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It Happened One Night

A night out landed Rich Velarde in a wheelchair.
Jim J. Narcy

The clock was pushing closer and closer toward three in the morning, and Jody Velarde had still not heard from her boy. For most mothers, this would not be that unusual; few expect to get a call from a grown son after he's spent a night out on the town. But Jody and Richard were close. Years spent carefully and successfully navigating a gang-infested area on the west side of Denver, where Jody and her husband, Richard Sr., raised Rich, had forged that strong a bond between them. So even at 28, Rich still dutifully complied with his mother's request that he call her when he got home from a night out, no matter how late it was. He knew how it put her mind at ease.

Jody had even asked Rich to stay in that Wednesday night. The next day was Thanksgiving, and he was bringing his six-year-old daughter, Mia, over for dinner; she would prefer it if he were not hung over and grumpy. But Rich assured his mother that all would be fine. He and a buddy were just going to shoot some pool and have a few beers. No big deal.

Still, if it was no big deal, why hadn't she gotten that call yet, Jody wondered as she tossed and turned in her bed. Why was her son still out?

Then the phone rang.

"It was the chaplain from St. Anthony's," Jody recalls. "He said, 'I'm calling about your son, Richard Velarde.' I immediately started screaming. 'Oh, my God, is he dead?' I asked. They said no, but that he had been shot. I didn't even say goodbye. I hung up the phone and was there in two minutes flat. We live right across Sloan's Lake from the hospital. They were amazed by how fast we got there."

Jody and Richard Sr. -- Butch, to friends -- were sent to a small waiting room, where they were visited first by the chaplain, then a police officer who told them that their son had been involved in a shooting on Market Street in LoDo. Butch couldn't take it anymore. He burst out of the waiting room and ran frantically around the hospital, searching for his son. Soon he spotted him through a window, bloody but awake. Rich recognized his father and was not in the operating room, which his parents took as good signs. There were probably no vital organs damaged.

Then the doctor came in and spoke with them. The first bullet had gone through Rich's back and out his abdomen. The second bullet was still lodged in Rich's spine.

"Richard will never walk again," he said.

Butch collapsed to the ground and wailed. Jody just wanted to see her son.

"When I finally saw him, he was real upset," she remembers. "He said, 'Mom, they're saying I'm not going to walk, that that's a possibility. Is that true, Mom?' I told him that I didn't know yet and that we should just worry about getting him well."

"I shouldn't have been there, Mom," Rich told her. "If I would have just gone home, like you told me"

Jody shushed her son as the doctors inserted an IV into Rich's arm and he drifted away into unconsciousness.


It started the way confrontations at bars always start. Somebody with something to prove talking shit.

Rich Velarde and longtime friend Eric Johanson, 26, say they were standing with Eloy Fuentes, a 23-year-old acquaintance of Eric's, near the bar at Market 41, where they'd been for the better part of the night, when they were approached by 35-year-old Michael Orlando Rollie, who was claiming Crip status. Rollie stared them down, blew smoke in their faces, dared them to challenge him. Tempers started to flare, but Rich and Eric tried to cool things down, remarking that it was Thanksgiving, that they'd all do better just to leave it alone. The trio retreated to another portion of the bar, played a little pool, but it seemed like Rollie followed them everywhere.

"It just felt like he was always watching us," Rich recalls. "It was weird, because we weren't wearing any gang colors or nothing. It seemed strange that he would single us out." Eric and Rich both have a lot of tattoos on their arms, which people sometimes misconstrue as thuggish. But they say they're far from gangbangers. They're men with jobs, men with houses, men with children.

Later that evening, after the bartenders had issued last call, Eric exited the bathroom to find Rich and Eloy in the middle of a melee with Rollie.

"They were just pushing and shoving, and I saw Eloy in the middle of it with that guy Rollie. Then I saw Rich there, trying to pull Eloy away," Eric says. "So I got in there, and I grabbed Rich and pulled him out of there. That's when two bouncers grabbed us and threw us out the back door of the club."

 

At some point in the scuffle, someone -- Eric and Rich contend it was a friend of Eloy's -- smashed a jagged broken bottle against Rollie's face, cutting his cheek.

A club employee gave Rollie a towel "and told him to sit down, and the paramedics were called for treatment," an arrest warrant reports. "The suspect refused any treatment and said that he had to go and left the bar."

