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.

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.

But once Asberry was inside the ambulance, a police officer handcuffed him to the gurney and placed him under arrest for assaulting the younger brother earlier that day.

That November, Asberry was arrested in connection with a beef with another Crip; he was accused of breaking into his house with a loaded .32. On June 1, 1990, Asberry's twentieth birthday, he was sentenced to four years in prison for that crime.

While Asberry was away, crack hit Denver's streets, and some 30s got in the game. And by the time he was released in 1992, drug money had unleashed an arsenal of weapons in this town.

But after a couple of years in prison, Asberry says he was ready to start preaching peace. He moderated at a gathering of Crips and Bloods where the gang members aired their grievances and declared the truce of Nine-Deuce, as it became known. Nobody was talking about quitting the gangs, though; it was all about co-existing.

By then, a lot of kids didn't know life without gangs. Kids like Fredrick Abram, for example.

Abram's father was in prison, and his brother, George McClane, was the person who really raised him. But then McClane and a cousin started hanging blue rags out of their back pockets. In the Rollin' 30s, McClane went by "GC."

Abram was street-christened "F-Bone" after he was jumped into the Tre Tre's at the age of fourteen. After that initiation, Abram endured a second beating -- this one from his sixteen-year-old brother, who refused to recognize Abram as a Tre Tre.

"But when you don't see nothing else or know nothing else, what else you gonna do, what else you got?" Abram asks. "There was nothing else even to run to."

On March 24, 1993, gunshots were reported in the 2400 block of Emerson Street. Police arrived and spotted Abram's cousin running into a house. Out front, a dead Blood was slouched over in his car. Abram's cousin told the cops that he'd called the Blood over so that he could buy drugs -- and then, he said, Abram had run up to the car with a gun in each hand and blasted four or five shots, killing the Blood. A week shy of his eighteenth birthday, Abram was charged with murder -- as an adult. He took a plea bargain and was sentenced to eight years in the penitentiary for manslaughter. (His cousin was found not guilty at trial.)

In prison, Abram got word that his brother GC had been murdered by some other Crips.

As the streets erupted, Asberry completed his parole and started working with Operation Reconstruction, a new program designed to steer teens away from gangs and into jobs. But in May 1994, police pulled over a blue Caddy with Asberry inside. They found crack and arrested him.

A year later, officers rolled up on Asberry in a parked car. One cop recognized him from previous encounters. After Asberry was handcuffed and put into the back seat of the patrol car, he kicked at the window and broke out all the glass. Officer Paul Baca reported that Asberry started spitting at him so that he'd move out of the way and Asberry could climb out of the broken window. Baca maced Asberry to subdue him.

Asberry denied spitting, just as he'd denied ever dealing dope.

Baca wrote the judge, requesting that Asberry be kept locked up. He was a threat to the community, Baca said, and crimes like assault and narcotics trafficking increased when Asberry was free. Besides, Asberry had threatened the officer's family.

After Asberry pleaded guilty to assaulting the officer, the crack case was dismissed. And Asberry, who insisted he'd quit gang-banging, was sent to live in a California mansion where former NFL-great-turned-actor Jim Brown ran an anti-gang group. Asberry would be paid to do outreach work, steering youths away from the gangster path.

Ten years after he first started claiming Crips, Asberry was known throughout Los Angeles, thanks to a newspaper article that featured his picture. Since his outreach work took him into Crips and Bloods war zones, he started carrying. And when the LAPD encountered Asberry in a notorious Crip neighborhood in August of 1996, they busted him with a loaded chrome .380.

The deal was off. Asberry was sent back to Colorado to serve the rest of his sentence.

In June 1999, Fredrick Abram was 24 years old, out of prison after six years, driving a forklift and working as a janitor. By the following February, he'd completed parole and was a free man. But not for long.

In March, the cops pulled him over for driving down California Street in a 1986 Monte Carlo with no license plate on the front. They found crack in his pants. In April, he was riding shotgun in a car when Denver officers tried to pull it over. Instead, the driver of the car, Asberry's half-brother Gintear Howard, crashed it into a house, then attempted to evade the cops on foot. As he ran one way, firing his weapon at a gang-unit cop, Abram ran the other way. Another cop saw him throw away a gun.

In September 2001, locked up in county and facing serious time on both the crack and gun cases, Abram confronted a fellow inmate -- a 39-year-old Crip -- in the library and accused him of murdering his brother. The inmate threw a punch at Abram. Howard jumped in and smashed a coffeepot over the inmate's head as Abram punched and stabbed the inmate in the head, neck and upper torso. (Abram refused to discuss the crimes leading to his convictions; Howard, who is serving a fifty-year sentence for shooting at a cop, declined Westword's request for an interview.)

