When his brother's body got back to Los Angeles last summer, Carlos Yarbrough examined it carefully, counting the bullet holes one by one. There were, he discovered, a total of ten, in the head, back and chest.
It had only been a few weeks since Bobby Yarbrough, 21, had left California for Denver, telling Carlos and the rest of his anxious family that he'd be looking for construction work. Instead, he wound up dead. On July 4 police found Yarbrough shot to death in a west Denver alleyway, legs crossed at the ankles, with nothing in his pockets except a dime, a few pieces of paper and some caramel candies.
Yarbrough's killing passed almost unnoticed in Denver. And hardly anyone paid attention a few weeks ago when twenty-year-old Sean Christopher Patrick Cox, a former Burger King manager and member of a strange interracial gang called the "I.G.s," pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the case and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. To this day, Carlos Yarbrough says, his family's never been clear on what happened to his brother. "All we know," Carlos says, "is that he was gunned down."
Even Sean Cox is hard-pressed to explain just why Bobby Yarbrough had to die. If anything, Yarbrough's slaying following a wild July 4 weekend binge by the I.G.s is remarkable only for how well it fits a disturbingly common pattern of impulsive violence and senseless criminal behavior that Denver police say they now see all the time.
"This is just run-of-the-mill stuff, unfortunately," says Denver police detective Joe DeMott, the lead investigator in Yarbrough's killing.
Yarbrough, it turns out, was not an innocent victim. He had apparently been dealing drugs in Denver and, hours before his own death, had taken part in the savage beating of a man who allegedly owed him a few dollars for cocaine. That man, 37-year-old Ulysses McCullough, was left to die in a clump of bushes and lay comatose in a hospital for several weeks afterward. Several guests at the I.G.s' party, including two women who brought their young babies with them, were present for the attack on McCullough, but no one thought to call an ambulance.
Sitting in a visitation room at the Denver County Jail, awaiting his transfer to a Colorado state prison, Sean Cox struggles to account for Yarbrough's death. "I didn't get no pleasure out of it," Cox says. "[The shooting] was more reaction than it was mental. I just reacted, and that's the end of it, I guess."
It's unclear even now whether Bobby Yarbrough's murder can rightly be considered a bona fide gang killing. Sean Cox was prosecuted by the gang unit of the Denver district attorney's office because of his alleged membership in the I.G.s, which stands for "Incorporated Gangsters," and police say they suspect members of the group have been involved in drug dealing. But even prosecutors say the I.G.s didn't appear to be much more than a bunch of guys from west Denver who liked to hang around together.
"Their little group was not your traditional gang," says Deputy District Attorney Henry Cooper. "It's like a group of friends, but instead of going out skating or to the movies, they go out and commit crimes." Aside from denying personal involvement in criminal activity, the I.G.s describe themselves in much the same way. "We were just friends," says Cox. "Nothing more to it."
If the I.G.s stood out at all, police say, it was because the group's core members and hangers-on came from a rainbow coalition of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The alleged leader of the I.G.s, Trevor Herasingh, is a 23-year-old black man and an admitted former member of the Crips gang. Cox is white; so is Ervin Schwegmann, a friend of Cox's who spent a lot of time with the I.G.s until Yarbrough's death last year. Anthony Garcia and Paul Martinez, two other core members, are Hispanic. Like Herasingh, many of the I.G.s had former affiliations with other, better known gangs in the city, says Anthony Garcia. And many met each other while working at fast-food restaurants. Sean Cox says he first hooked up with Garcia, Schwegmann and Martinez when the foursome worked together at the Burger King at Broadway and Evans Avenue.
Last summer the I.G.s' de facto base of operations was Trevor Herasingh's place at 189 South Cherokee Street, a three-bedroom duplex apartment just a few blocks west of the intersection of Broadway and Alameda Avenue. The apartment also was the site of the ill-fated July 4 party.
