A Vicious Cycle
Red was the only color that seventeen-year-old Contrell Townsend couldn't wear.
Contrell's parents had pulled him out of Montbello High School in the fall of 2003 because he was rolling with a crew of known gang members, full-fledged Bloods. Against their better instincts, they allowed Contrell to return to Montbello a year later -- but they kept a close eye on both his behavior and his attire.
The first day of school after Christmas break was January 4, 2005. The snow was deep outside, and Reverend Calvin Hall ordered his stepson to lift up his hooded sweatshirt so he could make sure Contrell wasn't wearing Blood red underneath. But then Hall had second thoughts about the reddish hoodie.
"It's maroon," Contrell said.
"It's burgundy," said Contrell's mother, Linda Hall.
Contrell shot his folks a smile and left for school, the sweatshirt still on.
In the halls that morning, Contrell collided with a sixteen-year-old junior, Marcus Richardson. Marcus was wearing a blue shirt, blue coat, blue shoes -- Crip colors. Hidden under his blue Dickies was a steak knife.
Marcus had been carrying the knife to school for nine months, he later told police. He'd stolen it from his mother's kitchen so he could scare people and avoid catching a beatdown like the one that had left a friend unconscious at Montbello the year before. To keep from cutting himself, Marcus had sheathed the blade in a sleeve made from printer paper and tape.
At lunch, the two boys locked eyes again. They stared each other down, called each other out, and tried to take it outside. But they had to turn around because Montbello's principal was standing there, watching for trouble.
Back in the cafeteria, words and fists flew. At six feet, Marcus was a few inches taller than the 160-pound Contrell but about thirty pounds lighter. Contrell pinned him on a lunch table and started landing punches as a crew of Bloods spat gangspeak in the background. "Out of the corner of my eye I could see his friends and stuff getting wild and everything," Marcus told police, "so I remembered I had a knife with me, so, so, I stabbed him."
And then Marcus stabbed him again.
Contrell got off of Marcus, put a hand over his wounds and stumbled off as he called Marcus a "bitch." Then he fell to the ground, where a pool of blood soon surrounded him.
Marcus's friends told him that he should split, so he hustled out of there and over to a nearby grocery store, where he phoned his father. His father rushed to the store, paged his son over the intercom and then called the police. Officers picked up Marcus at the store; his father handed over the bloodied blade.
Contrell was coughing up blood while his friends stood over him. One held the boy's hand, praying that his life be spared. When paramedics arrived, Contrell's eyes had already rolled back in his head.
By the time Contrell's mother got to the hospital, her youngest son was dead.
Long before Linda Hall lost her boy to a stabbing, she lost her father the same way.
As the police chief in Greenville, Mississippi, Perry Dyer was dedicated to fighting crime. But he couldn't keep violence out of his own home. In 1981, he was stabbed to death with a butcher knife by Linda's stepmother.
Six years later, Linda gave birth to her third and final son, Contrell Townsend. She was living in Chicago at the time; Contrell's father lived in Alabama. He didn't play much of a role in raising his son other than passing on his last name.
Linda was afraid of losing her sons to the streets of Chicago. Early on, her son Jamie started rolling with a crew of friends who were having run-ins with the police. One time when the cops stopped Jamie, he was carrying a toy gun. They told Linda that it looked real, and that if they'd seen the gun before they'd searched her boy, they'd have shot first and asked questions later.
A friend who lived in Denver told Linda that this city would be a good, safe place to raise her boys. The family moved here in 1993, when Contrell was five. About five years later, Linda divorced Contrell's first stepfather.
The following year, Linda met Calvin Hall.
A mutual friend wasn't all that Linda and Calvin had in common.
Calvin's father, Calvin Hall Sr., had been stabbed to death on the southwest side of Chicago in 1960, right in front of his then-nine-year-old son.
"Divine irony is the only thing that comes to my spirit," Hall says of the family's blood-spattered history. "There's no other way to approach that. Considering all of the variables, we literally end up with divine irony."
After the death of his father -- an alcoholic and a womanizer, Hall says -- he spent most of his childhood in rural Louisiana. But city ways intruded there, too. Although he describes himself as an egghead of a kid who sought refuge in books, he still has a spider tattooed on his right hand and his first name with a cross tattooed on his left, permanent designs he affixed to his skin with india ink and a sewing needle when he was about thirteen.
When Calvin was in high school, his mother moved with her children to Oakland so they could get a better education. Hall says he graduated valedictorian of his class.
