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In a Family Way

Randolph Kelly's house is full of family photos. They're stacked on the television and on tables; they cover the walls. On the north side of the living room hang two large and faded photos, their sepia tones encased in oval frames. One of the pictures is of Kelly's dead wife's mother. The other is of Kelly's oldest sister, Elree. Elree is wearing a jaunty beret and still looks young and serious, even though the photograph was taken at least forty years ago.

Family is important to Kelly. He enjoys showing off these pictures and talking about his relatives, his joy stemming in part, perhaps, from the fact that he lost both his parents before he was ten.

"This one, Jami," Kelly says, lifting a dusty photo of a granddaughter from a side table, "she's been all the way to France."

"I got six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren," continues the seventy-year-old Kelly. "Maybe more. LeeLee," he says of his middle son, "he was hittin' and quittin', so I don't know how many I have.

"My family is strong," he says proudly. "They're really close," chimes in Cathy, Kelly's common-law wife. "He has a beautiful family. He really does."

Cathy points to a photo hanging above the love seat. In it, the whole Kelly clan--Kelly, his late wife, Aggie, and their five children--sit formally in their Sunday best. They are all smiling.

But that photo was taken a long time ago, and Kelly's life has been far from picture-perfect since then.

In 1988, Kelly shot and killed his middle son, Emmitt Lee, whom everyone called LeeLee. Police ruled it an accident.

Five years later, Aggie died of cancer.
And just three weeks ago, Kelly shot another son, Adolph Darnell, five times, after Darnell allegedly tried to attack him with a hammer. The fight started, Kelly says, with an argument: Darnell was incensed about Kelly's relationship with Cathy, a woman less than half his age.

"After their mother died," Kelly says, his slurred consonants betraying his Louisiana roots, "they didn't want nobody to be here with me. Chirrun will be chirrun, I guess."

Kelly is sitting on the threadbare sofa, watching Cathy play with his dog, Midnight, a black animal about the size of a large cat. "She's a sweet thing," Kelly says fondly, and it's unclear at first whether he's talking about the dog or Cathy.

Kelly and Cathy have been together about two years. "I was staying with a girlfriend of mine," Cathy recalls, "and we met, and he was attracted to me and I was attracted to him. That was 1994. And I been here ever since. And I'm planning to stay. Unless," she says, giving Kelly a sidelong glance and punctuating her words with a throaty laugh, "you want to take me away."

At 34, Cathy is years younger than Kelly's youngest child. And the difference between her age and Kelly's is glaringly apparent, in both appearance and attitude. Cathy's demeanor is funny and loose, while Kelly is oddly formal. "When I meet someone," he says, "I say, 'I'm Mr. Kelly. Everyone calls me that except for my wife [Aggie]. She called me Randolph."

Even Cathy calls him "Kelly" or "Mr. Kelly."
Cathy's nose is pierced. She is dressed casually in shorts and a shirt, the latter splotched with flour. "Cake fight," Cathy says, pulling at a gooey batch of batter sticking to her hair.

"The girls," she adds. "They put stuff on my face and everything." Cathy's daughters, ages nine and twelve, live with her here at Kelly's house. They keep things lively.

Kelly, too, is dressed casually, but in an old-fashioned, retiree kind of way. His tan pants are held up by suspenders, which is probably why he hasn't bothered to buckle his belt. He's in his stocking feet.

Kelly's eyes are striking, the irises rimmed with blue. His hands are calloused, the result of working 42 years in construction. His hair is a shock of white, but that is nothing new. Kelly's hair has been this color since childhood; it's a family trait.

A thin blaze of white streaks up from Kelly's forehead and disappears into his hair. "I had it when I was born," he says. "My hair had a white stripe down it. Two of my boys got it, too.

"They say in the Bible that God's children will be born with a star on their forehead."

But when Kelly was growing up, that streak seemed more of an embarrassment than a blessing. "I always wore a hat when I was growing up because they called me 'Spotted Head' and 'Silver Streak.'"

"And 'Skunk,'" Cathy pipes up, although Kelly won't admit to that.
The distinctive mark, Kelly says, "come from my mother, although you can't see it too good in pictures."

 

He disappears down the hall and returns minutes later carrying a framed picture, its mat yellowed with age. "That's my mother and father," he says. Two figures stare out from the photo. They are posed on the porch of an old frame house. Kelly's father is wearing a hat, a tie and a proud look in his eyes. His wife, however, looks pensive, uneasy.

"My dad died not long after that picture was taken," Kelly says. "I was five. I think he was killed. I never knew. My grandma wouldn't tell me. Somebody said they caught him asleep and killed him."

