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He says the DPD hopes to use this information to begin pursuing major investigations against taggers. "That's been one of our goals all along," he adds. "You see the prolific tagging-crew stuff all over town. TKO is one that just kind of jumps out there everywhere. So we've been trying to identify those prolific taggers through traditional methods and then go after those folks and tie them into multiple tags around town."
The number of reported graffiti arrests has nearly quadrupled in the past four years, from 47 in 2004 to 60 in 2005, 118 in 2006, 183 in 2007. But much of this growth can be attributed to how the arrests are recorded rather than the number of taggers caught. In 2006, a new computer system came online that was finally able to separate graffiti-specific offenses from criminal-mischief crimes as a whole. "It was a problem since previously we weren't able to single out a graffiti arrest from a broken car window," says Stephens.
In the court system, graffiti is still lumped under a general property-damage ordinance, so it's impossible to determine how many of those graffiti arrests resulted in prosecution by the Denver County Court. Only cases that involve more than $1,000 in damages are bumped up to the felony level and handled by the Denver District Attorney's Office; the damage amount was raised from $500 this summer to adjust for inflation, according to City Attorney Vince Dicroce.
In March, Denver City Council president Michael Hancock, who represents east Denver, was driving through Green Valley Ranch when he saw that the new, $147,000 skatepark had been severely tagged. Hancock brought it to the attention of District 5 police; within four weeks, police had arrested three juveniles and one adult with the KVS crew — as in Killin' Various Spots — for dozens of acts of vandalism throughout the neighborhood, totaling more than $8,000 in damages.
It was the first such graffiti investigation in District 5, says Sergeant Larry McCandless. A team of detectives and officers used confidential informants as well as information gathered off the Internet to match the tag Qwiz with a specific individual. "And we were able to continue it to the point where we were able to get some confessions and enough evidence to charge this set of people," he says.
Because the officers could document more than $1,000 in damages, all of the suspects were slapped with Class 4 felonies. The one adult charged, nineteen-year-old Carlos Mejia, is out on bond and still awaiting trial; if convicted, he could get as much as two to four years in jail and be forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution, says a DA spokesperson. Mejia's seventeen-year-old brother has already been fined $8,000 in juvenile court, ordered to fulfill 100 hours of community service, and sentenced to house arrest for ninety days with an ankle bracelet.
"We are doing everything in our power to prosecute these young people to the fullest extent of the law," Hancock announced at a council meeting, adding that he hoped the District 5 takedown would "make examples of the very economic and physical damage you make by this very terrible activity."
But those examples were lost on many in the graffiti scene, because the dozen-member squad was composed of young novices, categorized as "toys," who're largely unknown in the city. The big dogs — dubbed "kings" for their longevity and ability to tag across the entire metro area — tend to be older, more entrenched and much more calculated about their tagging strategies. Many of Denver's most prolific graffiti writers, who spray their colorful, large-scale pieces nightly on skyscrapers, light-rail trains and bridge girders, have never been arrested in this city. In Denver, they say, kings don't get caught, toys do.
"It's crazy the cops are paying so much attention to the little guys," Mejia says. "There's these big names out there that have never been touched. How much time and stuff do they spend tracking down little kids and neighborhood writers?"
Mejia was initially freaked out by the massive maximum sentence, but he was somewhat relieved after his arraignment last Friday, where, he says, his public defense attorney received a plea-deal offer from the prosecutor to drop the charges to a misdemeanor. Mejia says that he has quit doing graffiti. "I'm done. I've got other things," he says.
Despite serving close to a year in jail for vandalism, one tagger — Ruybal's last big bust — refused to hang up his spray can. Ruybal recognized his tag; he'd see it hundreds of times as he drove around Capitol Hill and South Broadway. "He's one of the guys I wanted to make an example out of," he says. "Just because he's 35 and he's just real cocky: 'You can't prove anything. You can't get me.'"
Word got out that the city's graffiti cop was looking for him, and the tagger somehow got hold of Ruybal's home phone number and left him a message. I hear you want to get me before you leave, the tagger said. It'll never happen.
Ruybal tried, but time ran out when he left the unit in October. "I just had to let it go," he says.