By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
We can sit out here," Becky Estrada says from her front porch. She shrugs and shakes a cigarette out of its pack, pausing a moment to stare down the street as though looking for someone. Then she lights up. "The house is a mess."
Small wonder. An endless parade of nieces, nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, in-laws and other family members bang in and out of the screen door. Inside the house, where Becky raised her own children, the curtains are drawn as if to protect the inhabitants from the bright summer sun and the world outside.
A small boy with enormous brown eyes emerges from the dark cocoon and crawls up on Becky's lap. He wants an ice cream from the two teenage boys in baggy shorts and oversized shirts who are pushing a cart up the street. He pleads. "Please, Mom, can I have a dollar?"
"No, son," she replies. Both she and her husband work, but there is never enough--not with so many mouths to feed. A dollar is a lot of money for an ice-cream bar.
Most of the modest homes in the neighborhood are well-kept, with green lawns and relatively fresh paint. Becky's place looks like something has sucked the life out of it--out of the yard, the house, the people who live there. Everyone except the children...nothing seems to knock them down for long.
The boy continues to beg until he gets his dollar. Then he bounds down the cement steps in pursuit of the vendors.
"That's Angel," Becky says, using the Anglo pronunciation of the name. "He was four when they killed his mother."
Becky draws sharply on her cigarette, as though inhaling smoke could smother the sadness waiting inside. But her eyes gleam with tears as they track Angel's return, the already melting ice-cream bar clutched triumphantly in his small brown hand.
Becky is a small, round woman with blue-green homemade tattoos fading on her arms. She looks like a person who once laughed a lot--the tell-tale lines are there around her eyes--but now does not find much reason for laughter. The years have been hard on her; there's been so much death and pain.
When she talks, her eyes mirror the emotions of the moment. Her anger at gangs and guns and the senseless, never-ending violence. Her fear that Angel and the other children face a future in which they will likely be victims of or participants in that violence. But mostly Becky's eyes reflect her apprehension, her anticipation that any news will certainly be bad.
A year ago this week, Becky learned that her nineteen-year-old granddaughter Venus Montoya, Angel's mother, had been murdered--by cowards who attacked in the dark and killed an innocent girl.
But there has been some good news of late. In June the Lakewood police arrested several members of the Westside CMG Bloods, and charged them with Venus's murder. It didn't surprise Becky that the same gang members were also accused of killing another young girl, whose body had been dumped like trash in the mountains back in May.
Becky had known in her heart that Venus's killers murdered that girl, too, even before the police figured it out. And now Denver and Jefferson county prosecutors and police officials were talking about having broken the backbone of the CMG Bloods, both Eastside and Westside, through a series of arrests for drug dealing, robbery, racketeering...and murder.
Including the murder of Venus, who wasn't even the gangsters' target that night last July.
In late spring 1996, word was out among the CMG Bloods that Salvino "Sal" Martinez was a snitch. That he was talking to the "po po's": the Denver Metro Gang Task Force and the Denver Police Gang Bureau. Giving up some of his homies to save his ass...or maybe to further his own business interests by eliminating the competition.
Martinez was asking for trouble. The Crenshaw Mafia Gangster Bloods, who'd started out as a black gang near 104th and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, had shown up in Denver over a decade ago--and their power had been growing ever since. Although at first their numbers and influence had been negligible compared with some of the homegrown gangs, by last summer they covered much of the metro area.
The CMG Bloods split Denver by race and territory. Eastside CMG was predominantly black and claimed the Park Hill area down to Aurora and into Montbello.
Westside CMG came along a little later, when more Latinos joined up. Most of that branch remained Latino, although there were also white, Asian and black Westside CMGs. Generally, the Westside CMG claimed anything west of downtown Denver, into the east side of Lakewood and south into Bear Valley. But not north of Colfax--that was Northside CMG.
What made Eastside and Westside CMG unusual was that the gangs cooperated in their various criminal activities, as well as for mutual protection. (By comparison, black and Latino Crips gangs in Denver rarely had anything in common other than a name and, in fact, were often violent rivals.)
