By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Everyone heard the explosion. It sounded like someone had detonated a cherry bomb behind the apartment. A man named Bud opened the back door to see what the hell was going on.
There were three of them in the parking lot, three wild men lit by the midnight moon. The tall one with the Army jacket and the crazy eyes had a twelve-gauge shotgun aimed at Bud. The other two were bleeding--one from his left arm, the other from a small wound in his left cheek, just below his eye.
They walked right into the kitchen.
One of the men flashed a badge. "DEA!" he barked. "Everybody on the floor!"
Crazy Eyes, who was calling himself David Hoffman that night, shoved his shotgun in the face of a 74-year-old woman sitting at the kitchen table. "Where's the money?" he demanded. "Where's the dope?"
The old woman, who lived in the apartment with her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, said she didn't know anything about any money or drugs. Hoffman rounded up Bud and two other guys who were visiting the women and made them lie down on the floor of the bathroom.
The man with the bloody arm, Scott Baxendale, started searching the other rooms. His good hand clutched a .357 automatic.
The third intruder, Kevin Rutherford, carried no weapon at all. He had been in the apartment before--he'd visited twice earlier that night, in fact, although this would later be disputed--and knew the floor plan well. He led the old woman's granddaughter, Mary, into a back bedroom occupied by Mary's twelve-year-old daughter. He kept them both there, out of the line of fire. When Hoffman wandered into the room, waving his shotgun around, Rutherford told him to leave Mary and her daughter alone.
Mary told him he was bleeding. Rutherford touched his cheek. That was how he found out he was wounded.
The night was not going well. Earlier that evening, Rutherford, Baxendale and Hoffman had burst into another apartment in the same complex, a worn-out, crowded warren of minimum-wage housing on Wolff Street in west Denver. They had found no drugs, no wads of cash, just three astonished Hispanic men who washed dishes and butchered meat for a living. Rutherford had apologized to the men for the mistake and even shook hands with one of the victims.
Mary and her grandmother weren't exactly big-time dope dealers, either, but this raid turned out to be slightly more successful. Baxendale emerged from another bedroom with two small rocks of crack cocaine. He showed them to the old woman in the kitchen.
"Why do you let them smoke this shit in your house?" he asked.
For a moment it seemed as if Baxendale was going to lecture her on the evils of drug abuse. Instead, he pocketed the rocks. He and Hoffman gathered up the rest of their haul: a Seiko watch, taken off Bud's wrist; a jean jacket; a television remote control. They gathered up the telephones, too, but the old woman begged for them back, saying they were registered to AT&T. Rutherford returned them.
While he was doing that, Hoffman and Baxendale drove off. That left Rutherford--a short, thirty-year-old ex-convenience-store clerk who weighed around 130 pounds--alone with the six robbery victims, including three much larger men. Perplexed, he did the only thing he could think of to do.
He asked Bud for a ride.
The following night, just after two in the morning on January 24, 1992, Baxendale and Hoffman were arrested by Aurora police in the middle of a similar stickup at an East Colfax motel. Rutherford was not with them; he was picked up a few days later by Denver police acting on a tip. Collectively, the three were charged with a total of nearly fifty counts of aggravated robbery, burglary, menacing and conspiracy. Each of them was looking at up to several hundred years of prison time.
In the annals of crime, Colorado's crack-addled robbery spree of '92 probably doesn't rate a footnote. Most of the items taken were virtually worthless, and the cash involved amounted to only a few dollars. Miraculously, no one other than Baxendale and Rutherford was injured in any of the raids. The whole affair was spectacular only in its stupidity--it might even be considered comical if not for the genuine terror evoked by strange men bursting into apartments and putting loaded guns to people's heads.
"Most criminals aren't in prison because they're brilliant," says former Denver deputy district attorney Ron Podboy, who prosecuted the three men. "The brilliant criminals aren't charged. They're off enjoying the fruits of their criminal labor, and nobody ever hears about them."
Yet the case had a bizarre aftermath. The crimes were senseless, but what happened to the three men after they entered the tangled briar patch of the criminal-justice system--with all its lawyerly machinations and plea-bargain maneuvers, its remarkable opportunities for betrayal and revenge--was stranger still. Once arrested, each of the three was confronted with a dire choice about how he was going to play the game. In two out of three cases, the decisions they made were disastrous.