"Maybe it was your mama's man," Cathy offers.
"Maybe," Kelly says, sounding doubtful. "The man who was supposed to kill my dad went to prison for twenty years. I think he hit him in the head with an ax or something."

When Kelly's mother remarried--to a man Kelly didn't like--Kelly stayed with his grandmother on her farm. Four years after his father's death, he was orphaned. "Mom died when I was nine," he says. "My mother, she died in childbirth. Couldn't get no doctor way back in the woods. It was a baby boy. They buried them both in the same casket."

"God, Kelly! Damn!" Cathy responds.
"Well, you asked for it," he tells her.
Kelly lost track of his mother's family after she died. "All's I know is that they lived in Arkansas, in the Delta bottom, where they raised cotton," he says. "I'd sure like to find them. My mother was a Williams. Julia Williams."

"I want to go to Louisiana," Cathy says. "I want to see where you grew up."
"Can't," Kelly tells her. "The house, it's gone now. They done sold all the property."

"Oh, Kelly," Cathy says. "You must feel so lonely."
"I just had a little portion of sadness in my heart," he answers.
"I got to please you more," she says. "I'll be your mama. I'll be your daddy, too."

"I'd be so grateful," Kelly says.
When Kelly was nineteen, he left his grandmother's house in Clinton, Louisiana, to join the Army. World War II was winding down, but Kelly saw action in three theaters during his "three years, nine months and twenty-seven days" in the service.

"I'll never forget it," Kelly says. "It was rough. I went to Europe, Panama, the Philippines, Guam and Guadalcanal.

"I was a truck driver. We had to drive at night with no lights and take things to the front line. But when we got to the Pacific, the war was almost over. We cruised the beaches and got hot."

"Was it scary?" Cathy asks, her eyes wide.
"Oooh, yeah!" he tells her. "You could hear those mortars, shoooo-boom! It will never leave you."

"What were you doing?" she asks, egging him on. "Did you have a gun?"
"I wore my .45 24 hours a day," he says. "There was a rifle rack in the truck, but couldn't get to it fast. I slept with that .45. I carried it all the time."

"So when'd you take a bath?" Cathy asks.
"Oh, if we found a puddle of water, we'd splash in it."
"So you was just really funky guys," she says, scrunching up her nose.

"It was cold," Kelly continues, ignoring her comment. "I wore three pair of pants. Khakis, Army pants and coveralls. It was thirty below zero for about a week."

"Is it like jail?" Cathy asks of the Army.
"No, it's like college," Kelly replies, although he has never been to college. "You do what you're told, and you do it as fast as you can."

His answer amuses Cathy, and she laughs. "That's not like college," she says. "That's like the Army, baby."

Kelly married Aggie in March 1946, not long after returning to Louisiana from his stint in the Army. His bride was a former high school classmate. She was also the sister of his brother Adolph's wife.

Kelly and Aggie came to Denver in 1953, when their eldest child, Ovida, was about five. "I had a sister out here," Kelly says. "It was kinda like a vacation, but we liked it and we stayed. It was a quiet town. You could stand on 23rd and see all the way to the mountains. There wasn't no buildings in the way. This was a quiet time.

"They used to have a big store down here on 40th that had discounts for soldiers," he continues. "We lived on Vine, and we'd drive all the way out here. Where my house is now, this was a field."

 

In 1973, twenty years after he'd brought his young family to Denver, Kelly bought a blond brick duplex in northeast Park Hill. The Kellys lived in one half and rented out the other side. Kelly lives there now, with Cathy.

Kelly turns to Cathy. "You remember that old drive-in?" he asks, then answers the question himself. "No, you don't remember that drive-in."

"Bullcrap I don't," she snaps playfully. "You could see the screen from where we lived."

Cathy grew up on Dahlia Street not far from the house she and Kelly now share. She's had her own hardships; she was on her own at thirteen, she says, and an early marriage failed, leaving her the single mother of two girls. Although Cathy didn't meet Kelly until 1994, they knew many of the same families--Cathy the kids, Kelly the parents. And when Cathy was sixteen, she worked at the Park Manor Nursing Home alongside Aggie Kelly, a dietician.

The house that Cathy and Kelly now share is full of memories, full of all those family photographs of the Kelly children wearing Halloween costumes, building snowmen, playing on the lawn.

The photos don't show the family's less wholesome activities.
"Everybody knows the Kellys," says one Denver cop. "They're the family with the streak of gray in their hair."

They also have an almost unbroken streak of problems with the police.
Randolph Kelly's criminal record stretches back to 1956, when he was picked up for drunken driving. At least another dozen arrests, most of them alcohol-related, followed in the ensuing years. LeeLee, too, had a criminal record, racking up charges of disturbing the peace, disorderly intoxication and driving under the influence of alcohol. And Darnell has told authorities that his eldest brother, Randolph Jr., spent time in the Colorado State Reformatory back in the late Sixties.

