By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
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.
Bishop's Denver record begins in 1993; it's dotted with various nonviolent criminal arrests, including trespassing, theft and possession of burglary tools.
At the time of the shooting, Bishop was on intensive probation out of Arapahoe County for burglary, says chief probation officer Frank Minkner. Bishop was wearing a monitor; according to court records, he'd called his probation officer and told her he was going to the Taste of Colorado that evening.
"Obviously, we've filed a complaint in this case," Minkner says. "If he makes bond, he'll be immediately turned over to the Arapahoe County sheriff."
Bishop's court-appointed attorney, public defender Mike Linge, declines to discuss his client's case.
To date, Nielsen is the only witness to identify Bishop as both the BMW's driver and the man directing the shooting. And if police locate the suspected shooter, Nielsen says he may be able to recognize him, too.
Juan Chavez-Holguin felt something hot hit his right side, and then he started slowly sliding to the ground. "As I was falling, I realized I had been shot," Chavez-Holguin says through an interpreter. "There was a large amount of blood. A woman went into McDonald's and got some napkins and put them on the wound."
Chavez-Holguin is a quiet man who doesn't like to attract undue attention to himself. So when he saw the men fighting near the mall bus stop, he averted his eyes and moved faster. "I walked on," he says. "I wasn't even looking."
After he was shot, some people pulled him into the entryway of the bank building on the corner. As the crowd around him got larger, Chavez-Holguin became more and more confused. A Mexican national, he understands very little English. "I thought I was going to die," he says. "I was thinking about my wife and children. It was all I could think about."
He has worked in the United States for eight years; each week he sends money back to his wife and five children, ages four to fifteen. Fifty minutes before being shot, he had gotten off his job as a busboy at a Cherry Creek restaurant.
It wasn't until he'd been at the hospital for about an hour that he realized he was not going to die. Chavez-Holguin was patched up and released the next day. The bullet remains in his side.
"They didn't take it out," he says. "It doesn't hurt."
He missed two weeks of work while recovering, and his family was forced to scrimp during that time. "It was very hard on us," he says. "We don't have much."
He never saw the man who shot him.
Chavez-Holguin's shooting rated barely a mention in just one of the next day's papers, even though it had occurred on downtown's busiest weekend of the year.
Justin Nielsen, wearing his usual leather jacket and ponytail, is walking along the mall, his head turning constantly from one side to the other. "I glance at the bus stops, I look around corners," he says. "It's automatic for me. I wonder if that guy across the street knows who I am. You look behind your back when you're walking. When I have that anxiety, it makes me mad that some outside agency--these gang members--can make me feel that way."
As the owner of a company that serves court subpoenas, thirty-year-old Nielsen says he's used to some danger in his life. But he readily admits that the Bishop case has him worried. "It's amazing what happens when you stand up to people," he says.
Twice, Nielsen says, he has found himself face-to-face with a threatening gang member because of his involvement in the Bishop case. In response, he has changed his name, moved his office and stopped going to his regular hangouts. "I'm not going to be afraid, but I'm not going to be stupid, either," he says.
A week after the shooting, Nielsen says, he was standing at the bus stop in front of his office building when a man in gang colors confronted him. "Hey, are you Nielsen?" the man asked him. "You marked, you marked."
Nielsen quickly boarded his bus. When he later told police of the incident, they said there wasn't much they could do. "You marked" wasn't a clear threat, they told him.
"I thought, come on--what do you think they meant?" Nielsen says.
Threats are often difficult to prove, according to Henry Cooper, the assistant district attorney assigned to this case. "While the victim feels intimidated--and probably should--it's too vague to take to a jury," he says. "It's frustrating."
Then, three weeks ago, Nielsen says, another man wearing sagging pants and a baseball cap walked into a gay club that he frequents.
"It was obvious that the guy didn't belong there," says Ralph Scottie, Nielsen's business associate for the past two years.
"He walked past me several different times while we were playing pool," Nielsen recalls. "I just thought he was some asshole at that time. Five or ten minutes later, I was sitting at a table and he came over and sat down. He called me `Nielsen' and said I better live it up while I still can--because I don't have long to live."
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."
