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The man also told Nielsen that he and Bishop went "way back" to their days in Long Beach, California. He asked Nielsen to go outside with him. "Basically, he was trying to egg me into a fight," Nielsen says.
The bouncer on duty that night remembers breaking up the pair before their discussion could get too heated and telling them both to leave the bar.
"What irked me was, he walked into my space," Nielsen now says. "You used to be able to set your watch by the time I was in there."
He'd already changed his name after the first confrontation. "It wasn't easy," Nielsen says. "I had to notify all my clients, change my business forms and everything. But I didn't want to be known on the street as `Nielsen' anymore after that incident. I want to keep that element away from my personal life."
Nielsen's faced adversity before. Five years ago, he says, he was attacked by several youths who hit him in the leg with a hatchet and stole his car. "If there hadn't been twenty inches of snow on the ground, I probably would have died," he says.
As it was, Nielsen had to end his eight-year career as a chef: "With the leg problems, I couldn't be standing for fourteen hours a day in a kitchen."
Instead, he went into subpoena-serving full-time. He'd done the job before; his grandfather had operated a Denver repossession business for years, and Nielsen had worked for him. "I can remember going out on Sunday mornings with my grandfather to repossess cars," he says. "I guess you could say it's a family business."
It's also one that teaches you to watch out for suspicious situations--such as the setup on the mall that late summer afternoon.
Kevin Ellis, a Denver attorney who's worked with Nielsen, says he's not surprised that Nielsen has decided to testify. "I would say that Justin's personality is that he stands up very strongly for his convictions," Ellis says. "I think that the serving process in general leads the servers into at least the possibility of being attacked very frequently. I know Justin has told me he's had a gun held at him on several occasions. I think someone would be hard-pressed to get him not to do something he thought he should."
Nielsen describes it as a matter of principle. "I think we have to stand up to these people," he says. "Fear is so much of their power. Running is inviting trouble, while stepping out into the light makes them run."
Witness intimidation is nothing new to Tom Clinton, who heads the Denver district attorney's gang unit. "Those problems can begin from the time a cop picks up a case," he says. "Often incidents aren't even reported to police."
Three years ago the DPD started videotaping the statements of witnesses who might be reluctant to testify later. "Usually it's on the more high-profile cases," Detective Trujillo says. "We were finding that while people were willing to give us some information, by the time it came to court, they wouldn't show up."
Clinton says his department does everything within its power to get a witness to testify. "We expend any effort we have," he says. "Sometimes it takes cajoling, sometimes it takes a lot of persuasion. Often it might require the power of the court to compel witnesses."
Even then, a witness's fear might be justified. "I can't promise any witness they're going to be safe," Trujillo says. "Especially if it involves gangs--it's a real volatile situation. They have an army out there they can utilize. Any officer who says you're going to be perfectly safe doing this is lying. All I can say is: As a citizen, do you want this violence to continue?"
Cooper, the DA handling Bishop's case, says he's often had to resort to a plea bargain because of an uncooperative witness. "Sometimes the witness will ask us, `Can't you do anything like put me in a program?'" he notes. "I have to tell him, `We don't really have one.'"
Clinton says the DA's office has only limited ways to help witnesses who face intimidation. "We have some resources, but nothing like the federal witness-protection program," he explains. "What we do is, we have some internally budgeted funds. We can help with some kind of housing."
But as gang-related crimes increase, so does witness intimidation, according to Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter. "We're doing some things to help, but we rob Peter to pay Paul to do it," he says. "We don't have a category actually budgeted for this. We may have to go to the city and ask for help."
When Nielsen told authorities about his most recent confrontation, he was contacted by the DA's victims-services center. "He gave me his beeper number and a code and said if I had any more problems I could call, and day or night, he'll be by my side," Nielsen recalls. "He said they would do everything possible to find the people harassing me. I thought they were very professional about it."