By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
That apartment was rented to Venus Montoya, a pretty, nineteen-year-old high-school dropout who'd moved in with her four-year-old son, Angel, and a roommate. Venus had been there only two weeks, but already she was complaining to her twin sister, Vanessa, that she wanted out. The complex had a reputation as a gang hangout, and she was beginning to think she'd made a bad choice.
The girls' grandmother, Becky Estrada, had raised them and their youngest brother after their 21-year-old mother died of an overdose when the twins were just eight months old. Becky had watched out for the girls for almost two decades now, and she wasn't about to stop. She'd told Venus she didn't like the apartment's location, but Venus wanted to make a life on her own.
On July 15, Venus called her grandmother. She'd had a frightening dream about "two devils" trying to get at her, and even after waking up, she'd been unable to shake her fear. "I want you to come and pick up Angel," she'd said. "I don't want my baby to get hurt."
So Becky had taken the child back home. A few days later Venus had come by; she and Vanessa were going house-hunting. As she got ready to leave, Venus had held her arms open to the woman she called Mom.
"I want a hug," she'd said, pouting. "Don't you love me no more?"
Becky had pulled the pretty girl to her, strangely reluctant to let her go. "I will always love you," she said at last.
The devils arrived at 3 a.m. the next morning, just minutes after Salvino Martinez left the small party that was winding down inside apartment Number 52. Venus was sitting on a daybed, in full view of the screen door, as Quintana and Alejandro Ornelas approached carrying a 9mm handgun and an SKS assault rifle.
"Also sitting on the bed was her boyfriend, John," Sargent tells the jury. "He had asked her to marry him, and she had accepted. It should have been the happiest night of her life...but it was her last."
There was the sound of a blast. Instinctively, John dropped to the floor and reached up to pull his fiancee down. "At about the same time, Venus's head exploded," Sargent says. "Brain matter and blood filled the air."
In the gallery behind the prosecution table, Vanessa lays her head on her grandmother's shoulder.
Across the aisle, Alejandro studies his fingernails. His attorneys, former judge Michael Enwall and co-counsel Toby Cleaver, scribble notes on a legal pad. Behind them, Ornelas's friends and family listen impassively. Several of the young women have babies with them.
Nineteen shots were fired into the apartment, all from the assault rifle, some passing through the walls into bedrooms where other people were sleeping. Ten of the bullets struck Venus. "Miraculously, of the eight people in the apartment, she was the only one killed," Sargent says.
Listening at the prosecution table is Sargent's co-prosecutor, Brian Boatwright, and Lakewood detective Scott Richardson. The detective had been assigned to the case the night of the murder and had seen for himself what a high-velocity, 7.62-caliber bullet could do to a human head. The girl was unrecognizable. Her family members, who heard the news from a neighbor, were kept away from the body when they showed up en masse.
Working with the Denver Police Department Gang Unit, Richardson soon identified the suspects through informants. He seized the assault rifle from the home of the Ornelases' mother; ballistics tests had proved it was the murder weapon. But Alejandro Ornelas and Quintana had their alibi ready. Some "Baby Gs"--young gangster wannabes--had taken the gun and later returned it.
The detective turned up a couple of independent witnesses who had seen two men lurking outside the apartment complex. Their identification of Ornelas and Quintana was shaky--the witnesses were frightened of getting involved in a gang killing--but combined with all of the other evidence, it was pretty damning.
Still, Richardson wanted a conviction, not just a trial. What he needed was for someone in the gang to get in trouble and roll over on his comrades. For all their big talk about loyalty, most of them could be counted on to snitch as soon as they started looking at time behind bars. That was how the gang unit had gotten Salvino to set up Danny and Antonio Martinez in the first place.
Richardson even called Danny Martinez to see if he could shake something loose. In the background, he could hear Danny telling other gang members, "Lakewood po po's want to talk to me about Zag and Speed and that shit." Then Danny turned his attention back to the detective. "I don't want to talk to you," he said. Taunting him, he added that he knew about the murder but would go to prison before he turned into a snitch.
Then on June 16, 1997, almost a year later, Sammy Quintana and some of his pals were arrested for the murder two weeks earlier of a fourteen-year-old girl, Brandy DuVall. Quintana sat in jail for two days and then started talking. Not just about DuVall, but about Venus Montoya, too.