It Happened One Night

The Thanksgiving party started early. And then the shots rang out.

The clock was pushing closer and closer toward three in the morning, and Jody Velarde had still not heard from her boy. For most mothers, this would not be that unusual; few expect to get a call from a grown son after he's spent a night out on the town. But Jody and Richard were close. Years spent carefully and successfully navigating a gang-infested area on the west side of Denver, where Jody and her husband, Richard Sr., raised Rich, had forged that strong a bond between them. So even at 28, Rich still dutifully complied with his mother's request that he call her when he got home from a night out, no matter how late it was. He knew how it put her mind at ease.

Jody had even asked Rich to stay in that Wednesday night. The next day was Thanksgiving, and he was bringing his six-year-old daughter, Mia, over for dinner; she would prefer it if he were not hung over and grumpy. But Rich assured his mother that all would be fine. He and a buddy were just going to shoot some pool and have a few beers. No big deal.

Still, if it was no big deal, why hadn't she gotten that call yet, Jody wondered as she tossed and turned in her bed. Why was her son still out?

A night out landed Rich Velarde in a wheelchair.
Jim J. Narcy
A night out landed Rich Velarde in a wheelchair.
Eric Johanson was shot twice in this parking lot.
Jim J. Narcy
Eric Johanson was shot twice in this parking lot.

Then the phone rang.

"It was the chaplain from St. Anthony's," Jody recalls. "He said, 'I'm calling about your son, Richard Velarde.' I immediately started screaming. 'Oh, my God, is he dead?' I asked. They said no, but that he had been shot. I didn't even say goodbye. I hung up the phone and was there in two minutes flat. We live right across Sloan's Lake from the hospital. They were amazed by how fast we got there."

Jody and Richard Sr. -- Butch, to friends -- were sent to a small waiting room, where they were visited first by the chaplain, then a police officer who told them that their son had been involved in a shooting on Market Street in LoDo. Butch couldn't take it anymore. He burst out of the waiting room and ran frantically around the hospital, searching for his son. Soon he spotted him through a window, bloody but awake. Rich recognized his father and was not in the operating room, which his parents took as good signs. There were probably no vital organs damaged.

Then the doctor came in and spoke with them. The first bullet had gone through Rich's back and out his abdomen. The second bullet was still lodged in Rich's spine.

"Richard will never walk again," he said.

Butch collapsed to the ground and wailed. Jody just wanted to see her son.

"When I finally saw him, he was real upset," she remembers. "He said, 'Mom, they're saying I'm not going to walk, that that's a possibility. Is that true, Mom?' I told him that I didn't know yet and that we should just worry about getting him well."

"I shouldn't have been there, Mom," Rich told her. "If I would have just gone home, like you told meÖ"

Jody shushed her son as the doctors inserted an IV into Rich's arm and he drifted away into unconsciousness.

It started the way confrontations at bars always start. Somebody with something to prove talking shit.

Rich Velarde and longtime friend Eric Johanson, 26, say they were standing with Eloy Fuentes, a 23-year-old acquaintance of Eric's, near the bar at Market 41, where they'd been for the better part of the night, when they were approached by 35-year-old Michael Orlando Rollie, who was claiming Crip status. Rollie stared them down, blew smoke in their faces, dared them to challenge him. Tempers started to flare, but Rich and Eric tried to cool things down, remarking that it was Thanksgiving, that they'd all do better just to leave it alone. The trio retreated to another portion of the bar, played a little pool, but it seemed like Rollie followed them everywhere.

"It just felt like he was always watching us," Rich recalls. "It was weird, because we weren't wearing any gang colors or nothing. It seemed strange that he would single us out." Eric and Rich both have a lot of tattoos on their arms, which people sometimes misconstrue as thuggish. But they say they're far from gangbangers. They're men with jobs, men with houses, men with children.

Later that evening, after the bartenders had issued last call, Eric exited the bathroom to find Rich and Eloy in the middle of a melee with Rollie.

"They were just pushing and shoving, and I saw Eloy in the middle of it with that guy Rollie. Then I saw Rich there, trying to pull Eloy away," Eric says. "So I got in there, and I grabbed Rich and pulled him out of there. That's when two bouncers grabbed us and threw us out the back door of the club."

At some point in the scuffle, someone -- Eric and Rich contend it was a friend of Eloy's -- smashed a jagged broken bottle against Rollie's face, cutting his cheek.

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