In the hunt for Darrent Williams's killer, the cops went on the offensive early
Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was riding in the back seat of a white Hummer limousine in the early hours of New Year's Day 2007 with five of his best friends from Texas, fellow player Javon Walker and several women they'd met earlier at a nightclub. At about 2:15 a.m., a spray of bullets hit the limo; one shattered the glass of the window by Williams's head and struck him in the neck. He died minutes later.
In the days that followed, some of Willie Clark's fellow Tre Tre Crips gang members and drug-dealing associates pleaded with him to confess to the crime.
"It was outrageous and out of control," Vernone "Lil Thirty Ounce" Edwards said at Clark's trial. Edwards said he was making fistfuls of money selling drugs and he was afraid that the attention accompanying the first-degree murder investigation of a popular NFL football star would ruin everything. "A lot of heat was going to come down."
Little did they know that things were already warming up. Authorities had been investigating the cocaine- and crack-trafficking operation of the Tre Tre Crips gang, and that of their associates in the more wide-ranging Rolling 30s Crips, since mid-2006.
"The heat was already on them," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Podolak. "They may not have known that the heat was on them, but the heat was on them."
The investigation of the Tre Tre Crips had actually been born inside another operation that began in mid-2003 and was headed by the Metro Gang Task Force, an agency that included officers from the Denver Police Department, the FBI and several county sheriffs' offices.
With the help of wiretaps and undercover surveillance, the task force spent a year and a half culling evidence of crack dealing by the Rolling 60s Crips, another faction of the notorious street gang that began in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Then, before dawn on December 16, 2004, more than 300 officers and agents from several jurisdictions fanned out all over metro Denver and arrested twenty of the thirty people who had been indicted in the case. Most were men in their twenties and thirties who lived in Denver and Aurora.
Some of the people arrested told federal prosecutors that the Rolling 30s Crips were up to the same exact thing. "The Rolling 60s case led to the Rolling 30s case," Podolak says. In 2006, officers began tapping the phones of low-level members of the Rolling 30s. "The idea of any drug investigation," she says, "is to work your way up to the sources of supply and then across to the other members of the drug organization."
Agents identified several suppliers and found out they were also supplying a violent subset of the Rolling 30s called the Tre Tre Crips. More information led agents to an even smaller but dangerously prolific group within the Tre Tres known as the Elite Eight — and to the leader of that group, Brian "Solo" Hicks.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey was aware of the federal investigation into the Rolling 30s and Tre Tre Crips, but he couldn't do much to help until after Williams was murdered and the Denver City Council granted him $350,000 for an investigator, two attorneys and a legal secretary to work full-time on the case.
So when it came time to go after Clark, prosecutors used a strategy familiar to those who investigate organized crime: Arrest his associates for their own sins and then offer them deals for telling the government everything they know about Clark's.
The police seemed to suspect Clark from the start.
Four days after Williams was murdered, Clark was arrested at his lawyer's office on a parole violation. The 23-year-old had $7,283 in his pockets. The police immediately named him as a "person of interest" in the Williams homicide but stopped short of calling him a suspect. Clark, who had violated his parole relating to a previous car-theft charge, was sentenced to six months in a facility for parole violators.
Meanwhile, the police continued working on Williams's murder case, and lead investigator Robert Fuller — a retired officer from the Adams County Sheriff's Gang Unit — kept plugging away at the Elite Eight and at Clark's drug-related misdeeds. The day Clark was scheduled to be released from the facility, Fuller swooped in. Clark was indicted on federal cocaine- and crack-trafficking charges — and promptly arrested again.
"We got lucky that we had enough evidence to charge him federally at the time he was getting out," Fuller says. "We could have not put the pieces together in time, and he could have gotten out and we'd have to find him."
A fourteen-page affidavit prepared by Fuller in late June 2007 lays out the federal case against Clark. It says that Clark was a member of the Tre Tre Crips and of Hicks's violent drug crew, which was involved in large-scale crack trafficking, drive-by shootings and burglaries, and whose members are linked to eleven unsolved murders — not to mention the 2006 shooting of 28-year-old witness Kalonniann Clark (no relation).
According to an informant who talked to Fuller, Hicks recruited Willie Clark, after Clark got out of prison in July 2006, to run a crack house at 43rd Avenue and Cook Street; at first Clark was just a drug runner, but he soon began buying small amounts of crack from Hicks and selling them to his own customers.
On November 9, 2006, agents intercepted a call that indicated that a drug dealer named Gerardo Toribio was going to meet Hicks at a Denver auto shop to sell him four kilograms of cocaine. The police set up a stakeout, and just after noon, Hicks and two other members of the Elite Eight — Malcolm "Pretty Malcolm" Watson and Haven "No Love" Brewer — pulled up to the shop in a black Lexus SUV. Hicks got out of the SUV with a black satchel slung over his shoulder and went into the shop; he emerged seven minutes later. Police tailed the Lexus and, after a short chase, arrested all three men.
After his arrest, Hicks continued to run the Elite Eight's drug business from jail with Clark's help, documents say. Recorded jailhouse phone calls captured Hicks instructing Clark on how to collect money owed to them. Hicks has also been charged with ordering Clark to kill Kalonniann Clark, who was scheduled to testify against Hicks in another shooting case. But before she could, she was gunned down in front of her house. Hicks, Willie Clark and a third man are charged with her murder.
On the day Clark, known as "Little Lett Loose," was released from the parole-violator facility, he was arrested on federal charges for distribution and possession of cocaine and crack. "Clark was moving up the ranks" of the drug organization, Fuller said. "We stopped his career advancement."