Herasingh, who went by the street name "T-Money," told police after Yarbrough's death that he started the I.G.s to give his friends an alternative to gang life. Group meetings took place at his house every week, Herasingh claimed. "It's like an organization to get people away from gangs," he said. "It doesn't have anything to do with any illegal actions. We try to do positive things, get jobs and stuff--you know, be productive citizens."
Police scoff at Herasingh's portrait of the I.G.s as a service club. Detective Rufino Trujillo of the Denver police gang unit says the group was "really heavy into drugs." And shortly after Yarbrough was killed last summer, police charged Herasingh in the shooting of another man, 21-year-old Jose Badillo. Badillo, who survived, was wounded in the stomach after he and a group of friends confronted I.G. members in an argument over a bottle somebody threw at someone else's car. (Herasingh couldn't be reached for comment; police say the charges against him were later dropped after a witness who said she'd seen him commit the crime changed her story.)
Anthony Garcia says the I.G.s pretty much broke up after Sean Cox killed Yarbrough. Cox is behind bars, as is Paul Martinez, who was arrested later on an unrelated charge. Ervin Schwegmann doesn't come around anymore, and Herasingh has moved out of his Cherokee Street apartment. "It's a lot different," Garcia says.
Like Sean Cox, Garcia says the I.G.s never were as sinister as their name implied. "It's not a gang or nothing like that," Garcia says. "The way the cops are making it out to be is we're all out for trouble. We was just a bunch of friends."
Why, if the group's motives were so innocent, were its members involved in so much violence last summer? "Everybody's got troubles in their life, you know?" Garcia says. "You kick with a certain amount of guys, you're going to have trouble--no matter what you do."
Sean Cox stands about six-foot-two. He has an athletic build, spiky brown hair and a mouth that twists easily into a smirk. He was born in Denver on September 7, 1974, the fourteenth and last child of a motel reservations clerk named Sylvia Hiedkamp. All thirteen of his brothers and sisters, Cox says, were the product of his mother's first marriage. Sean came along after Hiedkamp divorced her first husband and married Sean's father, a disabled Vietnam veteran who didn't work.
Hiedkamp's marriage to James Cox ended when Sean was about four years old, and Sean eventually lost contact with his father. A few years later Hiedkamp married her third husband, with whom Cox says he didn't get along very well. Sean dropped out of school in the ninth grade and began his slide into delinquency not long afterward. "I just started running around getting wild," he says.
Cox says he first got arrested as a young teenager, when he and a friend rode their bikes to a drive-in theater in northwest Denver, broke into a storage shed and starting smashing up light bulbs they found inside. In the following years, according to court records, Cox was arrested all over the metro area for a variety of crimes, including burglary, forgery, robbery and auto theft. He was sent to a "boot camp" for juvenile offenders and later placed in a foster home.
At the time of last year's shooting, Cox was on probation in Jefferson County for breaking into two cars in Indian Hills. He and a friend, Ralph Dickey, had happened upon the vehicles while driving through the small mountain community. The unlikely tourists were in the area because they'd heard there was a stuffed bear's head mounted on a mailbox on Seminole Road, and they wanted to have a look at it.
Instead, the two wound up breaking into a Nissan parked by the roadside and stealing a compact disc player. They then raided a large school bus that was being used to store an electrician's equipment and supplies. A witness saw the pair hauling away the valuable tools they found inside and called police.
Cox and Dickey were pulled over minutes later heading north on Highway 285. Dickey surrendered at the scene. Cox fled on foot but was later apprehended at a house near the Willow Springs golf course. For some reason, he had taken off most of his clothes and was wearing nothing but a T-shirt and his boxer shorts.
The Indian Hills venture "just kind of happened," says Cox. "You know, I ain't used to the mountains, so I see a school bus on the side of the road broken down and beat up and stuff, I think, `Hey, nobody owns it.' So I go playing around with it. I found all this stuff in there, so I'm thinking, `Yeah, it probably belongs to somebody. But they ain't here.'"
