Detectives with the Denver Police Department decline to provide anything other than the most basic details about the January 5 double murder at RiNo's New Welcome Inn bar, which remains under investigation at this writing, and the Reverend Leon Kelly, a prominent anti-gang activist who's been in contact with the DPD regarding the thus-far-unsolved case, is also cautious with his words. But following the January 19 funeral for victim Guillermo Ornelas, which saw a slew of police officers strategically deployed in the neighborhood around the church where it was held as they kept a watchful eye on mourners, Kelly acknowledges that the incident has "gang overtones."
According to Kelly, founder of Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, "There are a number of different scenarios, and a lot of people aren't speaking on things" related to the shooting, which took the lives of Ornelas, 43, and Jose Herrera-Cabral, 35.
Kelly attended Ornelas's service in part because "I work closely with the gang unit in District 2," the Denver police zone that encompasses the New Welcome Inn, which is located at 3759 Chestnut Place, next door to the popular Blue Moon Brewing Company. "They were there because of the environment, the tension. It's always good to have backup and a presence, to make sure things are contained."
Nearly a decade ago, Ornelas appeared in another story about a notorious shooting — the June 2008 wounding of an eight-year-old girl in Curtis Park, an area not far from RiNo and adjacent neighborhoods. Daniel Lujan admitted to Denver7 that he had accidentally shot the girl after "he was confronted by a man known as 'Gitmo,' whom he knew to be a fellow gang member." The station added that Ornelas was "in the city jail, as well, on a weapons charge, but Denver police would not confirm if Ornelas was the person Lujan had referred to."
On January 5, Ornelas and Herrera-Cabral were reportedly playing pool at the New Welcome Inn, which we named one of Denver's most endangered dive bars this past September. Then, just shy of 8 p.m., gunfire rang out and both men were killed. No arrests have been made thus far, and in a crime alert, the Denver Police Department excluded any description of a possible suspect or suspects, leading to questions about whether a shooter is actually at large.
The episode didn't take place in isolation. "There were other people around," says Kelly, who points out that "the shooting was fairly close up. It wasn't like a drive-by or a shooting-at-a-distance type of thing. But one of the frustrations the police have is that a lot of people have been tight-lipped — and you can certainly understand why they might be tight-lipped."
Indeed, one rumor in particular has been particularly concerning to Kelly. "I've been trying to defuse the idea that this was the Crips against the Oldies. That wasn't the case," he emphasizes, "and we've been working hard to dispel that, because we didn't want a repeat of the tension that existed between the Crips and the Oldies back in 2015," when the gang-related murder of Dominique Perez was just one of the violent acts that rippled through Denver neighborhoods such as Cole and Park Hill during that spring and summer.
In the two years-plus since then, gentrification in RiNo and beyond has continued at a rapid pace, and as Kelly has told us on several occasions, these changes can lead to beefs over shrinking gang territory. With that in mind, Kelly set an ambitious goal for this past summer: zero homicides in east Denver neighborhoods bordered by Downing Street, Colorado Boulevard, East 23rd Avenue and East 40th Avenue between June 1 and August 31. And during that span, no killings took place in the area.
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"I was concerned about trying to stop the tensions that were starting to rise up," Kelly recalls. "We were able to accomplish that, and there really haven't been any other gang-related homicides in Denver lately, either — other than this."
At Ornelas's funeral, Kelly saw plenty of familiar faces. "Many of those who attended the service, I've had them in my program over the years. I've seen folks coming up, and now their kids are coming. That's what we mean when we talk about longevity and having a rapport and a relationship with the community — and we just tried to keep everyone's mind focused on what they were there for instead of causing any other type of drama."
He adds that funerals like the one last week are part and parcel of "the lifestyle these kids choose to engage with. You think of gangs like the Crips and the Bloods going back against each other — and there are Hispanic groups that have the same kind of hatred between them, too. That's why we're keeping our thumb on the pulse of things in that neighborhood and in the Hispanic community."
If you have any information about the New Welcome Inn shooting, the Denver Police Department encourages you to contact Metro Denver Crime Stoppers at 720-913-STOP (7867). A reward of up to $2,000 is being offered in the case, and callers can remain anonymous.