Some Westside CMG members even claimed to be Eastside as well, especially if that was their original affiliation. Like reputed Westside CMG leader Daniel "Bango" Martinez, a 24-year-old with a seven-year history of arrests for drugs, assaults and acting as a general menace to society.
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.
Venus was a friendly girl. The boys, of course, would flock around at the local park whenever she, Vanessa and Gina, their sister-in-law, held court. Venus loved children and was the first to lead the youngest members of the family--many of whom were also living with Becky--to the park for a picnic or out into the street during a rain shower until they were all soaked to the bone. But she seemed happiest sitting with her female relatives on the front porch of her grandmother's house, whistling at the boys who walked by, talking and laughing late into the night.
And like her mother, Becky noted, Venus loved to sit quietly looking up at the stars.
Only at school did Venus's slow start seem to affect her. She tried, but she never quite caught up to others her age. Becky figured that was why her granddaughter dropped out of school, pregnant, at age fifteen. For all her looking at the stars, Venus had very down-to-earth dreams. She wanted only to be a good wife and a good mother.
Becky and her husband did not believe in abortion. But they also knew the odds were against a fifteen-year-old single mother with no high-school diploma. The young man who'd gotten Venus pregnant wasn't going to help--he was a "mistake," she said. The family was poor; still, Becky told Venus that they would find a way to pay for an abortion if she decided to go that route. But Venus wanted her baby: Half a dream was better than no dream.
Venus's labor was long and hard, a full 24 hours of agony before her son was born. Asked soon afterward by her family what she was going to name the child, she had laughed and replied, "Asshole," because of the pain he had caused her.
Fortunately for the boy, Venus had another name picked out: Angel, after the character she'd once seen in the old Jimmy Stewart movie It's a Wonderful Life.
It might not have been a wonderful life, but it was a good one. Venus rarely left Angel for more than a few minutes during his first two years. She didn't date and saw only those friends who dropped by. She was content to stay home and raise her baby.
Angel was as beautiful as his name, with his big brown eyes and long lashes. And he loved his mother. If someday, Venus told her grandmother, she could find a good man to love her and her child, then she would have everything she needed to be happy.
But Venus was young, and staying cooped up in her grandmother's house gradually wore thin. When she was seventeen, she began going out with friends and dating again. Still, she always came home to Angel.
Becky met most of the young men who courted Venus. They seemed all right. But she worried about gangs; there was so much pressure to join that even nice boys and girls sometimes fell in with the wrong crowd.
Sometimes, Becky thought, Venus was just too nice for her own good. She was always bringing stray girls home. "Mom," she would say, "this girl has no place to stay tonight. Can she stay here?"
Becky's house was nearly always full of people, mostly family members like Gina, whose husband--the twins' brother--was now in prison in Canon City. Privacy was nonexistent. So many children ran from room to room, it was difficult to keep track of who belonged to whom...except that in one way or another, they all belonged to Becky. There really was no more room, but Becky wouldn't turn Venus's friends away.
Venus seemed to have a heart with no boundaries. In the spring of 1996, when word arrived that her father was in the hospital dying, Venus went to see him. He had never been there when she could have used a father; perhaps if he had been, things would not have turned out as they did. But Venus forgave him and remained at his side until he was gone.
In June, a few months after her father died, Venus announced that she and Angel were moving into an apartment. One of her new friends had been kicked out of her parents' home and needed a roommate.
"I have to grow up," Venus told her worried grandmother. "I need a place of my own."
Becky's worries were magnified when she learned Venus intended to move into the apartment complex on Sheridan Boulevard. She feared for Venus's safety and begged her to look elsewhere. But Venus wouldn't listen.
Only two weeks after she moved into the apartment, though, Venus seemed to have changed her mind. She complained that she didn't know many people in the complex and that the few she did know only wanted to party all the time. Her family worried about these new friends; the boys who hung around the apartment were reputed to belong to gangs.