Cox pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree criminal trespass. In May 1994 a Jefferson County District Court judge sentenced him to probation rather than jail. Thirty-four days later, Bobby Yarbrough was dead--and Sean Cox had been charged with murder. "I wish they would have put him away for breaking into my car," says Karin Montague, the owner of the Nissan. "Maybe the other person would still be alive."
Independence Day fell on a Monday last year. The I.G.s planned to mark the occasion, Sean Cox says, by staging a nonstop three-day party for themselves and their friends. "We had just planned to party and kick back for the weekend," Cox says. "Drinking, smoking weed, relaxing, going out and doing things."
At the time, Cox was no longer employed, having just quit his job as the manager of the Burger King's graveyard shift. "I just didn't go no more," Cox says. "I was tired of it." The revelry started the evening of Friday, July 1, when Cox and his friends convened at Trevor Herasingh's place. It barely let up for the next 48 hours. Guests flowed in and out of the house the whole time, Cox says, many of them crashing overnight on beds, couches and the floor.
"Wherever you fell, you slept," says Cox. "I was probably the instigator, because I like to drink a whole lot. We'd wake up drinking and stuff. And then we usually would do an event together--we'd go out and see a movie or something, just to get out of the house. And then come back and just party some more or call some girls over and just have fun. Listen to music, dance, sing. Until that night that the shooting happened, it was just all fun."
Bobby Yarbrough, Sean Cox says, first appeared at Herasingh's party on the evening of Sunday, July 3. Yarbrough had just arrived in Denver from Los Angeles and was living in an apartment around the corner from Herasingh with one of his friends, twenty-year-old Dubois Jones.
Yarbrough and Jones had adopted the street names "Jesse" and "E," but they were known to the I.G.s simply as "the L.A. niggers," said Sarah Osness, a guest at the party who testified against Sean Cox last year at his preliminary hearing. Osness, who was dating Anthony Garcia at the time, had been introduced to the I.G.s by Cox, with whom she'd worked at a Denver-area Taco Bell. She also hung out a lot at the Burger King on Evans and Broadway, where, she testified, she'd gotten to know other members of the gang.
Yarbrough had been selling cocaine out of his apartment since his arrival in Denver a few weeks before, according to several witnesses in the case. Indeed, Herasingh told police after the shooting that Yarbrough was a member of a Los Angeles chapter of the Crips. Records show that Yarbrough had recently been arrested in Denver for possession of marijuana.
Sean Cox says he didn't know Jones and Yarbrough very well. He'd first encountered them around Herasingh's apartment a few weeks before the party, he says, and they were on reasonably friendly terms then. "I got along with them and everything," Cox says. "I conversed with them. But we never had, like, a buddy situation. They were just associates."
Cox had been the first one up that Sunday morning, rising at 10 a.m., grabbing his first beer of the day from the refrigerator and then getting everybody else out of bed. "I like to do things," he says. "I don't like to have everybody sleeping and being in one spot for too long." Cox says he took Herasingh back to his place in Englewood for a dip in his apartment complex swimming pool for part of the afternoon. On the way back to Herasingh's place, Cox says, they stopped at the home of a "bootlegger," a man who would sell them alcohol on a Sunday. At the bootlegger's they stocked up on liquor--forty-ounce bottles of beer, Mad Dog, Olde English, Irish Rose--and returned to Herasingh's place to continue the party.
As the day wore on, the number of people at 189 South Cherokee grew to more than a dozen, according to police and court records. Cox, Herasingh, Anthony Garcia, Paul Martinez and Ervin Schwegmann were there, as was Herasingh's brother Keith. Herasingh's girlfriend Virginia showed up with her two-year-old son. Another partygoer named Angelica also arrived with a baby in tow. One of Cox's girlfriends, Tonia Young, drove herself to the party. Sarah Osness, Anthony's girlfriend, was dropped off by her mother sometime after midnight.