According to Rollie, the other guys started the fight. "I was attacked," he says. "I was surrounded by guys that I didn't know and jumped." Earlier in the night, Rich, Eric and Eloy were claiming gang affiliation and threatening him, he insists; at some point, a security guard approached and told him there were people in the bar who were out to get him. Rollie, too, denies ever being in a gang.

And that's where his version of the story stops. He won't say any more about the night because of pending legal action. Rollie, who graduated from East High School in 1988, spent time in the Navy as an F-14 armament system technician and was working as an installer with Comcast last fall, is now in jail. The mug shot taken the day of his arrest shows his cheek still sliced and bruised. The lengthy criminal record in his Denver Police Department file includes charges of assault, possession of a concealed weapon, menacing, larceny and resisting police.

According to Rich and Eric, Rollie left the club through the front entrance, the same door Eloy was sent through. Rich and Eric hurried out the back and around to the front, wanting to make sure that Eloy and Rollie didn't go at it on Market Street. Finding Eloy unharmed, the trio headed toward Eric's truck, which was parked around the corner off 20th Street, in a lot by the Soiled Dove.

Let Out was in full swing, and as people spilled out of the clubs and bars by the hundreds, Rich spotted a car filled with girls he knew, their vehicle deadlocked in the standstill traffic. He stopped to say hello. Eric and Eloy continued on toward the lot -- Eric was going to give Eloy a ride to his own car, which was parked several blocks away -- when Eric says he caught sight of Rollie, running toward them from an alley.

"It was like any Let Out," Eric recalls. "There were cops everywhere, yelling at everybody to go home. 'Get the fuck out of here!' and all that. But when I saw Rollie running toward us, I saw he had a gun. I screamed, 'He's got a gun!' and all of a sudden, it was like there was not a cop anywhere near there."

Eric lunged at Rollie, trying to tackle him. The gun went off, and a bullet entered Eric's left leg low near his ankle, then ricocheted upward and out, exiting mid-shin. ("X-rays of my shin looked like a tree, with the bone shards shooting out like branches," he says.) Eric collapsed to the ground. Rollie then pointed the gun at Eric's head and fired. The second bullet entered Eric's face near the left nostril, hit his cheekbone, shattered his eye socket so that his eye hung lazily in place, resting on a nerve, then ricocheted down, exiting his head near his left ear.

"I remember thinking that I couldn't believe I got shot in the face and I was still alive," Eric says. "So I just laid there, playing dead. And that's when I heard more shooting."

In the next two minutes, terror took over as Wednesday-night revelers ducked behind cars. Three more young men were shot: Eloy was shot once in the buttocks and once through the left arm, both non-life-threatening injuries; bystander Rudy Valdez was shot once and wound up losing a kidney.

After seeing Eric gunned down in the parking lot, Rich remembers locking eyes with Rollie, and then he took off. Rollie chased after him, firing wildly. One bullet sailed past -- possibly the bullet that hit Rudy Valdez -- and then Rich felt a sharp sting as another shot tagged him in the back, then tore through his stomach. He tried to keep running back down the street, toward Market 41. But then Rich was hit again, this time by a bullet that lodged between two discs in his spine.

Rich went down and watched as Rollie walked over to him, stood over him, put the gun to his head and fired. Click. Rollie fired again. Click. No more bullets. Rollie kicked Rich in the stomach and face, then fled.

 

"After he kicked me and ran off, one dude ran up on me and took his shirt off and put it on my stomach because it was bleeding so much," Rich remembers. "I would blink for a second and they would yell at me, 'Stay with me!' I was coherent, but I was completely numb." Someone said a prayer over him, and then he was loaded into an ambulance bound for St. Anthony's.

Meanwhile, Eric was still lying in a pool of blood around the corner.

"I think I was the last one they took out of there in an ambulance," Eric says. "I remember hearing someone say something about how I was shot in the face and I probably wouldn't survive, to get the other guys first, but I can't be sure. I was nodding in and out."

An off-duty paramedic tended to Eric until he was finally loaded in an ambulance.