But it was Darnell who caused the most trouble.
According to court records, Darnell's criminal history started when he was just eight years old and the police began receiving complaints that the boy was involved in burglary, assault and bike theft. In the years that followed, Darnell would be picked up for theft, malicious mischief, joyriding, menacing, discharging a weapon and criminal trespass. His first serious scrape, however, came in mid-1977, after he was convicted of aggravated robbery and conspiracy and sent to the Lookout Mountain School for Boys, a juvenile detention center.

After several months of confinement, Darnell's behavior was deemed good enough to earn him a weekend furlough. But Darnell had had enough of juvie hall. When the furlough was over, he never returned. He was still considered AWOL when, the following year, he was picked up and charged with the first-degree murder of Lydrick D. Winn, Jr., a 22-year-old man who left behind a seven-year-old daughter.

"Darnell, I think he took the rap for somebody," Cathy says of the murder charge.

"There was five bullets in that man," Kelly says, "and [Darnell] had a gun and five other people had guns, and [Darnell] had only one bullet fired from that gun. That's what he told me."

But that's not what police say.
The murder occurred on December 31, 1977, at an old after-hours club at 32nd and Downing called, alternately, NasCap or Chateaux. Witnesses told police that Winn had exchanged words with a younger man who left the club, then returned with a gun and shot Winn in the head, neck and shoulder.

Although witnesses identified Darnell as the shooter from a photo lineup, Darnell claimed innocence and instead implicated a friend. The case was complicated, however, by the reluctance of many others--over fifty people had been at the club--to testify. In addition, three people claimed that another man had confessed to committing the murder.

Darnell's trial on first-degree murder charges was into its second day when he decided to plead guilty to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to serve twenty to twenty-five years in prison.

He was then twenty years old and the father of a year-old son.
Darnell wound up serving ten years in prison. Several years into his prison stint, he petitioned the courts to vacate the sentence, claiming that his lawyer had promised he would receive a ten- to fifteen-year sentence if he pleaded guilty. His parents, two sisters and his girlfriend signed affidavits backing up his story. But his attorney denied that he'd made any such promise, and Darnell's request was turned down.

Darnell got out the year his brother died.
Today, nearly eight years after the accident, Kelly is still unable to talk about the death of LeeLee. Kelly's head droops and he shields his eyes when he is asked about his middle son. He sighs deeply. "I can't," he says, and shakes his head.

 

When Kelly leaves the room to get some smokes, Cathy talks about what she knows of that day, exactly a week before Christmas in 1988.

"He died accidentally," Cathy says. "It was an accident. LeeLee was cleaning the gun and when Kelly came in, the gun went off. Kelly didn't have the gun in his hand. That's what Kelly tells me. They was wrassling with it."

When Kelly returns to the room, he is carrying a pack of Tijuana Smalls cigars. And he is not pleased that Cathy has chosen to speak about his dead son. "Tell her about LeeLee," Cathy says. "She wants to know."

"I don't remember," Kelly says sullenly. "I was in shock for a whole dadgum month." Kelly pauses for a long moment before continuing. "I had cleaned the gun, and I was putting it into my bag and it went off," he says. "The police took me down and set me down in an office and talked to me and turned me loose."

Denver police homicide detective Joe DeMott was one of the officers called out to the Kelly home the day of the shooting. "It was a Sunday, if I remember right," DeMott says. "It was in the afternoon. His sons walked out the door. They were all going to the VA Hospital to see Mr. Kelly's brother Ray, who was dying of cancer. And Randolph said he was checking his gun and that Emmitt looked back to see what was taking him so long, and he got shot."

"How the heck the gun [a Smith & Wesson revolver] went off, I don't know, because it has a pretty good trigger pull," DeMott says.

But if there was any doubt in investigators' minds that the shooting wasn't accidental, that suspicion all but disappeared when they witnessed Kelly's reaction to the news that his son had died. Some of them still remember Kelly's outpouring of grief.

"LeeLee could fix anything," Kelly says, a small smile touching his lips. "We'd be working in the house and he'd come in and he'd say, 'Let me fix it, Daddy.' He was in construction. He graduated from a mechanics school, and he liked to work on cars. He liked all that."

"I bet you miss him," Cathy says.
"Of course I do," Kelly tells her.
Within five years of LeeLee's death, Aggie Kelly was diagnosed with cancer. Her decline is recorded in family photo albums. Earlier photographs show a vibrant, if thin, woman as she cuddled children or cooked, but she appears shrunken and worn in later pictures. In several snapshots taken prior to her death, Aggie is lying on the living-room sofa, draped with an afghan and no longer able to smile, even in the picture where a great-grandchild is snuggled alongside her.