Yarbrough and Jones showed up, too, and partied the night away with the others. Members of the group set off fireworks, smoked marijuana and drank so much that another run to the bootlegger's became necessary. At one point, according to several witnesses, Herasingh came out of the house and fired a Mac-11 semiautomatic pistol into the air in celebration of Independence Day.
Exactly who owned the gun isn't clear. But it wasn't the only one in the house, according to police and court records. Also inside were a silver .44 Magnum with a brown handle and a large SKS assault rifle. Cox says the I.G.s kept the guns around for "protection."
Dubois Jones later told police that he, Yarbrough and the I.G.s "basically kicked outside. We just was all out there having a nice time." Things turned ugly, however, after Ulysses McCullough arrived. McCullough, who worked as a clerk at the nearby Kmart at Broadway and Alameda Avenue, knew Yarbrough, though today he says he's not sure how or why he ended up at the party. His only memory is of dealing with Lion King paraphernalia at the store earlier in the day--and then emerging from a coma at the hospital a month later.
People who were at the party, however, say McCullough owed Yarbrough $15 or $20 for drugs he had purchased sometime earlier. Yarbrough and a group of the others jumped McCullough in the street outside the apartment, pounding him with their fists and feet.
Accounts of who took part in the beating differ with the teller. Dubois Jones says it was Yarbrough, Cox and a number of the others. Cox claims it was Yarbrough and Jones. "He [Yarbrough] was like, `Where's my money at?'" Cox says. "I heard that. And they just started beating. Then he fell, and they started kicking him and just socking him [with] their hands and feet."
Police found McCullough a few blocks from the apartment, where he'd been dragged and abandoned by his attackers. He was unconscious, and blood was oozing from his nose and mouth. "My mom told me my head looked like a basketball when she came to see me," McCullough says.
The beating appears to have damaged McCullough's brain. "I get headaches, I get dizzy a little bit, and I get real tired trying to walk on my feet," he says. "I can't really concentrate. I forget a lot of things. When they tell me something, they have to repeat it.
"I'll never be better," McCullough adds. "I'm just lucky to be alive."
Though Cox insists he didn't lay a finger on McCullough, he admits he helped carry him away when the beating was over. "I didn't know they beat him up that bad," Cox says. "I thought they just beat his ass and knocked him out."
The killing occurred around 5:15 a.m. on July 4. It was, Sean Cox claims, an act of self-defense.
After dragging McCullough away, Cox says, he and the others returned to the apartment and continued to drink and get high. Not long afterward, however, Trevor Herasingh discovered that something was missing from his bedroom, according to several witnesses.
Cox claims someone had stolen $280 in rent money that Herasingh had hidden under a mattress. Other witnesses, including Sarah Osness and Dubois Jones, told police the missing item was a packet of cocaine.
According to witnesses, Herasingh ordered each of his guests searched. Sarah Osness testified at Cox's preliminary hearing that all the men were forced to strip down to their underwear. The women, though spared that indignity, were checked as well. "We just took off our jackets and everything," Osness testified. "We were just patted down, and that was it."
(Herasingh denied to police that he'd strip-searched his guests and also denied that he and the others had been drinking heavily that night. "I don't know why I am caught up in the middle of this," he told a detective.)
The search was unsuccessful. But Herasingh suspected Yarbrough was the thief, according to both Cox and Sarah Osness, even though the search proved that Yarbrough, like the others, had no cash or cocaine on him.
As tempers started to flare, says Cox, he took Herasingh aside and suggested that he shut down the party for the night. "I was like, `Hey, the best thing right now is to just send everybody home. I don't know where the money's at. We can look for it [later], but not with everybody here.'"
Cox says Herasingh instead decided to walk to a nearby 7-Eleven for cigarettes, taking his brother Keith and his pet Rottweiler with him. The guests began to leave. Paul Martinez, Ervin Schwegmann, Yarbrough and Jones walked back toward the alley behind the house, Cox says. Cox stood in the doorway with a pillow and blanket in his hands, looking out into the street.