A Market 41 employee identified Michael Rollie as both the shooter and the man who'd been involved in an earlier scuffle inside the club, when he was hit in the face with a bottle. Police were able to pull up security footage of Rollie presenting his Colorado driver's license as he entered the bar; armed with that information, they went to his Aurora residence on Thanksgiving Day.

Officers found Rollie walking out of his house toward his car. Alarmed by the frenzy swirling across TV, he was on his way to turn himself in, Rollie says. Armed with a handgun.

"They've treated me as a menace to society," Rollie says of the media. "I'm a working-class man. I've got two kids. But they've got me down as the aggressor, as the antagonist."

Rollie remains in custody, charged with four counts of attempted first-degree murder after deliberation and four counts of first-degree assault, with bail set at $100,000 and a preliminary hearing on February 3. If he's convicted on all counts, Rollie could face up to 96 years in prison.


Market 41 is no stranger to controversy. In 2004, an off-duty cop celebrating his birthday at the club at 1941 Market Street was accused of assaulting a girl in a bathroom; he later left the force. In April 2005, the club's liquor license was suspended for a week after a series of scuffles and several fire-code violations caught the attention of the Department of Excise and Licenses, which threw up a red flag. That September, police reported that a stabbing in the men's bathroom was phoned in nearly half an hour after it took place and that the restroom had been cleaned up before police arrived. That same month, two underage women informed police that a doorman had allowed them into the club repeatedly in exchange for cash.

Market 41's generous alcohol specials do little to discourage rowdy behavior. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, women could imbibe whatever drinks they desired for a penny until midnight, while men enjoyed $3 you-call-it drinks. A message on the club's answering machine currently invites club-goers to enjoy all-you-can-drink Cape Cods and draft beers every Friday night, when men pay $5 at the door, women a buck.

In the 23-plus square blocks that encompass LoDo, 59 establishments hold liquor licenses. Fourteen of these belong to bars and clubs mashed together in the 1900 block of Market Street. That puts Market 41 at the heart of the action during Let Out, that chaotic mass exodus of party-goers at 2 a.m. Drunken revelers rub against each other as they all try to make their way home, blood alcohol levels soaring. Annoyed LoDo residents are commonly awakened by screaming, blaring music, car horns, broken bottles, fights or gunfire -- as was the case early on the morning of November 24.

"We're dealing with very large establishments here," comments Commander Deborah Dilley, head of the District 6 police station, which is responsible for lower downtown. "This is not your cousin's little bar; some of these places can hold a thousand people. When you mix a large number of people, alcohol and various emotional issues, there's going to be fights, there's going to be problems. That's always the case with a high concentration of establishments with liquor licenses."

Many loft-dwellers don't appreciate their more rambunctious neighbors. In November, the Downtown Denver Residents Organization opposed a liquor-license application for the first time in years.

"I think we're pretty saturated," says Fabby Hillyard, executive director of LoDo District Inc. "I imagine we might curb approving liquor licenses for a while. I think the residents want a little break to figure out how to better deal with the situation.

 

"As with anything, it's all about the operators," she adds. "Responsible owners and operators are a real asset to the downtown environment, and having lots of clubs and bars in the area makes the energy high; it makes it fun. But if people are chronically letting people in clubs be overserved, if they're not dealing with the issues inside and pushing the problem out onto the street, then they are not being responsible community partners, and it becomes an issue."

Market 41 is owned by Frank and William "Kirk" Scheitler, sons of a former Denver City Council representative, the late Bill Scheitler. Frank once served as a Denver deputy district attorney; Kirk ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on city council.

"I know that the owners of the property are a really committed longtime Denver family, and there's a lot of community respect there," Hillyard says of Market 41. "I also know that it's made a little reputation for itself, but I couldn't tell you why that is." The place does seem to be volatile."

Dilley, who has held monthly meetings with LoDo bar and club owners since the infamous "wilding" incident in the summer of 2004 ("Where the Wilding Things Are," July 27, 2004), reports that uniformed and undercover officers, a lieutenant and video surveillance are all in place to monitor the area. "Bars and clubs have to live up to their requirements of occupancy and not overserve people," she adds. "I understand you want to make a living, but you have to make sure people are safe at your establishment; you have to make good choices. These are the issues we need to work hand-in-hand on to curb the violence in LoDo. We have had problems with Market 41 before, but we have had problems with a lot of other bars, as well."