Tim Twining, one of the four assistant district attorneys assigned to the unit, says he makes a point of prosecuting retaliation cases. "I take them very seriously," he says. "You have to."
Witness intimidation is so prolific in gang cases that Denver judges say they see it right in the courtroom. "During one trial, I had to expel a couple of observers who were flashing gang signs at a witness while the witness was on the stand testifying," says Denver District Court Judge Paul A. Markson Jr.
During another hearing, a female witness went into the bathroom and found gang graffiti written on the mirror. "I had to send the bailiff in there to wipe the graffiti off," Markson notes. "The bailiff went in before every recess to check after that."
Markson also has found graffiti carved into the wooden benches where witnesses wait before they testify in court.
Curtis played dead after being shot twice in the head and listened as his friends were murdered.
"I think that chilled all the witnesses in Denver when that happened," Cooper says. "You want to tell yourself that's an isolated case. You want to tell yourself it couldn't happen to you."
What Cooper does tell witnesses is that the Curtis case is not common. "I've been doing this for eight years and, while there have been threats, I've never had a witness harmed," he says. "And I work in the gang unit, where witness intimidation happens all the time."
Curtis was the star witness at a recent hearing for a new bill sponsored by state senator Ed Perlmutter, which proposes that the state set up a $1 million witness-protection program.
The measure is designed to help any witness experiencing threats, but it's in direct response to gang crimes, Perlmutter says. "While intimidation of witnesses has always been around, it's become more and more prevalent with the upsurge of gangs," he explains. "Gangs have a major role in the need for this bill."
The money would be used to help fund witness relocations or hire extra security for trials, says Representative Jeanne Adkins, the bill's co-sponsor. The attorney general, the head of the state's public safety department and the director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council would determine who would be eligible to receive the funds.
"I think if the justice system is to provide justice, then it needs the people who make it work," she adds. "The prosecution is not going to be able to make a case without witnesses. If they don't come forward because they feel they're in danger, then the system doesn't work."
Perlmutter, a Democrat who says he got the idea from Governor Roy Romer's crime agenda, found that only about a dozen states have statutes dealing with witness protection. "There's not a lot out there," he notes.
Both lawmakers warn that this proposed program is much more limited than the federal witness-protection program. "It's not establishing new identities and the things you see in television scripts," Adkins says.
She's also sponsoring a bill that addresses the issue of witness privacy, which Ritter helped draft. It would give prosecutors twenty days after filing a case to submit witnesses' names. "This gives them time to go into court and make a case that a witness is or has the potential to be in danger," Adkins says.
Currently, prosecutors must file a case, including the presentation of witness information, within 72 hours of an arrest. "We're really on a timeline," Ritter says. "That doesn't give us the ability to give consideration to witness-privacy issues."
As things now stand, anyone who wants to know who's slated to testify in an upcoming case can simply make a trip to the courthouse and look at the file. And although Nielsen says he doesn't know how the men who threatened him learned his name, it appears in the court record, along with his phone number and former business address.
Bishop's trial is just a month away.
The man who spotted the BMW's license plate doesn't expect that he'll be called to the stand. He says he hasn't been threatened in connection with the case--but he also asks that his name not appear in print.
Chavez-Holguin may be called, but he's told police that he didn't really see anything.
Bishop has not given a statement, according to Trujillo, much less named names. It bothers Nielsen that the shooter has never been identified. "Someone out there has a lot to lose if this guy starts talking," he says of Bishop.
But for now, Nielsen remains the star witness--and the only one mentioned in the court files.
His current state of mind has everything to do with his experience as a crime victim, he explains. "It gave me an inner strength," he says of the assault five years ago. "Quite frankly, after something like that happens to you, there's not much else they can do to you. I think people can react to being a victim one of two ways: always be a victim, or never be a victim again."
Still, his family and friends are worried about him. Scottie says he sometimes is concerned for his own safety just because he hangs around with Nielsen. "I try not to think about it," he adds. "He's handling this better than I could."
But Nielsen's not looking for trouble, either. "I'm not going to make it easy for the other side--and the gang members are the other side--to find out where I live and where I sleep at night," he says. "I'm not much of a fighter. But when you're confronted by it, you have to stand up to it.