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The Transformers

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

Over the past twenty years, gangsters from Norteños, Sureños, North Side Mafia, Oldies and GKIs -- "not just the black gangs" -- have all expressed an interest in stopping gang violence. At first they're excited to make a difference, Kelly says, but soon they're sagging their pants around the kids, setting up that negative image again. Of the dozens of would-be anti-gang leaders who've come Kelly's way, most have gone back to jail or prison at least once.

Talking to Kelly, Roberts could see how difficult the transition was. Some of the guys hanging around Kelly's after-school program still seemed to have strong ties to the streets and were struggling to break free of their former reputations.

Roberts decided to set up a program similar to Kelly's but on a smaller scale, like ex-gang-member projects in Los Angeles and Chicago. Just as those cities had been ahead of Denver on the gangster front, Roberts says, they're a bit ahead in recovery, too.

The kid that older Bloods in Park Hill used to call "Lil Terry" is now "Mr. Terrance" to the children of the same neighborhood. His Prodigal Son Initiative is in its second year of after-school work at Hallett Elementary School, helping kids with their homework, teaching them to separate right from wrong and keeping them off the streets. Roberts takes the twenty to thirty kids who participate on field trips to talk to judges, and on recreational outings like hiking or river rafting. He also helps connect needy families in his neighborhood with people and groups that have resources, clothing and food to share.

Roberts was recently hired as an education liaison by the Denver Children's Home/East Denver Collaborative, working with families whose children are truant from school to keep them from falling into more serious bad habits.

Roberts knows that it's difficult to make a hardheaded teenager renounce his gang. That's why he's working with kids -- so that he can keep them from ever putting a red or blue bandanna in their back pocket.

Fredrick Abram's nephew heard Roberts speak at his school last year and told Abram all about it. Although he was glad Roberts had taught the boy so much, Abram regrets that he couldn't deliver that lesson himself.

Abram, who comes up for parole this year, is now married. His two sons are both about the age that Abram was when he got put down with the Tre Tre set. He hopes that his boys aren't following in their father's footsteps. But from behind bars, he can't be sure. He knows that it takes only one hot second on a hot summer day for a fourteen-year-old boy to ruin his life. "I don't wish this on nobody," Abram says.

"How can we do right if we've never been exposed to it?" he asks. "My whole thought process was just twisted. I understand the decisions I made as a kid, but now, as a man, I don't think the same way I thought before. I know it's hard for people to look beyond my past and see that I'm not a banger. I know I've got a long road ahead of me, but I'm excited about it."

If other people can live within the law, then he can, too. He knows it won't be easy -- the guards still call him "F-Bone," and inmates could still give him trouble for dropping his flag -- but he's beaten the odds before. He's already outlived the average life expectancy for a gangbanger.

"You've still got grown men around here doing boyish behavior," he says. "But I'm finding out who Fred is, and I'm loving Fred. Some may consider it square or whatever, but I'm being real with myself. I put myself in this, and I got to get myself out of it. I could never go back to the person I was before."

And he's not in this completely alone. He and Cedric Watkins have become support for each other -- a former Crip and former Blood dreaming of non-gangster futures.

"In friendship, you don't hold nothing back," Watkins says. "I don't hold nothing back with Fred. As corny as it may be, I'll bring it up."

Watkins doesn't have a parole hearing scheduled for the next 36 years, but he hasn't given up hope. After all, he once had a pistol pointed at a police officer -- but he didn't pull the trigger. And he survived that shooting in Cherry Creek. So he hopes for a new trial, hopes for a plea, hopes for time served, hopes that someone will help him, hopes that he can follow the path set out by Roberts, the path that Abram is also trying to follow.

Watkins is 28 now, Abram 31. They're remnants of Denver's second generation of gangsters.

Even as the next generation takes over, the former Crip and the former Blood talk about creating a support network for others who want to leave gangs. They heard Roberts preaching about doing right while he was still in prison. And now Roberts is free, on the streets and actually doing right.

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