About the time Abram stabbed the Crip, a 25-year-old Blood who went by the name "Showbiz" requested a chat with him.

Showbiz's real name was Terrance Roberts. Just as Abram had grown up looking up to Denver's first generation of Crips, Roberts had grown up looking up to the first generation of Bloods. And like Abram, he'd earned enough respect from the original gangsters that he was now calling the shots for the second generation.

The county jail had been the scene of several recent stabbings that had all the gangster inmates on edge. Besides Crip-on-Crip violence, the Bloods and Crips were rioting; three Crips had been shanked. Abram and Roberts knew that there were enough Bloods and Crips locked up, with more coming in all the time, that the two gangs could go to war in the jail and stay at war.

Roberts was facing charges for assault as well as being a felon in possession of a gun -- in this case, a Mac-11 semi-automatic weapon that he'd allegedly fired at someone's vehicle. Both Roberts and Abram were looking at serious time; since they had serious stripes in the hood, they were also prime targets inside.

Outside of a couple of prisons and Park Hill, Crips outnumbered Bloods in Colorado. Since the Bloods were underdogs in almost any battle, they were especially passionate about gangbanging and protecting their set. It was easier to be a Crip, Roberts thought, but he also knew that Abram was one of the Crips who had as much passion for gang-banging as any Blood out there.

He and Abram had crossed paths in several juvenile-detention facilities over the years, but they'd never spoken two words to each other before. Now Roberts asked him, "You guys ain't planning on doing nothing, right?"

"No," Abram said. "Are y'all planning on doing anything?"

And with that, they declared an informal jailhouse truce between the Crips and the Bloods.

The next time Abram crossed paths with Roberts, it was at the Fremont Correctional Facility. There were only ten or fifteen Crips in the place, Roberts remembers, but there were about sixty of Denver's hardest Bloods.

Roberts himself was no longer one of them.

The life he'd been leading, the talent he thought he'd been wasting, had taken a toll on his mother and grandmother -- and on Roberts's perception of himself. So he'd finally declared that he was done gangbanging. He'd laid down his flag and started encouraging others to do the same.

Roberts's cellmate at the time was Cedric Watkins, a Blood a couple of years younger who'd spent time in the juvie system with Roberts. Watkins had grabbed headlines in 1998 when he was shot in Cherry Creek after watching a movie called Dead Presidents.

Like Abram and Roberts, 23-year-old Watkins was on his second prison stint -- an eighty-year sentence for a home-invasion type of robbery. Both inside and outside of prison, Watkins had gained power among the Bloods. His nickname, "Baby Brazy," is how Bloods pronounce "Baby Crazy" -- swapping the C for a B, which meant that Watkins was always giving Crips a reason to fight him, or vice versa. Bloods was all that Watkins knew, so when Roberts told him that he was laying down his flags, Baby Brazy wanted no part of it and changed cells.

Watkins and the rest of the Bloods took note when Abram arrived at Fremont; he was a Crip with stripes. As word spread that the Bloods were plotting to kill Abram, the rumor reached Roberts, who knew Abram was always prepared for an attack.

If he'd learned anything from losing Watkins as a cellmate, it was that anti-gang enlightenment could not be forced. But Roberts didn't want to see anyone else die, so he respectfully asked a few Bloods to leave Abram alone. And it worked: As his parole neared, Roberts noticed that Abram was even getting along with some of the Bloods.

"Even if it's for two different things, people have respect for people with passion," Roberts says. "Even if it's a cop, there's good cops out there and bad, but if a gangster sees that a good cop has a lot of passion for what he does, then that gangster respects the cop -- even if the cop is busting him."

Roberts's passion was now Christ. And when he invited the hardest Crip, Blood and Mexican gang members to witness his baptism in prison, they packed the place. Even Watkins came and wished Roberts the best in his new life.

"They showed me a lot of love," Roberts remembers.

After Roberts was released, Abram and Watkins started spending more time together. They talked about the gangster path and how to get off it. And soon, both followed Roberts's lead.

After Roberts got out of prison in 2004, he went to see Reverend Leon Kelly, who's been fighting Denver's gang problem for more than two decades.

"I have told some of these guys over and over about their choices," says Kelly, executive director of Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives. "There's a mindset that they have to adjust to, and that's been hard for so many of them. They're burning my bridges. A lot of these older guys still have a lot of influence over the younger ones. They may not be out there, banging, putting in work, but they still have a lot of influence."

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.

"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.

"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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