The Gang's All Here

Her grandmother will never forget the day Venus Montoya died. And she will never forgive her killers.

Being CMG Bloods, however, did not mean that all of the gangsters got along with each other all of the time. Even within the Westside CMG, there were a number of cliques that might fight over business or territory. But nothing was as certain to invite a bullet as talking to the police.

And now word was that Sal Martinez, a Westside CMG whose own rap sheet was comparatively light, with drug-dealing and vandalism charges only, was talking with the cops--not just about Eastside CMG, but also about Alejandro "Speed" Ornelas, a reputed "shooter" for Westside CMG, and Bango Martinez, who is no relation to Sal. But then, the bond within a gang was supposed to be thicker than blood.

Or paid for in kind.

On July 19, 1996, the sky to the east was just beginning to turn a shade lighter than black when Sal Martinez and Richard "JC Love" Biggs left apartment number 52 at the apartment complex in the 900 block of Sheridan Boulevard. They had been hanging out with the girls who rented the apartment. But Sal was aware that a hit had been ordered on him by Bango Martinez, and he had to be careful not to stay any one place too long.

Among Lakewood police, the low-rent apartment complex had a reputation as a gang hangout. The night before, there had been a confrontation at Apartment 52 when Arthur Sanchez and Orlando Garcia, a couple of gang wannabes, were told to leave. A shot reportedly had been fired, but no one was hit.

Sal Martinez and Richard Biggs drove off on Sheridan shortly before 4 a.m., missing by only a matter of a few minutes the arrival of a gray, four-door vehicle. A man driving down the same road a bit later saw two men in dark clothing crouching by the gray car.

The man kept driving; sometimes it was safer not to see too much. And after his car passed, the two dark figures crept toward the building. One man carried an assault rifle, the other a 9mm semi-automatic handgun.

Venus Montoya sat on a daybed just inside the entrance to apartment 52, talking to three friends in the living room. Only a screen door separated her from the darkness outside and the two approaching men. They pulled ski masks over their faces.

Then they began to shoot.

Becky Estrada had already seen more death than any mother should have to endure. Of the seven children she bore, just three were still living in the summer of 1996. One infant had died at birth--the only child lost to natural causes. One son had died from an overdose of cocaine. Another son had been gunned down by a killer who still walked the streets of Denver.

Then her 21-year-old daughter died of an overdose, leaving behind four children: two boys and eight-month-old twin girls, Vanessa and Venus.

Becky had taken the three youngest grandchildren into her home. She would have taken them all, but their father--a drunk who'd had little enough to do with his children when their mother was still alive--had insisted on keeping the oldest boy.

Together, Becky and her second husband raised the younger boy and the twins as their own. Vanessa had taken a shine to her husband, but Venus was Becky's.

Her daughter had never explained why she had chosen the name Venus. Becky assumed it had something to do with her daughter's fascination with the night sky--so beautiful and so far from the streets that had claimed her brothers and would soon take her, too. The planet Venus was the brightest and most beautiful of all those points of light.

Vanessa grew to be a normal little girl, but Venus seemed more affected by the loss of her mother. While her twin learned to walk and talk, Venus would do neither. The doctors explained to Becky that some children were simply more sensitive to trauma, even if they were too young to understand what had happened. Venus, they said, had retreated into a shell as fragile as that of an egg.

Still, in some ways Venus was more fortunate than her oldest brother. Their alcoholic father dragged him from home to home--when there was a home, that is, and they weren't just living on the streets or in a car. The boy was doomed to a life of trouble before he was old enough to drive.

Becky was always honest with the kids. She told them about their mother...and their father. Sometimes he would stagger down the sidewalk on the other side of the street, but he wouldn't acknowledge his children playing in the front yard. It would break Becky's heart when the little girls stopped and watched their father walk by without giving them so much as a hello.

With help and a lot of love, Venus eventually came out of her shell. She and Vanessa grew into beautiful young women. Venus in particular was vain about her looks and spent hours in front of a mirror primping and fixing her long wavy hair just right before she would venture out, exasperating those who waited for her. But they quickly forgave Venus her vanity because it was equally matched by the love she showered on her family.

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