotisserie chicken next to it. “It was half-eaten, and a knife was in it with a note that said, ‘Bitch-ass nigga, snitch-ass nigga.’ ”
Roberts says his gun was 25 yards away, in the back of his SUV. Just east of the courts, in the parking lot at the Anschutz Center, Roberts says a man in a red truck pulled up and stopped. Jones ran to the vehicle, Roberts told me. “That was the opening for me to beeline to my truck, and that’s when I grabbed my weapon. [Jones] came back. I heard him say, ‘Where’s that bitch-ass nigga at?’”
The Jimenez pistol had 13 bullets in the clip. Roberts loaded one into the chamber. While the Bloods converged, Roberts says he hid behind his vehicle. A voice rang out: “There he is, right there! Let’s get him!”
In the Denver Police probable cause statement, two confidential witnesses say they saw Roberts fire at Jones multiple times. After the shooting, a police officer who arrived at the scene heard Roberts yell to a group of suspected gang members: “I had to shoot that nigga. He pulled a knife on me. Fuck you! All you would have shot him too. Fuck that nigga! I shot him for running up on me.”
“The rest,” Roberts says, “we’ll talk about in court.”
Since the shooting, Roberts’ downfall has been both swift and unceremonious. He’s become persona non grata among the same people who’d backed him just months earlier. “I can’t lean too far on this,” says one close friend who runs a nonprofit and doesn’t want to be seen as a supporter. Any professional ties Roberts had in Denver have been severed—publicly, at least. Roberts says Mayor Michael Hancock—who appointed Roberts to the city’s Community Corrections Board—reached out through an intermediary and pledged quiet support, as have others. (Through his press secretary, Hancock says no such pledge was made. “The mayor knows well Terrance and Prodigal Son’s work in the community with our gangs,” Amber Miller, the press secretary, said. “He is disappointed in the entire situation, but the city remains determined to address the issue of gangs in the city through the programs and partner organizations in place today.”) The back-channel well wishes have been little comfort. “You know how many people text and email me, saying, ‘We love you, Terrance. We’ve got your back’?” Roberts says. “Yeah, behind the scenes, you got my back. Not publicly.”
In some instances, the reluctance to support Roberts—or to talk about him at all—is understandable and stems from the fact that these individuals might be called to testify at trial, which, as of this writing, has yet to be scheduled in Denver District Court. Some witnesses are fearful of gang retribution. But in many cases, the reluctance has more to do with optics, with protecting finances, reputations, and legacies in the ever competitive political and nonprofit spheres. In other words, being connected to Terrance Roberts these days is bad for business.
And Roberts knows it. “Fuck that Anschutz Center,” he says. “I’m just tired of those people. I’m ashamed for them. I’m not angry. There’s a part of me that’s happy I don’t have to deal with those people and try to make a living off of them.”
One public figure who would speak on the record is Governor John Hickenlooper, who’d gotten to know Roberts during his time as Denver’s mayor. “The tragedy is we knew he had a real hard time redeveloping the Holly Square, and yet it was all coming together,” Hickenlooper says. “You go out there and look at the Boys & Girls Club and it’s transformed, and he played a role in that. I’m deeply disappointed. I’m saddened, but I’m not angry. He worked very hard and came a long way. I think he deserves a fair trial and a chance to make sure his side of the story is known.”
Roberts claims he has so little savings he can’t afford a private attorney to defend him. (He earned $58,577 in 2012 from Prodigal Son, according to a filing with the IRS, but he says bills and support payments for his children consumed most of his paycheck.) A family friend who’d known Roberts since he was a child drafted a letter, asking for money to start a legal defense fund. The idea was pulled at the last moment amid concerns about how the request would be viewed in the community. After all, the thinking went, Roberts had just gunned down one of their own.
Leon Kelly, who has accompanied Roberts in court but has also ministered to Hasan Jones, says the 22-year-old is paralyzed below the waist but “is getting around in a wheelchair.” The parallels between Roberts’ near death in 1993 and Jones’ shooting almost exactly two decades later are inescapable. “Hasan is bitter and angry,” Kelly says. “But what I told Terrance years ago, I’ve told Hasan now. It’s easy to be angry, but there’s a question to ponder: ‘God, why did you save my life?’ There’s something bigger that Hasan could be being set up for.” Despite his work with Jones, Kelly says he understands why Roberts “had to obtain protection” and then used it. “On the streets, it’s about self-preservation,” he says. “There’s an old saying: ‘I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six.’ Because of what he did, Terrance at least gets to have that trial.”
During one of our last meetings this past November, Roberts said he’d gotten part-time work on a crew doing small home-construction jobs. He told me he’d eventually like to manage a construction business, if he were acquitted on the first-degree attempted-murder and assault charges, and perhaps even if he somehow got the weapons charges dismissed or significantly reduced. “I’m trying to get some things in order,” he told me.
He admitted he’d returned to Park Hill a couple of times recently, but no one saw him. As he drove down the streets, he imagined himself making a few more turns, perhaps driving up 33rd, passing his old office, and heading straight for the old Holly. He’d like to see his basketball courts again.
But he knows that’s impossible, that everything he built on that block is no longer his claim. The courts, the playground—they’re no longer his legacy.
There’s a new story about Terrance Roberts in his old neighborhood, and it’s one he doesn’t really want to hear. He will forever be judged, but it won’t be by 12 people in a jury box. To those who live in northeast Park Hill, and to all of the people in elected office and in the nonprofit sector, Roberts will forever be the man who tried to change himself and his community but ultimately could not. That is, if he’s remembered at all. “I’d always believed he was my Joshua,” says Kelly of the Old Testament leader who led the Israelites after Moses’ death. “I’d look at Terrance and see he had a lot of hope and promise. But now?”