"I was about to just relax and kick back and go to sleep for a while, 'cause everybody was on their way home and stuff," Cox says. "And then Ervin came running up. I guess Paul and them [Yarbrough and Jones] had had a confrontation in the alley. So Ervin came running up to the door; he was like, `Grab the gun, grab the gun--meet Paul in the alley.' So I grabbed the Mac-11 and I ran out."
Cox says he saw Dubois Jones with a .44 Magnum in his hands near the mouth of the alley where it opens onto Cedar Street. Paul Martinez and Yarbrough were standing near each other a few yards away. Cox approached the pair.
"What's going on?" Cox says he demanded.
"They was trying to jump me," Martinez said. "They was trying to beat me up."
Cox claims he turned to Yarbrough and began to question him about the money that had been stolen from Herasingh earlier. "I was like, `Where's our money, Bobby?' Did you take our money?' And he was like, `Awright, yeah, I took your money, it's in my house, I'll go get it for you.'
"And then right after he said that, Dubois Jones had come back and he shot a round at me. And I ducked, and I just started shooting."
Cox claims that Yarbrough was shot by accident. According to the Denver coroner's report, he was struck five times. Two bullets caught him in the left side of the head, passed through the brain and exited through the other side of the skull. Three hit him in the back and did extensive damage to his heart, liver, lungs and other vital organs before leaving through the wall of the chest. Two other bullets punctured Yarbrough's clothing but caused no injury.
"I ain't one to harm people," Cox says. "I'm not really violent or nothing. But when my life's in danger, I just react, you know? `Cause I've been in a lot of fights where I got jumped and stuff, and usually came out on top. I ain't going to just sit there and let someone beat my ass or anything."
Cox's story differs from those of other witnesses in important details. Sarah Osness, for instance, testified at the preliminary hearing that she never saw Ervin run up to Cox in the doorway. Osness, who was sitting in her car at the time, said she saw Martinez, Cox and Bobby Yarbrough standing alone in the alley. Suddenly, she said, Cox fired a gun at Yarbrough. "He got shot, and he fell," Osness testified. "That's all I saw."
Jones told police he never fired his weapon at Cox. By his account, he and Yarbrough went back to the alley because someone at the party had suggested going to a motel. Cox was following closely behind the two as they walked down Cedar Street, the Mac-11 in his hand and the assault rifle he had taken from the house slung over his shoulder and covered with a blanket, Jones said. As they reached the alley, Jones told police, he heard Cox say, "You motherfucker" and heard the metallic click of a gun being cocked. Jones said he took off running--and then heard several shots.
Jones admitted he fired his .44 Magnum once--at a car full of I.G.s he thought were chasing him as he ran away. He told police he believed Cox shot Yarbrough because Cox thought Bobby had stolen the cocaine from Herasingh. "I guess they figured after they looked and looked for it that we just automatically had it," Jones said. "I figured if they would have found it, nothing would have ever happened."
Within hours after Yarbrough's death, Detective DeMott interviewed Cox's girlfriend, Tonia Young. Young, a well-spoken 22-year-old who worked at a manicure shop in Aurora, told DeMott she'd only been dating Cox for a few weeks, having met him through a friend of Cox's who lived at her apartment complex. She hadn't known any of the others at the party. She told DeMott she was scared to tell the truth about what she'd seen that night: "I'm afraid of what they might do to me."
After Young admitted she'd witnessed Cox and the others pummel McCullough, carry him off and then return to the apartment, DeMott stared at her for a moment.
"Did it ever dawn on you that maybe you should get in your car and leave?" the detective asked her. "And maybe call the police and maybe call an ambulance to find this guy? Did that ever dawn on you to do that?"
"Yeah," Young replied softly.
"Why didn't you do it?" DeMott asked.
Young buried her head in her arms and started to cry. "I don't know," she sobbed. "I don't know."
After the shooting, Sean Cox says, he fell into a dumb panic.