Then on Monday, July 15, Venus called Becky. She'd had a frightening dream about two devils who were trying to get at her and had woken up that morning unable to shake her fear. "I want you to come and pick up my son," Venus told her grandmother. "I don't want my baby to get hurt."
So Becky took Angel back home.
Venus stayed behind; she did not mention the dream again.
When Becky came home that Thursday, though, she was pleased to find Venus at the house. She was even more pleased to learn that the twins were going house-hunting so that Venus could move out of the Sheridan apartment.
As she got ready to leave, Venus held her arms open to her grandmother. "I want a hug," she said, pouting. "Don't you love me no more?"
Becky pulled the pretty girl to her and held her for a long moment. She felt a strange reluctance to let her go. "I will always love you," she said at last. Then Venus Montoya walked away from her for the last time.
About 4 a.m. the next morning, as Venus sat on the daybed of her apartment, two cowards in ski masks opened fire through the screen door.
The light was on: They had to have known that they were firing at a woman, not another gang member.
Venus was dead before the men in black could turn and run back into the night.
No one could say what woke them up just before dawn that morning. But suddenly everyone in the family was awake and wandering into Becky's living room.
Everyone was there but Venus and Gina's husband, who was still in prison. So they called Venus, but the line was busy.
Then came a knock at the door. A neighbor stood there, his face troubled. They hadn't been able to get through to Becky's house, he explained, so they'd called him with the bad news.
"Venus has been shot," he said.
The family piled into a car and sped to the apartment complex. They were not allowed to see Venus, though her body lay where she had fallen; there was no need to rush her to the hospital. The Jefferson County coroner would later describe the cause of death as "massive head injuries...from high energy bullets."
Lakewood homicide detective Scott Richardson had also been called to the scene. Nineteen shell casings from a 7.62-caliber rifle had been collected just outside the door, as had a clip for a 9mm, still loaded with bullets. Witnesses reported that they'd seen two Latino men in dark ski masks.
Someone mentioned that Sal Martinez and JC Love Biggs had left the apartment shortly before the murder. But the common belief was that Arthur Sanchez and Orlando Garcia had returned to exact revenge for a confrontation two nights before.
Sanchez and Garcia were soon picked up for questioning in connection with the murder of Venus Montoya, a fact noted by the daily newspapers the next day. But the two young men had alibis and were subsequently eliminated as suspects by the witnesses.
No one bothered to tell the newspapers, though. The police wanted the real killers to think they were off the hook.
Three days after Venus's murder, Detective Matt Murray of the Denver Police Gang Bureau told Richardson about a drive-by shooting he was working that might relate to the Montoya case. Shots had been fired from a gray four-door; in fact, nineteen rounds of 7.62-caliber were expended at the scene.
The gang unit had picked up "Jesse," a Westside CMG Blood who was known to associate with the Ornelas brothers, Alejandro and Gerard.
Jesse (not his real name) was talking to the Denver cops. He swore that he didn't have anything to do with the drive-by. But when Richardson interviewed him later, Jesse said he did know something about the Montoya killing. He identified the gray car as belonging to Samuel Merced Quintana Jr., a Westside CMG who was the son of a Denver County sheriff's deputy. Quintana was known to his compatriots as "Zig-Zag" and had a long criminal record that included numerous assaults, drug deals and weapons violations.
Alejandro "Speed" Ornelas, 21, and 22-year-old Zig-Zag Quintana had killed Venus, Jesse said; Gerard "G-Loc" Ornelas, 25, had helped them plan and carry out their mission. They'd been looking for Sal Martinez because they believed he was supplying the Denver police with information about drug dealing that implicated Bango Martinez and Alejandro Ornelas. And in their world, a snitch had to die.
Sal Martinez was marked for a hit, but he couldn't be found. Then that Thursday night, one of the Ornelases' uncles had seen him visiting the girls at the Sheridan apartment complex. According to Jesse, Alejandro Ornelas and Quintana had gone to check for themselves. When they spotted Sal Martinez and Biggs, they'd hurried home to get their weapons and change into black clothing.
