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Gang problems escalating in schools and neighborhoods, says activist

Denver Police haven't confirmed that the shockingly public slayings of Justin O'Donnell and Deon Rudd in northeast Denver on Friday were gang-related. But Reverend Leon Kelly, the veteran activist behind Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, sees gang connections in this terrible act and many others that have happened in Five Points and beyond lately. Yet he also cites reasons for optimism.

"There has been an increase of gang activity within the schools, within the neighborhoods," Kelly says.

Thus far, the DPD hasn't made similar statements, despite claims by advocates such as The Youth Connection's Heidi Grove that gang violence has been escalating for months. Why not?

Reverend Leon Kelly.
Reverend Leon Kelly.

"I understand what the police department is trying to do," Kelly allows. "They're trying to keep things together. But my guys in the gang unit, they've really been working to address these kinds of issues, especially in the Five Points area."

After the death of O'Donnell, who was 21, his family stressed that he wasn't involved in gangs -- and loved ones talking about Rudd, thirty, said he actively counseled young people to reject them. Yet in Kelly's view, that hardly proves the killings, for which Marquise Davis and Denzel Richardson have been arrested, were unrelated to gangs.

"This is my 27th year of dealing with all this craziness, and I've known generations of folks in certain neighborhoods -- including Deon and Justin," he maintains. "I've known Deon and I've seen Justin grow up. And you don't have to be in the gang itself to be touched by it. Just by growing up with kids who chose to take up that kind of lifestyle, it easily causes them to be pulled into it."

Last week's shootings have received more media attention than usual "because it happened in broad daylight, and four people got hit, and two of them died," he goes on. "But we've been dealing with shootings on a weekly basis in that neighborhood. And now, because we're dealing with the migration and the changing of that neighborhood, they're going to take on added interest."

Kelly's referring to the increasing gentrification of Five Points. "It's not just blacks and Hispanics there now," he says. "A lot of whites are moving in, bringing their dogs and everything else. And those folks aren't going to go for that" -- meaning the sort of violence that's becoming all too common in this part of the city.

Page down to continue reading our interview with Reverend Leon Kelly.  

In the aftermath of the Justin O'Donnell-Deon Rudd shooting.
In the aftermath of the Justin O'Donnell-Deon Rudd shooting.

The idea that crimes in affluent white areas are seen as more important than those that take place among lower-income communities of color is "one of my pet peeves," Kelly admits. "Folks who grew up in that neighborhood -- the senior citizens, the older folks -- have had to live and deal with this for so long, and it's been sort of passed over. But now that we've got other folks moving into the neighborhood, and renovating and spending a lot of money, they're putting more focus on dealing with this issue.

"Not to say they weren't paying attention," he hastens to add. "It just didn't seem like they had the resources to deal with it."

This dynamic produce a certain sense of déjà vu for Kelly. "The growth of gang activity and youth violence is almost the same thing I dealt with in '93," when what became known as the "Summer of Violence" took place in Denver. "Back then, I told Roy [Romer], the governor, 'Why are you wanting to focus on this in '93, when there were more people killed in '91 and '92 than in the 'Summer of Violence?'"

The answer had to do with a variety of factors, including some high-profile incidents -- like a ten-month old at the Denver Zoo being hit by a stray bullet -- that revved up the media and prompted Romer to call a special session of the Colorado legislature to tackle the problem. Only afterward, as noted in the recent report "Re-directing Justice," did the Denver Post publish an article confirming what Kelly notes above -- that during the Summer of Violence, murders in Denver were actually down from previous years.

Whether the press and the powers-that-be react in similar ways this year remains to be seen. This time around, however, Kelly has no doubt that gang activity is on the rise -- although he rejects Grove's theory that a turf war prompted in part by a giant drug bust in February was a significant factor in prompting it. Instead, he alludes to dollars and cents.

De'Quan Walker-Smith, right, was killed in an apparent gang-related shooting near 29th and Franklin this past March.
De'Quan Walker-Smith, right, was killed in an apparent gang-related shooting near 29th and Franklin this past March.

"We're seeing people who were recreational drug users who are getting laid off from jobs they've had for ten, fifteen, twenty years -- and they can't afford it anymore," he says. "So we're seeing an increase in gangsters ripping off the dope man. That's a big concern -- the jacking going on in the neighborhood. And there are also crimes being committed that weren't normally in the gang profile, like bank robberies and home invasions. The general public only hears a fraction of all the things that are going on."

Moreover, Kelly continues, "the gangs I'm dealing with now are much different than they used to be. These youngsters are a little more blatant, more reckless than the OGs back in the day. The OGs at least had a little reverence or respect for the 'hood. But today, a lot of the gangsters don't know the history of what they're representing. They figure they're just going to go out and act on impulse, which was the case here," with the O'Donnell-Rudd homicides. "These guys went out in the middle of the day, in daylight, with cameras all over the place, and you don't think people are going to know? It's so stupid...."

Despite the bleak nature of this assessment, though, Kelly isn't downcast. "Now, there's a new administration coming into the city, and a new police chief" -- Chief Robert White -- "coming in and saying he's going to evaluate and make some changes. And the changes he's made in District 2, I'm pleased with. Because of the changes in Montbello and District 2 and District 6, I'm hoping some attention will be focused on the growing concerns of the neighborhood. And with Albus Brooks," a city councilman whose district covers Larimer to the west, 40th Avenue to the North, Holly to the east and Colfax to the south, "a lot of people are replenishing their hope in the system.

"People in these neighborhoods had lost hope. They'd developed an attitude of 'I don't care, because nobody cares about me.' But now, we're seeing hope and promise."

Such weapons will be needed if the violence rises.

Follow and like the Michael Roberts/Westword Facebook page.

More from our Mile High Murder archive: "De'Quan Walker-Smith ID'd as 29th and Franklin homicide victim: Gang-related? (43)."


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