"I was real scared," he recalls. "I didn't know what I was going to do. I just took off running into nowhere." With Paul Martinez following him, Cox blindly ran west, crossing Interstate 25 and then plunging through the frigid Platte River. Soaking wet, the pair staggered up to a house where a party was going on. They asked to use the phone and called a taxi. "I don't know where I was going to go," Cox says, "but I called a cab to get me out of there."
In the cab, heading east on Alameda Avenue, Cox says he spotted Anthony Garcia, Sarah Osness and Tonia Young in Osness's car. He flagged them down and told the taxi to pull over, then he and Martinez got into the car as well. No one said anything at first, Cox remembers. Eventually, the group decided it would be best to take Cox and Martinez to a motel, and they drove to the Traveler's Inn on East Sixth Avenue in Aurora. Osness, the only one who had any identification, rented the two a room.
"My mind was empty," Cox says. "I couldn't think of nothing. I was thinking about killing myself, but I couldn't do it. I don't have it in me. I can't do suicide. You know, with my values, I don't ever do that."
Cox and Martinez spent most of the day cooped up inside room 245. As night fell, Cox began to feel ill. "I was just totally out of it," he says. "I started getting sick. I threw up like maybe twice. My head started pounding, I had a fever, my palms was sweaty, I was shaky. I just crawled into bed and was just laying there. A couple people came to visit us in the motel [to] bring us some Kentucky Fried Chicken, some alcohol and some weed and stuff. To try to calm us down."
Cox woke up early the next day after a fitful sleep. Martinez, he says, called Osness, who told him she and her mother had talked to an attorney and that she was cooperating with the police in their investigation of Yarbrough's death. Martinez, figuring the police would quickly learn where he and Cox were hiding, called a girlfriend and asked her to give them a lift to a different location, perhaps a motel in the Thornton area, Cox says. The girlfriend arrived, and the three got in her car and began to head down Peoria Street.
The police, though, had already staked out the motel. "I was in the backseat laying down, to avoid being seen," Cox says. "Because I'd read in the paper that morning that they had a warrant for my arrest. From what I understand, cops just came from everywhere. A couple cop cars were following us, and they just called everybody in. The reinforcements just swarmed us. They had plenty of guns out. I was scared to death.
Cox says the arrest was a lot different from his previous encounters with police. "Just the intensity of it," he says. "There must have been like 20, 25 cops there with guns. I ain't never seen nothing like that, except like on the movies."
A few years ago, Sean Cox remembers, he met a woman who was a student at Colorado State University. The woman was on the CSU track team. Cox, who'd excelled in track in junior high school as well as in his juvenile boot camp, told her of his interest in the sport. The woman encouraged him to apply to CSU and gave him the name of the university's track coach.
The way Cox sees it, that encounter was one of the great missed opportunities of his life. "I could have called the coach," Cox says. "She told me he would give me a tryout and stuff and help me with [the college application] paperwork and all that. I never even followed up on that. I just spaced it out. If I would have persisted myself in that direction further, I probably wouldn't be here."
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In January, Cox and the Denver district attorney's office settled the case of Bobby Yarbrough without a trial. Cox agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter; the prosecution dropped its charge of first-degree murder. Deputy District Attorney Bill Robbins, the lead prosecutor on the case, says the plea bargain was necessary because of general unreliability on the part of the partygoers who saw the shooting. "We just didn't feel comfortable with the witnesses," Robbins says.
Last month, Denver District Judge R. Michael Mullins sentenced Sean Cox to twelve years in prison, the maximum allowed under the law. Mullins told Cox that he hoped, when Cox is released, that "you can put this behind you and lead a much better life in the future."
Cox figures he'll be eligible for parole in about four years. Since his sentencing, he says, he's reflected a lot about his life, his drinking, and the night he killed Bobby Yarbrough.
"It could have been handled differently," he says. "But there's nothing I can do about that now. That's the situation that happened; that's how it occurred. You can't go back and change it or anything. You've just got to deal with it.