The evidence that put Willie Clark away
For Darrent Williams, New Year's Eve 2006 started with a football game. After a disappointing loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Denver Broncos cornerback and five of his friends from his home town of Fort Worth, Texas, headed to a nightclub called Safari, near Tenth Avenue and Broadway. They partied in the third-floor VIP section and were there at midnight when, Williams's friends say, a cousin of Bronco Brandon Marshall's shook up a bottle of Moët champagne and showered everyone in the section.
Two men they'd never met before didn't appreciate the gesture. Williams tried to defuse the situation by introducing himself and telling them it was cool. Soon after, club security guards showed up and escorted the two men from the third floor. Prosecutors say one of them was Willie Clark, a then-23-year-old gang member who was working his way up the ranks of a dangerous drug conspiracy that aimed to dominate the crack market on the city's east side. The other was his associate, Daniel "PT" Harris.
The champagne incident may have sparked another altercation between the two groups that occurred outside the club. Words, gestures and punches were exchanged, witnesses say. Marshall admitted that he got upset and may have escalated the situation.
Eventually, Williams herded his friends into his rented white Hummer limousine and drove away, with fellow player Javon Walker and several women in tow. A few minutes later, as the limo made its way north on Speer Boulevard, it was hit with a spray of bullets. Two passengers were shot, and 24-year-old Williams was killed.
After a two-week trial that ended March 9, a jury of eight women and four men convicted Clark, now 26, of pulling the trigger. He could face life in prison when he's sentenced on April 30.
In closing arguments, state prosecutors repeatedly referred to the bricks of evidence that built Clark's "box of guilt." Clark's defense attorneys tried to blow that brick house down by punching holes in the prosecution's theories and casting doubt on their witnesses. But in the end, it wasn't enough. — Asmar
Here's a look at five important pieces of evidence that may have helped seal Clark's fate.
THE TESTIMONY OF DANIEL "PT"
Who he is: Since moving to Colorado in 2000, Harris worked as a sometimes-car salesman, sometimes-cocaine dealer who was successful enough to buy himself a $600,000 house before he got caught. He's a self-described "associate" of Clark's and a good friend and drug-dealing business partner of Brian Hicks, who authorities say is an east-side drug kingpin and pseudo-boss to Clark. Harris is also friends with Vernone Edwards and Felix Abram, who were involved in Hicks's drug-dealing business. Harris says he's not in a gang, but others say he belongs to the Grape Street Crips.
What he said: Harris was the prosecution's star witness. He was the only person to testify that he saw Clark shoot into Williams's limo that night.
On New Year's Eve 2006, Harris went to dinner at the Dolce Vita restaurant, between Ninth and Tenth avenues on Lincoln Street, with several friends, including Abram — but not Clark. He drove there alone and parked his BMW behind a deli. After dinner, around 10:30 or 11 p.m., Harris and his group headed to the Safari, a block away on Broadway. He doesn't remember getting into any arguments in line, nor does he remember seeing any professional athletes or celebrities. He also doesn't remember seeing anyone spray champagne inside the club or getting into any altercations.
At let-out, Harris doesn't remember being angry about anything. But after watching a surveillance tape of the crowd outside the club, Harris admitted that it looks like he's in a fight with somebody — though he's not sure who.
"Was that enough to cause you to want to shoot someone?" prosecutor Tim Twining asked him. "No, that didn't incite me to kill," Harris said.
Residue from Mace sprayed by security guards in an attempt to disperse the crowd outside the club hit him, making his eyes, nose and mouth burn. At that point, he heard someone yell his nickname: "PT! PT! PT!" When he looked up, he saw Clark and Clark's teenage cousins, Kataina "Markie" Jackson-Keeling and Mario Anderson, in a 1996 or 1997 white Chevy Tahoe. Harris recognized the Tahoe as Hicks's. He jumped into the back seat behind the passenger because he thought he'd be safe inside.
Clark was behind the wheel. He drove southbound on Broadway and eventually ended up on Speer, where he pulled into the lane next to a white Hummer limousine that had previously been parked in front of the club. Then Clark started shooting. "Willie is leaning over the center console, shooting out the (passenger-side) window at the white limousine," Harris said. Harris doesn't remember how many times Clark pulled the trigger — but it was a lot. "It seemed like it was going on forever," he said. "It was just random, like all over. It wasn't like he was shooting at a specific part."
After the shooting, Clark sped off. Harris begged him to slow down. "I told him, 'Don't speed, don't speed, don't speed! Let me out!'" Harris said.
Clark turned right off Speer, drove a couple blocks and let him out. Harris ran up the hill toward Lincoln, and when he got there, he saw Abram and Abram's cousin. He jumped in their SUV but didn't tell them what had happened. "I didn't want to get them involved in anything they didn't need to be involved in," Harris said. After stopping at a gas station, Harris went home.
A few days after the shooting, Harris talked to Clark face-to-face about "him turning himself in and messing it up for everyone in the neighborhood and making it hot for everybody." Clark said he wouldn't turn himself in. "He said he's not doing all day — all day meaning life in prison," Harris said.
Why the jury might not have believed him: Harris is one of several witnesses who bargained for a potentially lighter sentence in his own pending criminal case in exchange for testifying against Clark and for cooperating in other cases. Clark's attorneys say that gave Harris an incentive to lie and point the finger at Clark.
Harris was facing federal charges that, starting in 2001, he bought up to five kilograms of cocaine a week from a man who got it in Mexico and sold it to Hicks, who turned it into crack and sold it on the streets. He could have faced thirty years to life in prison. Instead, he cut a deal with federal and state prosecutors: Harris pleaded guilty to some charges in exchange for his cooperation, and prosecutors will ask a judge that he be sentenced to just five years in prison, half of which he's already served.