Aggie died in May 1993. "My wife and I lived together 48 years," Kelly says, "and she passed away in that bedroom right over there. It was hard."

It was hard on their remaining children, too.
"After their mother passed away," Kelly says, "they just all of them wanted their daddy to be here. They didn't want no one else here. They don't want people to stay with me. But I'm proud of that. They're trying to look out for their daddy."

His children resent Cathy's presence a great deal, Kelly admits. And that has caused problems and hard feelings. Kelly believes that resentment may have been at the center of the family's most recent heartache.

On Saturday, March 16, Cathy was hosting a birthday party for a friend. Darnell had come, but he wasn't in a partying mood.

"He wanted to jump on me down there," Cathy says.
"He said to me, 'I want to talk to you,'" Kelly recalls. "And we walked into the bathroom so we could hear over the music. And he started cussing at me. I didn't even know what his problem was. I got word he had some kind of substance in his body when he got to the hospital."

"Mmm, mmm, mmm," Cathy adds with disapproval. "Some kind of substance. I don't know what he was thinking."

"So I heard all this, and I tried to go in," she says, continuing the story where Kelly left off. "I said, 'What's wrong with you?' I said, 'Are you guys okay?' Then [Darnell] hauled off and hit me."

"And he hit me, too," Kelly says.
A neighbor led Darnell from the basement, where the party was being held, and told him to leave, Kelly says. "And I told him, 'You go on along, now.'"

The party was over when, a few hours later, Darnell's girlfriend came to the house looking for Darnell's pager. "We was cleaning up," Kelly says, "but we couldn't find his beeper. And she left, and [Darnell] came in."

 

"Busted in" might be a more appropriate way of describing Darnell's entrance, however. His son attacked the back door with a hammer, Kelly says. Daylight still leaks through a hole in the door's bottom panel, and the jamb is splintered.

"The hammer," Kelly says, holding his hands apart, "was about that long. Two and a half feet, almost. It was a ball pein hammer, but a little bigger than an ordinary one."

After breaking in the door, Kelly says, Darnell came at him with the hammer.
"I told him, 'Go ahead and go on the way you came.' I said, 'Go on back now.' And he said, 'No, I'm going to kick your so-and-so.' And he came at me with the hammer and I ducked, and he hit my back, and then I shot him."

According to police, Darnell was shot five times, leaving a total of eight entrance and exit wounds. Kelly says the gun was a .380 Magnum.

"I saw everything," Cathy says. "He charged after Kelly. Am I correct, Kelly? I said, 'Oh, no! What am I supposed to do?' And Kelly said, 'You ain't got to do nothing.'

"My kids were up here playing when it happened," Cathy continues. "My babies were up here. My daughter seen it."

"She didn't see shit," Kelly says scornfully.
"Danielle!" Cathy calls out, intent on clearing up the matter. Moments later, a small girl stands obediently at Cathy's side.

"Did you see your Uncle Darnell get shot?" she quizzes the girl.
"Yeah," the girl answers.
"What did you see?" Cathy urges.

"Nothing," the girl responds. Cathy then sends her off to rejoin her friends, who are watching Sesame Street on television.

After Darnell was shot, Cathy says, she phoned the police and then ran to Darnell's side and held him. "I told him how much I love him," she says. "He told me to get away from him. But this is Kelly's kids. I have to do something. That's my husband. Ain't you my husband, Kelly?"

"Yeah," he says.
"Nobody's gonna die here," Cathy says. "But I seen death in [Darnell's] eyes. Did you see death in his eyes?" she asks, turning to Kelly.

"I don't recollect," Kelly says. "When [the police] got here, they snatched me up and carried me down [to jail]." Kelly's stay there was relatively brief, however--prosecutors soon determined that Kelly had shot his son in self-defense.

Darnell was in bad shape for a while, but on March 25 he was released from Denver General Hospital. (Darnell could not be reached for comment.)

Kelly harbors no ill will toward his youngest son. "I'm not going to press no charges," he says. He's seen Darnell just once since the shooting. "Darnell called me from the hospital and he said can he come by and get some mail. So he came. He didn't get out of his car, but I went out and hugged him. He hugged me and he said, 'Dad, I'm so hurt.'

"He apologized," Kelly says. "She saw him hug me and squeeze me," he says, looking to Cathy for affirmation.

Cathy nods. "I told him myself I love him," she says. "We'll have them over for Easter so the family can get together and talk."

"Yes," Kelly says, "Darnell will be here. He's okay. We's all family.


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