Once Upon a Crime Doc Revisits Sensational '70s Denver Murder Case

Star prosecution witness Terry D'Prero (left) walks into the Denver courthouse with Sergeant Robert Cantwell in 1976.
Star prosecution witness Terry D'Prero (left) walks into the Denver courthouse with Sergeant Robert Cantwell in 1976.
onceuponacrimedoc.com

Forty years ago, the big crime news in this wide-lapel cowtown had nothing to do with six-year-old pageant queens, high-school shooters or feuding gangbangers. The obsession of the moment was the 1975 murder of businessman Hal Levine, and the prosecution of Michael Borelli, a supposedly mobbed-up former New York police detective, for allegedly plotting the deed; Borelli's pal and fellow New York cop Bob Davis was charged with carrying out the hit. The "Colorado Godfather" story made headlines for months, and then it went away. So did Davis and Borelli — to prison.

Aside from a few retired reporters and cops, most people living in Colorado today have probably never heard of the case. But locals have the chance to get a very different, disturbing account of the investigation, as well as a startling glimpse of Denver in the '70s and its flawed justice system, when the Denver Film Festival hits town in early November. One of the offerings will be Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy, a riveting, revisionist documentary in the tradition of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line

Director Sheldon Wilson's first feature doc is a blend of fresh interviews, stylish re-enactments and surprising archival footage from Denver in its disco phase. It traces how Levine, a gambling addict who was embezzling from business partners, was gunned down in his home; his wife was also shot multiple times but survived. The investigation soon focused on Borelli, a recent transplant who'd opened an Italian restaurant on the west side, Donato's, and stood to benefit, along with other partners, from a life-insurance policy taken out on Levine. 

Investigators tried to link former New York police officers Michael Borelli and Robert Davis to "organized crime" through a tenuous association with a small-time bookie.
Investigators tried to link former New York police officers Michael Borelli and Robert Davis to "organized crime" through a tenuous association with a small-time bookie.
onceuponacrimedoc.com

But Wilson's film makes a strong case that the local law made some questionable calls in its zeal to nail Borelli. He was depicted as having ties to New York crime families, which Wilson discounts; grand jury transcripts leaked to the Rocky Mountain News helped fuel the hysteria. Most curious of all, Terry D'Prero, a Donato's bartender who'd been linked to the slaying — and, the film contends, may have actually been the shooter — was granted immunity in exchange for pointing the finger at Borelli and Davis. Never mind that the surviving wife's description of the gunman who accompanied D'Prero on the hit doesn't at all resemble Davis, an African-American. 

There's no elegant solution in Once Upon a Crime, no blockbuster revelation at the end. But the viewer does get a strong sense of the enduring friendship of Borelli and Davis, which helped sustain them through years of fighting their convictions. And give Wilson credit for tracking down D'Prero, who'd vanished into witness protection and was a reluctant interview. "We could have finished the film four years ago, but I became determined to find Terry D'Prero," Wilson says. "We turned over every rock."

Borelli eventually got a new trial and was acquitted. Davis, who now works as a family therapist in Denver, wasn't so fortunate; he spent more than a decade in prison. Robert Cantwell, the ambitious Denver police sergeant who spearheaded the Borelli investigation and was a linchpin of the Colorado Organized Crime Strike Force (and later head of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation), declined to talk to Wilson. The documentary notes the later dissolution of the strike force amid the scandals involving Elvis Presley's cars and other gifts to Denver cops and Rocky Mountain News editor Michael Howard's hiring of an off-duty strike force member as a "bodyguard" during the depths of his cocaine addiction. Strange, yes, but true to Denver in more brazen times.

"If this was to happen today, the media scrutiny would be huge," Wilson notes. "When you realize that one of the gunmen was a known criminal, diagnosed as a pathological liar, it seems ill-advised to give him complete immunity and let him walk. I think it's a story well worth telling."

The Denver Film Festival runs from November 4 through November 15, and the first round or programming was just announced. For information on Once Upon a Crime and some of the more than 250 other films that will be shown, go to denverfilmfestival.denverfilm.org.


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