When they returned to the apartment complex just before dawn, Jesse said, Alejandro Ornelas was carrying the assault rifle and Quintana the 9mm. When his partner started shooting, Quintana dropped the 9mm clip.
After the murder, the two young men hid their weapons in a field. Alejandro had been angry with Quintana for losing the clip--he feared that police would be able to find fingerprints on it. But the two gang members relaxed when they read that Sanchez and Garcia had been picked up by the cops. So sure were they that they were in the clear, they went to the field and retrieved their weapons.
Alejandro Ornelas had bragged to Jesse about the killing. "I smoked that bitch, and I'm gonna chill and hang out for a while," he'd said. Gerard Ornelas had confirmed that his brother "smoked that bitch."
None of them had known Venus Montoya. But Sal Martinez had been in her apartment at one time, and that was enough for them.
Quintana was upset that the Ornelas brothers had talked with Jesse about the shooting. And his concerns were justified when the police raided the brothers' apartment and found an assault rifle, black gloves and a black ski mask.
Quintana and Alejandro Ornelas got to work on their alibi. There had been a party, they decided, and some "Baby Gs"--young gangster wannabes--had taken their guns, returning them sometime later.
Word was out with the Westside CMG Bloods that Jesse was not to be trusted. Richard "Mickey" Avila called and told him not to talk to police. Quintana, Gerard Ornelas and Francisco "Bisco" Guzman were more direct: They told Jesse they thought he was a snitch and said he'd better go "take care of business" and try to explain himself. They warned him that whoever talked could count on being the next CMG target. It was the equivalent of a death sentence, Jesse told the cops.
Everyone came to Venus's funeral but the younger of her two brothers. He'd pleaded with the authorities to let him out of prison long enough to say goodbye, but his request was denied. Instead, he sat alone in his cell with dark thoughts of revenge.
Becky prayed that the police would catch Venus's killers, but she didn't cling to any false hopes. After all, everybody knew who had killed her son, but the police had said there wasn't enough evidence to arrest him. It galled her to see the man out walking the streets years after she'd buried her son.
As the weeks turned into months, Becky feared that Venus's murderers might never be punished, either.
Becky felt like someone had torn her heart out and left a gaping hole. Of all the children she had lost, Venus's death was the hardest. She had been so young, so full of life and love.
Perhaps it was fortunate that Becky was left with Angel, her great-grandson, to look after. The little boy wandered from room to room looking for his mother. When would she come to get him? Why wasn't she home?
Once again, Becky had custody of a child too young to understand the finality of death. Some day she would tell Angel the whole truth. But for now, she explained that bad men had hurt his mother and that God had taken her and made her a star in the night sky.
It seemed an appropriate story for the granddaughter who had spent so much time looking up. Becky chose the brightest, most beautiful star, and told Angel it was his mother watching over him.
However slowly the wheels of justice might be turning in the Montoya murder investigation, they were turning steadily. Detective Richardson explained to Becky that although he might know who Venus's killers were, he didn't have enough to arrest them: He wanted a conviction. And that would take time, because he needed to crack the gang code of silence.
In August the ballistics report came back from the crime lab. The gun seized at the Ornelases' apartment was a positive match for the gun that had killed Venus.
Sal Martinez and Biggs had admitted they were at the apartment that night, but their alibis were solid.
Besides, unknown to the gunmen, there had been witnesses. One witness had seen the killers run to their gray car with the Colorado license plates. As they approached the car, he saw them remove their ski masks. The witness noted that the pair kept on their black gloves.
"I'll drive," one yelled as his comrade headed for the passenger door.
The witness was frightened. Friends and family members had warned him not to get involved in a gang killing; he could end up catching a bullet himself.
Still, he'd talked with the cops. And he'd gone down to the Lakewood Police Department headquarters to view a lineup through a one-way mirror. Quintana, who'd shaved the mustache he'd worn several months before, was the first man in the lineup.
