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When Justin Nielsen saw the semi-automatic, he struggled to keep his voice under control.
"Uh-oh, they got a gun," he told the 911 dispatcher. Nielsen had dialed the emergency number moments before, after seeing a silver BMW pull into a parking lot across the 16th Street Mall. As four men in gang attire got out, several similarly dressed men emerged from a nearby minivan.
It was just before 5 p.m. on Labor Day '94, and close to a hundred people were milling about 16th and Champa streets. Many had strayed from the Taste of Colorado festivities a few blocks away.
Nielsen had a good view of the action from his second-floor office. Although his business associate told him not to overreact to the sight of four young Hispanics jumping out of a car, Nielsen was already on the phone with the police dispatcher when the group jumped a man on the corner.
"There are some gang members at 910 16th Street beating the crap out of someone," Nielsen told the dispatcher.
As the scene unfolded on the street below, Nielsen gave a harrowing play-by-play of what police would later characterize as a gang/drug turf war.
The man singled out by the gang members tried to fend them off, picking up a garbage can and throwing it. The group retreated to the two vehicles. Then the BMW pulled up to the corner, and a man sitting in the front passenger seat got out with a gun in his hands.
As he watched, Nielsen's voice rose to a scream. He warned the five people in his office to stay away from the open windows. "Get down, get down!" he yelled.
On the 911 tape the gunshots sound more like firecrackers than the explosion of a deadly weapon. But there's no mistaking the witness's excitement.
"They shot someone," Nielsen shouted into the phone. "They're firing the gun."
"I heard it," the dispatcher replied.
The shooter missed his apparent target, the man who'd been beaten. But one bullet bounced off a metal pole and sank into Juan Chavez-Holguin's chest. The 41-year-old father of five children, Chavez-Holguin had just stepped off a bus to do some window-shopping.
The gang members fled. So did the man they'd beaten.
"We have to get the paramedics there," the dispatcher told Nielsen, then switched him to a woman who asked his address and the direction in which the suspects had fled. After that, Nielsen was switched back to the man who had answered his call.
The dispatcher let out a heavy, nervous breath. "That was intense, wasn't it?" he said.
Nielsen gave a strained laugh. Had he known what would follow, he might not have managed even that.
Though dozens of people were in a position to witness the shooting, Justin Nielsen was one of the few to step forward as a witness.
Sergeant Michael Quinones of the Denver Police Department gang unit took control of the investigation as soon as he arrived. "There was a crowd of about fifty people," Quinones recalls. "There's always a crowd. We started securing the crime scene right away and asking people if they saw anything. One young man came forward with some information. I didn't know about the guy in the window until later.
"We didn't find anyone who was very helpful," Quinones adds. "It was just a real typical case. There's a certain amount of fear and paranoia that comes with a gang shooting."
And much of it is legitimate, law enforcement officials say: Gang members have been known to intimidate potential witnesses out of testifying.
While Quinones quizzed people on the street, Nielsen remained in his office, typing a statement that he faxed to the gang unit the next day. "That statement was a dream," says Detective Rufino Trujillo, who investigated the case and later interviewed Nielsen.
Nielsen's statement described the car and the people involved in the incident, including the shooter. "He stood with his legs apart and just started firing," Nielsen recalls. "You could see the barrel smoking. The guy they were firing at didn't seem to care. He just stood there yelling and waving his hands. It was unbelievable."
But Nielsen also noted that someone else seemed to be calling the shots: the driver of the BMW. "He was directing the rest around," he says. "He was yelling at them to get back into the car and stuff. It was almost like a conductor conducting an orchestra."
The car had dealer plates from Shortline Imports on Colfax Avenue, another witness told police. "I really didn't see much more than the plates, because we were a couple blocks down," he says. "But when they drove away they had to turn around, and they drove right past us.
"I mean, they were doing forty miles per hour through the parking lot. It was pretty suspicious."
That information led to the arrest of 22-year-old Jack Bishop, whose girlfriend had recently purchased the car.
Bishop was charged with first-degree assault and conspiracy. He remains jailed in lieu of $100,000 to make bond; his trial is set for March 6.
According to the bond investigation, Bishop moved to Denver about two years ago. When he was arrested in September, he had been working for about six months at American Alarm on Colorado Boulevard. The investigation showed no felony convictions, although it noted that Bishop had a juvenile record and had missed a court date in California back in 1991. The National Crime Information Center computer also listed active warrants for Bishop and linked him to gang activity.