And while that case gave police a leg up in their investigation of Williams's murder, it didn't come close to solving the crime. It would take more than another year, and more help from the feds, to gather enough evidence to charge Clark with murder.
To get that evidence, the police turned to Clark's friends and associates. Several had been arrested in 2007 as a result of the sprawling Rolling 30s drug investigation, which involved more than 450 police officers and federal agents and resulted in the seizure of at least 85 kilograms of cocaine, 23 guns and $1.4 million in cash. More than eighty people were indicted altogether.
Among them were Vernone "Lil Thirty Ounce" Edwards, Daniel "PT" Harris, Felix "Little Fe" Abram and Veronica "Roni" Garcia, who were all part of Hicks's drug organization. Court documents say that in 2003, Hicks — who by that time had been dealing drugs for ten years and had established himself as a leader — hatched a plan to dominate the crack market in east Denver. It involved the formation of the Elite Eight, a group of eight men who shared drugs, guns, stash houses and customers.
Edwards was the muscle, court documents say. A tall, imposing man, he served as Hicks's bodyguard in addition to selling drugs.
Harris was a supplier. From 2001 until Hicks's arrest in 2006, Harris bought up to five kilograms of cocaine a week from a man named Edgar Diaz-Calderon and sold it to two other men, one of whom was Hicks.
Abram was a "junior member" of the drug conspiracy, apparently with a penchant for armed robbery. He pleaded guilty to robbing a high-end marijuana dealer at gunpoint, with the help of three other people. They took a duffel bag that contained several pounds of marijuana and baggies of crack, two guns and as much as $60,000 in cash.
Garcia was one of Hicks's girlfriends. She ran his hip-hop clothing store/recording studio, the Hott Spott, at 2019 East Colfax Avenue, which was also where the organization stashed guns, money and drugs.
Once the feds had arrested the members of Hicks's drug organization, Fuller and the Denver police detectives assigned to Williams's murder went fishing for information from them. "What happens 99 percent of the time is, people cooperate because they want to get a lower sentence," Fuller says.
Federal sentencing rules are different from state ones; federal time is "real time," Podolak says. "If you're sentenced to twenty years, you're guaranteed to do 85 percent of that time, even if you're on your best behavior," she says. "Some of these individuals [associated with the Elite Eight] had pretty serious prior criminal histories and were looking at upwards of thirty years to life. That creates an incentive to want to come forward and cooperate."
Investigators used the federal charges as a "vice grip" to squeeze information out of people who knew about the murder. "Because they had the federal hammer, that made people talk," Fuller says.
But cooperation didn't happen overnight. "It takes a long time to bring something like this to fruition when there's the 'stop snitching' code of silence," Fuller says. "That's a very real obstacle we face every day."
Some people refused to talk to investigators about Williams's murder. Others — including Edwards, Harris, Abram and Garcia — did. And all of them, with perhaps the exception of Abram, pointed directly at Clark.
Harris provided the most crucial information (see related story, page 18); in return, he received a plea deal in which federal prosecutors will request that a judge sentence him to five years in prison instead of the thirty years to life he previously faced. His deal also stipulates that he can withdraw his guilty plea and take his chances in front of a judge instead.
Edwards also fingered Clark. He said that Clark called him on January 2, 2007, and asked if he could get him a new gun because he "got rid of" the one he had: a .40-caliber Taurus handgun. Clark also mentioned the shooting. "He asked me if I seen what happened to the Bronco player on the news," Edwards said on the stand at Clark's trial. "I said, 'That was fucked up.' And he said, 'The fool shouldn't have been talking shit.'"
Edwards said he later confronted Clark. "The first thing I asked him, I said, 'Why did you do it?' He said the guy pulled a gun on him." Edwards didn't believe it. "I told him no famous football player with famous people around him was going to pull a gun in front of everybody. He kept saying, 'I didn't mean to do it. I didn't mean to do it.'"
Edwards told Clark to turn himself in. But Clark, jittery, pacing and chain-smoking, responded by saying, "I can't do all day, I can't do life," Edwards said.
Edwards also got a plea deal; he could end up serving only ten years.
Abram didn't implicate Clark directly. Rather, he provided an alibi for Harris, whom defense attorneys accused of also shooting into Williams's limo that night. (Physical evidence proves there were at least two shooters.) Abram said at Clark's trial that he was also at the Safari club that night, where Clark, Harris, Williams and several other Broncos — including Brandon Marshall — were hanging out. As he was walking to his SUV after let-out, Abram said, he saw Harris on Lincoln Street. He said he took Harris to meet his sisters at a gas station and then took him back to his car to drive home.
For his cooperation, Abram could end up serving just seven years.
Garcia was more instrumental in building the case against Clark and could serve as little as three years in prison for her cooperation in the case.
None of Clark's former associates have been sentenced yet — and despite their cooperation, there's no guarantee that a federal judge will accept lesser sentences. Nor have they fulfilled all of their duties; per their plea agreements, Harris, Edwards and Garcia are scheduled to testify in the Kalonniann Clark murder case as well, Podolak says.
But one thing's for sure: While the feds were already tracking the Elite Eight as part of the Rolling 30s investigation, their involvement in the murder of a sports celebrity upped the ante. "Resources were moved because this was an important murder to the community," Podolak says. Hicks was always a target, they say, but there's some question as to whether some of the smaller players, like Garcia or Abram, would have been scooped up in the sting if it weren't for "Little Lett Loose."
"Clark's responsible for over a dozen of his friends and associates going to prison," Morrissey says. "That's what happens in an organized-crime investigation. They're being punished for crimes they committed, but they owe it to Willie Clark."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.