After looking over the lineup, the witness was asked if he wanted to see or hear more from any one of the men. The witness indicated Quintana, who had the same physical build, face, hair and complexion as one of the men he had seen that night, he said.
"But he has different eyes," the witness concluded after a moment.
Another witness, the one who saw two men crouching by a gray car just before the murder, was brought in. He claimed that he couldn't identify any of the men in the lineup. However, Richardson noted that when Quintana stepped forward, the witness began breathing heavily and stared at the gang member.
Alejandro Ornelas was part of a second lineup. The first witness thought he looked familiar, too, but again concluded that the man he had seen that night was not in the lineup. Still, while the witnesses hadn't made positive identifications, Quintana and Alejandro Ornelas were the only two singled out of the lineups for any reason.
After that, the cops questioned Alejandro Ornelas. He readily conceded belonging to the Westside CMG Bloods and even admitted to having participated in fifteen or so other shootings. But, he said, he had not killed Venus Montoya.
On October 8, Detective Richardson called Bango Martinez. In the background, he could hear the reputed gang leader telling his homies, "Lakewood po po's want to talk to me about Zag and Speed and that shit."
Bango Martinez then told the detective he didn't want to talk to him. He knew about the murder, he said, but would go to jail before he turned into a snitch.
More heat was about to come down on the CMG Bloods, but this time it was the Eastside gang that was in trouble. In early November, a Denver grand jury indicted ten members for running an "illicit enterprise" that included murder, drug trafficking and other violent acts. Five of the ten were also charged with the murder of Eric Thomas, a member of a rival Crips gang who was gunned down in a drive-by in October 1993.
The indictments marked the first time that the Denver District Attorney's office had used the state's racketeering law--known as the Colorado Organized Crime Act--to go after a street gang. Since the law allows a judge to enhance sentencing penalties, law enforcement officials view it as a way to get large numbers of gang members off the streets at once--and for a long time. Prosecutors in Jefferson and El Paso counties had already used the law to essentially disband some gangs.
The indictments were a major coup for the Denver gang unit and district attorney's office, which claimed the case would cripple the Eastside CMG.
Police informants within the gangs had played a major role in the successful investigation. Not surprisingly, they were now marked men.
In December, a defense attorney for one of the indicted gang members demanded the telephone numbers and addresses of prosecution witnesses. Two of the witnesses--former gang members--were in the district attorney's witness protection program. A third was serving a ten-year sentence in a drug case and had been placed in administrative segregation for his protection.
Prosecutors argued that witnesses and their family members were already getting death threats. But to their dismay, Denver District Judge Morris Ben Hoffman ruled that they had to reveal the information--although he also ordered the defense attorneys not to give the information to their clients.
The prosecutors appealed Hoffman's decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled in February that the safety of the witnesses outweighed the right of the defendants to confront their accusers.
At about the same time, the Lakewood police were finally getting a break of their own. An informant told an officer with the Denver gang unit that in January he'd been with some Bloods who were discussing their recent problems. The conversation had turned to the Montoya murder.
Alejandro Ornelas had been the shooter with the rifle, the informant said, but Bango Martinez was the man who made all the final decisions for the Westside CMG.
In May, seven members of the Eastside CMG Bloods accepted plea bargains that included dropping the murder charge in connection with the killing of Eric Thomas. Deputy District Attorney Tim Twining said he was pleased with the deal.
"The racketeering charges are all-encompassing," he said. "An important part of this prosecution was to send a message to gangsters that we're coming after you, and we're coming after you hard."
In early June, however, Judge Hoffman handed down lighter sentences than Twining had urged. And two leaders of the Eastside CMG gang--Michael "Mafia Mike" Robinson and Pernell "P-Loc" Hines--remained at large with the murder indictments still hanging over their heads.
Still, Twining hailed the effort. "It's not the sentences we had hoped for, to be sure, but breaking up the gang has been achieved," he said. "We took the assurance of prison. When they're in prison, they ain't gang-banging and wreaking havoc in the community."