The late '60s were a heady time in California, and Hall attended Black Panther rallies. As a kid in the South, he knew about lynchings and had been threatened and shot at himself; he knew it was tough to be a black man in America, knew that things had to change. But his real passion was fashion, not politics. He'd learned tailoring from a great-aunt in Louisiana and wanted to use those skills to become a designer. A 1970 apprenticeship with an established European designer who'd opened a shop in San Francisco was just the break Hall needed. By the mid-'70s, Hall says, he was making good money as a freelancer. In 1979 he traveled to Europe, studying the styles of Paris and Milan.
When he returned to California, Hall began hosting his own fashion shows. But as he grew in the industry -- he says he designed an outfit for the Jackson Five -- he didn't have much time for his family. He and his wife, the daughter of one of the original Harlem Globetrotters, had a son and a daughter, but ended their marriage in 1983.
Hall's mother died the next year. The loss was devastating, he says, and he decided to leave California and start anew. He chose Denver at random, leaving his children behind.
Hall's life here did not get off to a good start. His first week in Denver, while walking out of a bar on 17th Street, he fell victim to a strong-arm stickup. Although he thought his qualifications could have landed him a much better job, he did tailoring work in small shops to make money. It was Calvin Hall against a hostile world, and to cope, he dove straight to the bottom of the bottle, drinking whatever he could get his hands on, "as long as it was wet and wild," he remembers.
Hall says he was on the verge of a mental breakdown when he married into a dysfunctional family that only made things worse. Shortly after he exchanged vows with his second wife, they separated. Missing his mother, lamenting a second failed marriage, Hall says he was a "knocked-down, dragged-out street drunk who opted to be one."
Aurora cops picked him up on an aggravated-assault charge in 1988; according to his police record, he'd used a knife. But Hall denies that he had a knife, saying he always fought with his hands. Seven months later, Denver cops arrested him on a charge of assault and disturbing the peace.
In 1991, Hall sought refuge in religion. After about a year of independent study under Willie Simmons, the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Denver, he became a licensed reverend. But that same year, he was arrested for making a false report and shoplifting. In 1992 he did seven months in the county jail on another assault charge. "A lot of what I was arrested for was unfounded," Hall says today.
In 1993, Hall was arrested three more times, including once for allegedly snagging two bags from an elderly handicapped woman and beating her over the head with one of them. Although he pleaded guilty to a third-degree assault charge in that case, he says he was innocent; he took the deal only because he couldn't afford adequate representation. Over the next few years, Hall netted several more assault charges, including one in which he reportedly cut the victim's throat with a broken bottle. He told the arresting officers that the man, a stroke victim, had hit Hall first with his cane.
"I got hit upside my head and I got even. I didn't hit him hard; he's all right," Hall said at the time.
Hall pleaded to a menacing charge and went to prison for two years, then did another year and a half on parole.
When Hall married Linda, eleven-year-old Contrell was best man at their wedding.
Contrell had hung with the same two boys since they were kids: He'd met Carold Peoples in kindergarten, Scotty Manning in second grade. Calvin Hall called them "the three amigos."
As the boys got older, they'd hang at Contrell's house, playing video games and eating snacks. Hall would sometimes preach to them about the badlands, the dangers of drugs and gangs. He was open about his own past and what he'd done to turn things around. "I spoke from experience," Hall says.
But then the other boys would go home, where they had to deal with family problems, or to school, where they had to battle peer pressure.
"Carold was always the cocky one, Contrell was always the mellow one," now-nineteen-year-old Scotty remembers. "Carold gangbanged; he was a Blood. Everyone thought Contrell gangbanged, but he didn't."
But Contrell rolled with gangsters, and he was seen as an associate, a wannabe. That's why his parents pulled him out of Montbello when he was sixteen. They sent him to Job Corps, a residential education and job-training program for at-risk youth. But he missed his family, so the following spring Contrell enrolled at Thomas Jefferson High School, where it was determined he'd have to repeat his junior year.
Even though Contrell wasn't with his friends at school, he could still hang with them. On the afternoon of April 17, 2004, Contrell was with Carold at a barbecue when Contrell's mother came to get him, against his wishes.
That afternoon, one of Carold's younger friends told him that a dude who'd robbed him of ten bucks in a weed transaction was across the street at a park. Seventeen-year-old Carold confronted 21-year-old Christopher Baldwin about the money and got it back. Then Baldwin took off in a white car.
The white car came back later that day. Baldwin blasted four bullets into Carold, killing him cold. Baldwin was convicted of the murder and sentenced to forty years in prison.
"Carold was running his mouth, blah, blah, blah," Scotty remembers. "Everybody wanted to be on Carold's team. Carold was in too much, he had too many enemies. He tripped with everybody."
