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The Transformers

They created Denver's gang life. A generation later, can they break free?

Twenty years ago, young boys across America were obsessed with Transformers, a team of superhero robots that transformed into vehicles. But here in Denver, older boys were about to start a transformation of their own.

"Rollin' 30 Crips," sixteen-year-old Michael Asberry called out to the group of teens gathered in a basement in the Whittier neighborhood. "Transform, roll out."

The Rollin' 30s took their name from the corner of 30th Avenue and Gilpin Street, where the new gang hung out that summer of 1986. Asberry was the chief. He'd spent a few summers with a favorite aunt in Watts, an area in Los Angeles where the cool older boys all wore blue. Like kids back in Denver, they had rivalries with kids from surrounding neighborhoods. But in California, it was easier to spot kids from the other neighborhoods: They all wore red.

Michael Asberry (left), Fredrick Abram and Cedric Watkins faced the cameras for the cops.
Michael Asberry (left), Fredrick Abram and Cedric Watkins faced the cameras for the cops.
Terrance Roberts gave up banging in jail, and now tries to keep kids out of gangs.
Jim J. Narcy
Terrance Roberts gave up banging in jail, and now tries to keep kids out of gangs.

When he returned to Denver, Asberry brought an allegiance to blue with him. He also brought the gang acronym whose origins were almost forgotten: Community Resources in Progress. Crip.

The Rollin' 30 Crips weren't Denver's first gang. The city already had crews like the East Side Poppers, which mostly used dance-offs to handle neighborhood disputes. Still, violence would occasionally break out between rival factions: the Park Hill Boyz, Brick City, the Untouchables, the Greeks, Player 5s and their pee-wee gangsters and girls, the Nasty 5s. And out in Montbello, there was Members Only, named for the brand of coat that its members wore, as well as the P-Players.

The spray-painting was on the wall by 1987. The 30s -- by then also known as "Tre O" -- were recruiting heavily. Each new recruit took a beating to be down with the set, and each was expected to dish out a beating when called on. Asberry estimates that his gang was about eighty members deep when it crashed a party hosted by the Untouchables that year. Both sets might have been representing their hoods, or the fight might just have had something to do with a female -- but there's no question that the 30s outnumbered the Untouchables. During the ensuing battle, fleeing fighters stumbled over fences, into the alley and onto the street. Fists were flying, but so were walking canes, chains, broken bottles and bats.

The Untouchables weren't untouchable, after all. The set dissolved in the aftermath, and about twenty of its former members joined up with the Rollin' 30s.

The gang had grown to about 130 members when, later that year, the Rollin' 30s fought the Park Hill Boyz in City Park. Cops in riot gear responded, and newspapers reported that California gangsters were invading Colorado.

"This isn't no California gang members," Asberry remembers thinking. "This is us."

But California gang members made their presence known soon enough. Rival Crip factions started springing up, some of them under the direct supervision of original gangsters back in L.A. They'd heard about Denver's gang problem through their own newspapers and figured there was money to be made here. Meanwhile, different sets of Bloods emerged around town, including one comprising members of the Park Hill Boyz, who weren't about to forget the City Park brawl.

So many people were claiming Crips, their chief was having trouble remembering who was really down with what set and who was false-flagging. So Asberry started a set of pee-wee 30s, a second-generation gang, calling it the 33s (pronounced Tre Tre's) and making sure that only the most passionate gangsters grew up to be Tre O.

"Tre Tre is a probationary state," Asberry explains, "even to this day."

But with the slaying of Darrent Williams on January 1, the Tre Tre's went well beyond probation -- right to public enemy number one.

Cyco, Michael Asberry's nickname, did not come from the word "psycho," he says. "It's like cycle of events." And the cycle was vicious: In 1988, Asberry was accused of attempted murder and became the first Rollin' 30 looking at serious prison time. Although he was tried and found not guilty, that same year, seventeen-year-old Rashid Riley, a Rollin' 30 and a good friend of Asberry's, got a death sentence when he was killed by cops in Fuller Park.

The next year, some Bloods jumped Asberry's little brother. With a friend in tow, Asberry crashed a Bloods party and started throwing punches at everyone in red. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone running at him, heard the "click-click-clicking" of a trigger being pulled on a jammed gun. He ran into the alley as three or four shots were fired -- one of which knocked him to the ground.

In his hospital bed, Asberry dreamed not of leaving the gang life behind, but of vengeance against the Bloods.

Three days later, though, Asberry was accused of shooting at a Crip. While that case was later dismissed, he soon beefed with more Crips, a set of brothers, over a girl. As Asberry remembers it, he whupped one brother, who then went and got his older brother, who had a .44. As they struggled for the gun, a bullet ripped into Asberry's armpit. The shooter fled as Asberry fell to the pavement.

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