Becky Estrada read the headlines about the Eastside CMG Bloods and wondered when Venus's killers would be brought to justice. These boys were stone-cold killers; Venus was not their first--or their last--victim.
Still, there was no reason for Becky to link Venus's killers to another newspaper headline, this one about the murder of Brandaline "Brandy" Duvall.
Brandy had last been seen on the night of May 30, when she left the home of a friend. An honor student in middle school, she would have been fifteen in another month; because of her diminutive stature--she was only 4'5"--she appeared even younger.
Brandy's body was discovered May 31 on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 6 next to Clear Creek a few miles west of Golden. She'd apparently been dumped from a car and was left half nude and covered with cuts.
It had taken several days to identify the body, and even then, police had few leads. Brandy had been raped and stabbed, but there was nothing to indicate that she'd been murdered by a gang.
Somehow, though, Becky knew that Brandy's killers were connected to the men who'd shot Venus. "It's the same guys," she told her family.
Police made the same connection nearly two weeks later. Detective Richardson had been making steady progress on the Montoya case and was about to wrap it up when the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department got a call from an informant on June 15. The informant said he'd been present when several members of the Westside CMG had sexually assaulted Brandy Duvall; although he hadn't stuck around, he presumed the same group had killed her. And he named Zig-Zag Quintana, Bango Martinez, 23-year-old Francisco Martinez, 16-year-old Frank Vigil and 22-year-old David Warren.
When discussing what to do with the girl, the informant said, Bango Martinez had let the others know that "he was the boss."
A couple of days later, police raided a home in Adams County where they believed Brandy Duvall had been held early on the morning of May 31. Quintana and Vigil were arrested. Francisco Martinez was already in a Denver jail on an unrelated drug charge.
All three were charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. Eighteen-year-old Maurice Warren and nineteen-year-old Jacob Casados were later charged with Brandy Duvall's murder as well.
David Warren and Bango Martinez couldn't be found.
Becky Estrada would not have to wait much longer. Soon after the arrests were made in the Duvall case, Detective Richardson arrested Alejandro and Gerard Ornelas for the first-degree murder of Venus Montoya. Quintana, who was already in jail in Jefferson County, was also charged.
The complaint against the three noted that Montoya's murder had been committed with "universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally." It had been committed in a conspiracy with Daniel "Bango" Martinez, according to the complaint, because the gang members wanted to kill Sal Martinez...for talking to the police.
At Lakewood police headquarters, Detective Scott Richardson signs off on returning property seized from a young man he'd arrested for accessory to murder. The young Latino is dressed in bright red from the top of his Chicago Bulls jersey to his high-top tennis shoes. He is Westside CMG.
"How about my gun?" he asks.
"No," Richardson responds sarcastially. "That stays here."
Turning away from the gangster, Richardson mutters: "Bet I arrest him again within a year."
The detective is growing tired of the gang shootings. Over the past weekend three more young people had been shot, and once again, it was Westside CMG doing the shooting. The leaders of the gang may have been taken down by the events of the past year, but there are always others ready to step into their bloody footprints.
Richardson won't say much about the Montoya killing. He repeats the same general statements he's been giving for the past year. Police believe that the gunmen were after a rival gangmember. "They didn't know he left. They sneaked up to the door and opened fire. They got the wrong person.
"There's no argument. There's no fight. It was just a cold-blooded assassination. They didn't know her."
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, which is responsible for the Duvall murder investigation, is even more silent about what happened to Brandy. They aren't releasing a cause of death and won't comment on whether the girl knew the gangsters accused of killing her.
Other law enforcement sources, however, indicate that Brandy may have known her murderers. "But she was too young to know what she was getting into," says one.
Even though the same gangsters committed both murders, there was a crucial difference between the Montoya and Duvall killings, police sources point out. However twisted, the Montoya murder was "gang business," because it began as a hit on Sal Martinez. Montoya was just "in the wrong place at the wrong time and hanging out with the wrong people," says one officer.