Three days after Carold's murder, 27-year-old Jeremy Phillips, the son of a retired Denver detective, was shot to death while leaving Carold's memorial. In separate trials, two men were acquitted of his murder.
Carold's death took a toll on Contrell.
Before his friend was murdered, Contrell hadn't had any significant run-ins with the law, his parents say. But soon after, he was arrested for stealing a pair of shoes -- right after they'd bought him two pairs. And then he was arrested again for sneaking into a movie theater in Aurora. Contrell had been diagnosed as bipolar years before; now he was hearing voices. His mother took him back to the doctor for new medication.
And she and Hall decided to let him return to Montbello to repeat his junior year.
That fall, Scotty says, a couple of dudes in blue confronted Contrell at school about stealing something from one of their baby's mamas. Over winter break, Contrell was in a car with some Bloods when someone shot at them -- Crips, Contrell told his friends. But he never told his parents or the police about the shooting. And before school started again, two dudes -- one of whom had been something of a fourth amigo but was now rolling with a crew of Crips -- threatened Contrell through Scotty.
Then came the stabbing.
"We ain't no Bloods or nothing, but we hang out with Bloods, and they're Crips," Scotty says. "I think that the beef that Marcus had was for him to get his stripes, something like that."
Scotty says he can picture it perfectly: an older Crip telling Marcus that if he wanted respect, then he needed to test Contrell at school.
"I think he carried that knife for a reason," Scotty continues. "He was listening to some older dudes and just got himself caught up. I've seen him on the news. He was just a little dude, trying to prove he's down. Contrell, he never had no enemies, he never had nobody looking for him."
Scotty is the last of the three amigos. He's still got the Randy "Macho Man" Savage doll they used to wrestle with as kids, the tapes they rapped on and sent to BET. "I love him to the fullest, I love him," Scotty says of Contrell. "I think about him every day. I even call his number sometimes, like he's here, but he ain't."
Contrell and Carold are buried in the same cemetery. Linda Hall believes they're reunited in heaven.
Since Scotty turned eighteen, he's been arrested only once, for a misdemeanor. He says the loss of his two friends made him grow up quick. He chooses his battles wisely these days, staying out of other people's business and hoping that they stay out of his. When he's not lying low at home, Scotty says, he's out looking for a job. He plans to get his GED.
After all, he's got a son to take care of, and another kid on the way.
Marcus Richardson will go on trial for the murder of Contrell Townsend this June.
Walter Gerash, his attorney, recently got the trial continued from March so that Marcus, who is free on a $100,000 bond, can finish high school. Marcus has a college scholarship waiting, Gerash says.
But Gerash was unsuccessful in his fight to have Marcus tried as a juvenile; as an adult, Marcus faces much stiffer penalties -- up to 48 years in prison for second-degree murder and possession of a weapon on school grounds.
"It's a tragedy no matter what," says Gerash, who's been practicing law for more than fifty years. "Who's responsible for my client's fear of violence? How about protecting the children? Instead of blaming society and everything, they're going to blame the kid. He's got a right to self-defense, too, like an adult."
Like the prosecutors, Marcus and his parents declined to be interviewed for this story.
Hall is worried that justice in this case will go to the highest bidder. He and Linda expect the trial to be ugly. They expect to see their son painted as a gang member who was off his medication and the aggressor in the fight that ended his life. They don't expect to see society, or the school, take any of the blame.
Hall himself shoulders the blame for just one thing. "I think if I had it to do all over as a parent, speaking for myself, I would have done a bit more work in regards to researching the status of that school financially as it relates to government funding," he says. "I think I would've gone a little further in trying to get a feel for the administration of that school, as well as faculty and security. I would've liked to do more homework to get a feel for how the police department in that community was working in harmony with Montbello High School -- or in opposition. I think there was a lot more homework I could've done to get a better feel for that school, and had I done so, I think I would've fought a little bit harder towards Contrell not attending."
Montbello's principal in January 2005, Hansell Gunn, resigned about a month after Contrell's killing. His assistant principal left Montbello, too.
For 33-year-old Antwan Wilson, Montbello's new principal, the toughest challenge has been overcoming the image of the school, sometimes referred to by other kids as "Mont-ghetto." Wilson was a principal in Wichita, Kansas, when he decided to come to Denver, attracted by the chance to improve the lives of the 1,400 students at the 25-year-old high school.
"People knew one family and people knew the other family," he says of last year's slaying. "When that happens, there's going to be hurt on both sides. What we've tried to do is not dwell on the negativity. I try to promote the positives that our students have."