"They should have a cop on site at Market 41 or something," Rich Velarde says. "Bouncers knew there was trouble from the first little incident at the club. They should have had Rollie arrested after the second scuffle, not just thrown him into the street. Of course more trouble is going to happen after that. They invite you to come in there with their marketing and drink specials; they should have to protect you."

Rich has hired attorney Ken Padilla, who's launched his own investigation into the incident. "Market 41's failure to call the police when there was an assault by Michael Rollie created a volatile situation," he says. "Liquor laws specifically provide that a bar or club has a duty to report such incidents to the authorities, not throw the combatants out of the business."

Rollie's not happy with how Market 41 handled the situation, either. "The bar itself didn't report the crime, they didn't report the assault, they didn't tell me they were going to call an ambulance," he says. "They gave me a towel after a bottle was smashed in my face and told me to sit down. I felt threatened and concerned for my immediate safety."

Market 41's owners did not return calls; the club's attorney declined to comment for this story.


Two days after the shootings on Market Street and less than a block away, 24-year-old Hassan Lahsen got into an altercation with an employee at Bash, a club at 1902 Blake Street. Saying Lahsen was unruly, the employee wrestled him to the ground, smashing his head into the floor.

Lahsen was ejected from the club and physically tossed to the curb. Eventually, someone called an ambulance.

"It just looks like one of those unfortunate things that happen," says Bash owner Mike Bertinelli. "It wasn't anything that we planned. Our bartender found the guy vandalizing in there, tried to stop him, and wound up wrestling him to the ground. It's just a really unfortunate accident."

Lahsen has hired an attorney, Steve Polidori, who is pursuing a claim against the club. The employee who fought Lahsen was a bar back, not a bouncer, Polidori says, and had no cause to treat his client so roughly.

Lahsen, temporarily paralyzed with a broken neck, was sent for rehabilitation to Craig Hospital -- where he found himself briefly sharing a room with Rich Velarde. He has since regained some movement in his arms and legs, though his left side feels numb much of the time.

For Rich, recovery has been like reinventing the wheel. At Craig, a typical day has him at occupational therapy by 9 a.m., where he learns such basic skills as how to get dressed on his own and how to transfer himself from his wheelchair into the shower. At 10 a.m. he moves on to physical therapy, where he learns how to use his body weight and swing his arms to pull himself over on to his back or side. After lunch he attends stress-management class, where he and other patients watch videos on how to cope with their injuries. Then it's off to wheelchair class -- how to scale a curb most effectively, how to safely pop a wheelie -- followed by an hour of weightlifting. Dinner is at 4:30 p.m., and after that Rich hangs out at the rec center, where he can play pool and video games with other patients or just watch television. He's typically so exhausted that he's in bed by 7 p.m.

 

"I have rough days," says Rich. "I'm picky about my hygiene, and this medication they have me on makes you constipated. Then you have pills to counteract that, and I can't control it. I'm a young guy; I don't want people to have to take care of me like that. It makes you mad, it makes you upset. But I try to have a positive outlook on things. I've seen people in here who are a lot worse."

"It's really hard seeing your boy like this every day," Jody says. "It's really devastating to think that he is going to be like this the rest of his life. Some of it's uncomfortable, but Richard and I are so close, we're able to get through it.

"We celebrated Christmas at my sister's house," she continues. "They let Richard come, and while he was there he had to go to the bathroom, but we didn't really have the right equipment, so I had to help him with everything. When we were leaving, my husband said to me, 'I'm so glad you and Richard have that relationship where he's not embarrassed.' I said, 'He's my son. I brought him into this world wiping his ass, and I'll take him out that way if I have to."

But for Rich, who's been self-sufficient since he was seventeen and headed up air-conditioning and heating-installation crews at various sites around Colorado for nearly ten years, learning how to function as a paraplegic has been incredibly frustrating.

Eric's recovery has also been slow, difficult and costly. He underwent reconstructive surgery on the left side of his face and had a metal rod placed in his shin. His jaw was wired shut immediately after the shooting, and he lost nearly forty pounds in a little over a month.

Still, just a week after being shot, Eric -- a local rapper who goes by the name of Atak -- limped on crutches up to the mike at a battle-of-the-bands contest at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom and rapped for the crowd through his clenched jaw. Most of the people in the audience knew what had happened to him in LoDo, and they absolutely lost it.