Duvall's murder, on the other hand, has no explanation other than pure viciousness. "For one reason or another, sometimes these gangs just spin out of control," says the officer.
So far, law enforcement officials have been reluctant to officially tie the two murders together--or to tie either of them to organized gang activity. "At this time, it would not be appropriate for us to comment on any particular gang's activities," says Pam Russell, spokeswoman for the Jeffco DA.
After the arrests for the Montoya murder, a press release from Lakewood police spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough noted that the only connection between the killings was that Zig-Zag Quintana was a suspect in both.
Those who know better can connect the dots from Eastside to Westside--with at least three murders in between.
Officially, the CMG Bloods are in a state of disarray. "As of 10 a.m. July 10, there's no one on Park Hill looking to take over," says Deputy District Attorney Twining. "Now that may change by 11 or noon, but our game plan is to keep the pressure on and put them all out of business."
There are still CMGs running around out there, Twining says. But money, not numbers, is the real source of a gang's power. Westside CMG supplied drugs to Eastside CMG to sell; now that pipeline has been destroyed. "They're disorganized, and they've lost their juice," he adds.
The top CMG Bloods have yet to be arrested. Eastside's Hines and Robinson are still on the run; Twining says they've been spotted with Westside CMG.
Daniel "Bango" Martinez and David Warren are also on the loose. "We believe they're around," says one gang task-force member. "We really want to get Danny off the street before he hurts someone else."
Even without those arrests, the Jefferson County District Attorney's office is now looking at trying nearly a dozen gangsters for first-degree murder, which carries the possibility of a death sentence. Defense lawyers likely will insist that their clients be tried separately. Such trials can run a million dollars or more.
Vanessa Montoya pops out of Becky's house. She smiles, but her eyes are hard. Her grandmother sighs as she leaves. "She's angry all the time," Becky says of Venus's twin, "and she sometimes takes it out on Angel.
"She told me she's sorry but 'every time I see him, I'm reminded of what happened to my sister.'"
It's as if Venus's death killed something in the family.
Gina and her mother, Juanita, find it hard to sit on the porch at night. "I miss her walk and the way she used to swing her hair from side to side," says Juanita. "I keep asking myself, 'Why, why did they have to take such a wonderful person?'"
Becky hopes a trial will help heal some of her family's wounds. But she knows the hurt will never go away entirely. "I still keep looking down the street," she says, doing just that, "hoping to see her come up the sidewalk. Laughing and smiling like she always did."
Becky wonders how the Duvall girl's family is doing. Although she feels they could support each other in the days ahead, she's been told not to contact them. "I heard that the prosecution wants to keep her mother out of the courtroom so that she doesn't hear what they did to her daughter," Becky says.
Down the block, firecrackers explode. Becky doesn't flinch. "I know the difference between that and guns," she says. "I hate guns.
"Just last night, Venus's older brother shot out the windows of that car," she says, pointing to it. "He said, 'Nobody wants me. Nobody loves me.'...I love him, but that can't protect him. They say I'm mean when I call the police on him, but I do it because I love him."
News of the arrests of Venus's killers traveled fast. Her brother in prison heard about it and called Becky, demanding to know the names. She wouldn't tell him--he will find out soon enough, she says, and in the meantime, she didn't want to accelerate the cycle of violence that has taken too many already.
No one is immune, Becky says; one of the accused killers was a deputy's son. "I know I have to forgive them, but that's going to be hard."
"I take him to church," she says, pointing to Angel. "I hope some of the good stays with him. But I don't know...there's not enough for them to do. No hope, and so they get in the gangs."
Becky drags hard on her cigarette and caresses Angel's head. "Hey, Angel," she says softly, "where's your mother?"
Angel stops eating his ice-cream bar long enough to point to the sky above. Somewhere up there, where the blue turns to eternal black, a star watches over him.
Becky smiles. "That's right," she says, and looks back down the street.