Both Contrell and Marcus had signed a contract that they wouldn't bring weapons into school. Montbello didn't have metal detectors in January 2005, and it doesn't today -- no DPS school does. "Hopefully we don't get to that point," Wilson says. "Am I going to sit here and say that I know that all my kids aren't carrying anything? Well, I don't think that any principal can say that. However, what we can say is that we've done random locker searches, we've searched every locker, gone through everything in it, and we aren't finding anything,"
Wilson runs a tight ship. He removes lint from his desk as he talks about the steps Montbello has taken to improve itself, steps that couldn't be achieved without the community's cooperation and the students' desire to have a better school. "The students went through what they went through last year. They don't want that kind of school here," Wilson says. "I was told, 'There's no pep rallies at Montbello High School; they canceled them.' We've had three huge pep rallies, with the music and the dancing and the singing. We've had some of the liveliest pep rallies that I've ever seen, right here at Montbello High School. Student Council planned the whole deal, and it went off without a hitch."
Gang activity is no longer tolerated, he adds.
"If you're determined to be involved in gang activity, then we're looking to move you elsewhere," he says. "And I'm talking about violent gang activity. If we catch you with the graffiti and those kind of things, then we're certainly looking at an intervention. But if we continue to see it, we're looking at moving you, because this isn't that place, because we don't want you to put yourself in any position where someone else feels like you're disrespecting them. Then that leads to violence.
"We are in a revitalization mode here," Wilson continues. "We're looking at reforming our school. We know that it's going to take hard work to turn the school around, but we're in the process of doing that."
The Denver Police Department has two school resource officers at Montbello; they issued 122 tickets during the 2004-05 school year. Of those, 56 were for assault; although none were for first-degree, at least one was for second-degree. But when Montbello issued its school accountability report for the 2004-05 school year, nothing was listed in the "assaults/fights" category -- even though both first- and second-degree assaults are supposed to be accounted for. Administrators counted the cafeteria killing as one of four in the "dangerous weapons" category. (The form has no line for homicide.) So when Calvin Hall read that state senator Ed Jones was introducing a bill that would require schools to use stricter violence reporting standards, he contacted him. The lawmaker asked Hall to discuss the bill before legislators last Thursday.
"Nothing we can say or do here today can bring back our son," Hall told members of the Senate Education Committee, but Senate Bill 55 "could lend itself to sparing future young lives as well as their families."
"Finally, someone wants to take this to the next level," Jones says of Hall. "You know there was an incident there. For them to actually lie and say there was not an incident when the kid was killed in front of teachers and for whatever reason they didn't report it, to me it's fraud."
According to school resource officer Bernard Henry, tickets are down 50 percent at Montbello this year.
Calvin Hall has a small office in the back of Harold Pener's Man of Fashion clothing store in Aurora. Half of the store sells suits; the other half sells hip-hop gear to younger customers. Hall does tailoring in his office, and also opens up the space as a counseling chamber where he can minister to young people. Some of them are gangsters who've confirmed that Contrell was not a Blood, he says.
Hall has plans for a youth-intervention program that he'd like to start in Montbello and see spread nationwide. But he says he's received little support from local and state officials, and he suspects the reason is a possible lawsuit in connection with Contrell's death, something that he has been advised not to discuss.
Denver City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth says Hall approached her a couple of weeks after Contrell's killing with his plan, which seemed workable to her. "I said that I would be supportive of helping him put this together, but I haven't heard from him since then," she adds.
Hall has other ideas for how to help kids. Contrell's brother Jamie did time in prison on drug and weapon charges but is trying to turn his life around, Linda says; her other son grew up to be a church deacon. Hall's biological son now works as a tailor, too, in New York.
Drawing from his experience, Hall has written a book, What Parents Should Look For, and is searching for a publisher. "If, as parents, you are worrying if your child is a member of a gang, he or she probably is," the book advises. Billed as a tool that may save your child's life, the book is dedicated to Contrell.
In What Parents Should Look For, Hall suggests that people ask themselves twelve questions to evaluate how they're doing as a parent.
Of the twelve, Hall is confident that he did the best possible job on eleven. The one he's not so sure about involves overindulging or smothering the child.
Of the seven signs listed in the book that tell a parent a teen is slipping away, his stepson displayed five, Hall says. Of the fifteen general behaviors displayed by gang members, Contrell showed seven. Contrell also fit four of the seven background factors for gangsters.
"Through ignorance or denial, sometimes parents learn their child is involved in a gang only when they are contacted by the police or a tragic incidence occurs," Hall writes. "To prevent this occurrence, observe your child. Look, listen, observe any changes in attitude, what your child is wearing and who they are associating with.
"Take control, be aware of the signs and address them."
Red was the only color that Contrell Townsend couldn't wear.
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