The Transformers

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

"People are starting to see from my example that we can really change," Roberts says. "I am the one paving the way. If they're serious when they get out, if Fred is ready for that, if Fred is sincere, I can show him the way."

Abram and Watkins both compare being a gang member to being addicted to drugs. But the gang connection is even stronger than a fix. It's a whole sense of being, of trust, respect; it carries all the rites of passage into manhood. Just as alcoholics have Alcoholics Anonymous and addicts have Narcotics Anonymous, Abram and Watkins think there should be a Gangsters Anonymous, a program for older gangsters who've wasted two decades of their lives gang-banging. They need to replace the emotional satisfaction of being down with a gang with something more substantial, something really worth dying for -- as opposed to red or blue. They need the kind of supportive structure that Abram and Watkins have created for each other.

"I believe we both have a mutual distaste for it, and that's where the support came from," Abram says. "If a person did want to get out of a gang, what route do they have? Obviously, there is nobody teaching them to be men; most of the time their fathers or their mothers aren't going to be there.

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.

"Just because we fall in certain ways doesn't mean we're utterly cast down," he continues. "You can find yourself and regain your life, no matter if you're stuck with life in prison. It's your choice. God gives us choice. Just don't be too late before you make the right choice."

Michael Asberry thinks he's finally made the right choice.

Through the years, Leon Kelly was one of his most vocal supporters. It was Kelly who hooked up Asberry with Jim Brown's program, where he met the likes of Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube, Ice T and Suge Knight, and sat at satellite conferences with Crip founder Stan "Tookie" Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was executed by the State of California in 2005.

And Kelly was again there for Asberry when he got out of prison in 2003. He found Asberry a job at a Starbucks, and when that didn't work out, he got him another gig, at a stereo shop. And in his spare time, Asberry told youngsters to steer clear of the gangster path.

But Asberry has had some difficulties steering clear of all trouble with the law. Over the past three years, he's been arrested more than a few times -- most recently while already in custody at the county jail. "Representing Christ," Asberry says, he stopped a Crip and a Blood from getting into a fight over a television. "God is watching us to see what we do with the final chapters of our life. To make sure we do good things with these kids. Gang-bangin' is hazardous to your health, to your mind, your body and your soul."

According to a sheriff's deputy, Asberry himself got violent, had to be restrained and then spit on the officer and threatened his family. Although Asberry denies that version of the story and says he was the one assaulted, he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault. (The deputy is no longer with the department.)

Asberry's scheduled to be released from jail later this year. His reputation as a gangster, as the founder of the Rollin' 30s, the first-generation gang that gave birth to the notorious Tre Tre's, just won't go away.

But like Roberts, like Abram and Watkins, he's determined to transform his life. Again. "There's no lost causes," he says.

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