"They have a videotape of it," Eric says. "And the camera just starts shaking when I get on stage from the roar of the crowd."

But the moments of triumph are few and far between. Eric knows he's probably going to need speech therapy, and he's not sure if his voice is ever going to sound right. Of more concern is the weakened state of his left leg. It may impact his work as a painter, the trade that's supported him for the past eight years, since he will probably be incapable of scaling ladders or walking on roofs. And the bills are piling up. With no health insurance, Eric is juggling Medicare and victim's assistance with overdue rent and the numerous costs associated with his recovery. A benefit after the shooting netted about $900, but that doesn't last long when you have two children to support.

Things have been particularly hard for Eric and Rich's children. Eric's four-year-old son has taken to drawing menacing pictures of criminals with guns, then violently scratching out their faces. "He told me when he gets older he's going to get shot by the same guy who shot me," Eric says. "He's scared."

Rich's twelve-year-old stepson, Carlos, has been acting out at school; at a benefit for Rich shortly after the shooting, Carlos stayed uncharacteristically glued to his side. Mia repeatedly asks to live exclusively with her father now -- Rich is separated from Carlos and Mia's mother -- and recently delivered a heart-wrenching prayer over Christmas dinner. She was supposed to give thanks on Thanksgiving, but that was understandably tabled until December 25.

"We said to her, 'Okay, Mia, this is your chance,'" Jody recounts. "And she grabbed her daddy's two hands and she did everything right. She thanked God for the food, and then she said, 'Dear God, thank you for my dad being here. I don't care if his legs don't work; it's okay for people to be in wheelchairs.' We had to cut her short and just say amen, because it was getting way too emotional in there, and everyone was about to lose it. But that's what I remind Richard of now. When we get so bogged down with things like figuring out how to make his house accessible, when he worries about how he's going to make a living from now on, I just say to him, 'All that matters is that you're here. You're going to see your daughter grow. You can still hold her; you can still guide her.'"

 


Mid-morning on one of the last days of 2005, Rich is undergoing physical therapy, lying on a pad in Craig's therapy room, a large space where sports-team banners hang from the ceiling. While Jody and Butch watch, Mia, in pink shoes and a Tommy Girl shirt, sprawls on top of her father as a physical therapist pushes his leg inward, then pulls it outward, carefully bending it at the knee.

Rich has moved to an area at Craig where recovering patients inhabit transitional suites -- single apartment-type spaces -- to further their journey toward self-sufficiency. Rich is not quite there yet and must still undergo extensive physical therapy across the street, but his progress has been impressive. And he's taken himself off of the painkillers and anti-depressants, enduring the pain on ibuprofen alone.

His competitive nature drives him. In an impromptu wheelchair race with two other patients, Rich nearly blew a gasket flying around the course. Huffing and puffing, he finished a close third -- and a few minutes later realized that a wheel had been flat the entire time.

Rich eagerly anticipates his gym-class sessions, when patients play basketball and a less intense version of murderball -- wheelchair rugby -- in Craig's gymnasium, beneath the type of large, exposed heating ducts Rich used to install.

"He was always a good athlete," says Butch.

"And he always had one eye on the sideline, making sure we were watching," Jody adds before silencing Mia, who's whirling like a dervish next to her father. Rich just watches her and smiles.

The physical therapist positions Rich so that he's seated on the edge of the padded platform, with his back straight and his feet touching the floor. It's difficult for him to balance, so the therapist sits opposite him on a stool, places her feet against his and helps stabilize him with her knees. Rich leans forward slightly, meets the therapist's hands with his own, then leans backward, attempting to resume the position in which he started. This is one of Rich's most challenging exercises and he sweats and exhales from the exertion, his face contorting in pain.

The physical therapist soon surrenders the stool to Jody, coaching her on where to put her feet in order to help prop up Rich. (To expedite his recovery, Rich will voluntarily repeat all of these exercises tonight, alone in the therapy gym with his mother.) Jody puts up her hands, and Rich leans forward and meets them with his own. As Rich begins to lean back, toward his original position, Jody gives his hands a slight push to help.

"Like that?" she asks, turning her head toward the physical therapist.

"No, Mom," Rich interjects. "You barely have to touch me."


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