Also, at least one part of Harris's story has been disproved by science. Harris told the police that there was only one shooter: Clark. But ballistics evidence shows there were two types of bullets fired into the limo from at least two different guns wielded by at least two different people. Asked on the stand about the second shooter, Harris said he can't say for sure whether Jackson-Keeling, who was in the front passenger seat, also fired a gun. Harris said that he didn't shoot into the limo and that his own window was rolled up.
Other parts of his story contradict the testimony of other witnesses. Several people at the club picked Harris's photo out of a police lineup and identified him as the main person making trouble for Williams and the Broncos' entourage. Some said it started when someone in the Broncos group shook up a bottle of champagne at midnight and sprayed everyone in the third-floor VIP section, including Clark and Harris. One witness said Harris went "bananas." "He just came up like, 'Fuck all y'all. That's some ho-ass shit,'" said the witness, John Sheppard, a friend of Williams's who was in town for the holiday. Harris was eventually escorted away by security, witnesses said, but he continued to make trouble after the club let out. "He's trying to call us out into the street. He comes around and he's like, 'What's up now, niggers? Come on out in the street!'"
Harris also has a history of lying to the police. In 1991, he gave a fake name to a police officer who arrested him for receiving stolen property in Riverside, California. In 2002, he again gave a fake name to an officer in Denver who stopped him for a traffic violation. He also has a prior conviction in South Dakota for shooting a gun from a moving vehicle into a building, though he denied that it was a drive-by shooting.
Why they might have: No one contradicted his story. Clark didn't testify in his own defense, and both Anderson and Jackson-Keeling decided to go to jail on contempt-of-court charges rather than testify.
THE TESTIMONY OF VERONICA "RONI" GARCIA
Who she is: Garcia described herself at trial as Hicks's "on and off" girlfriend. She worked at Hicks's former hip-hop clothing store/recording studio, the Hott Spott, and was associated with his friends, including Harris, Abram and Edwards. She said she's known Clark for more than ten years and used to consider him "like a little brother."
What she said: On New Year's Eve at around 10 p.m., Garcia saw Clark at his cousin's house. Clark was wearing a bulletproof vest and expensive tennis shoes, and he told her he was going to a party downtown with his other cousins, Anderson and Jackson-Keeling. Clark was driving Hicks's white Chevy Tahoe that night, and Garcia was driving Clark's black Chevy Tahoe. She and Clark had switched cars a few days earlier because the CD player in Clark's Tahoe wasn't working. Garcia couldn't go out. She was living in a halfway house because she'd been arrested on drug charges. After she visited with Clark and his cousin, his cousin drove her back to the halfway house in Clark's black Tahoe.
The next day, Clark picked her up in the same Tahoe. "He didn't tell me exactly what he had done [the night before], but he said he had to get off on some niggas," Garcia said, which she took to mean "that they probably had a shootout with someone."
Clark asked Garcia to provide him with an alibi. "He said, 'If anybody asks you where I was last night, tell them I was with you,'" Garcia said. Clark then drove her to his cousin's house, where the white Tahoe was parked. He told her it was "fucked up" and to "put it up," which she took as an instruction to park it. So she drove it to her home in Green Valley Ranch, a block from where Clark lived, and parked it in her garage.
The next day or the day after, Garcia saw on the news that the police were looking for a white Tahoe registered to Hicks in connection with a homicide. She walked to Clark's house and told him he needed to get the Tahoe out of her garage; he told her he'd do it after dark. A few days later, the Tahoe was found about ten blocks away. It had been spray-painted black. When Garcia checked her garage, she found "black dust." She also found "black footprints in my kitchen and on my carpet." Her house smelled like gas.
At one point, Garcia also overheard Harris and Edwards talking about New Year's Eve. "Vernone said that Willie fucked up," she said. "And Daniel said he told that nigga not to do it." When Clark was arrested on a parole violation four days after the murder, he called Garcia and again asked for an alibi. "He said, 'You know where I was that night. I was with you,'" Garcia said.
Why the jury might not have believed her: Like Harris, Garcia cut a deal in her own federal criminal case in exchange for her testimony. She'd been charged with participating in Hicks's drug business by receiving crack cocaine from him. She was facing a probable sentence of twelve to sixteen years; now prosecutors will ask that she serve only three to four years instead.
Why they might have: Again, because Clark didn't take the witness stand, no one refuted Garcia's testimony that he asked her for a fake alibi. Other witnesses' testimony and evidence back up parts of her story.
A taped jailhouse call between Hicks, Garcia and Clark on January 2, 2007, a day after the murder, seems to corroborate Garcia's story that Clark told her the white Tahoe was "fucked up." Garcia tells Hicks, who was in jail on drug charges, that "the car is broke" and then asks him if he's been watching the news. When Clark gets on the line, he tells Hicks it was "like a blind-side hit," to calm down and that "it's all good."
Also, Edwards confirms Garcia's story that after she told Clark to move the Tahoe out of her garage, there was black spray-paint dust there and a gasoline smell inside her house. Before checking out the situation herself, Garcia said she asked Edwards to stop by her house to make sure Clark had moved the Tahoe. Edwards said he found empty black spray-paint cans, empty gasoline cans and a few newspapers in Garcia's garage. He said he tried to clean up by collecting the empty cans and newspapers and driving around, "throwing it away in different parts of the neighborhood."
THE TESTIMONY OF JOSHUA GRANTHAM
Who he is: Grantham is a former cellmate of Clark's; they were housed together in a twelve-man bunker room at Cheyenne Mountain correctional facility for about three months in 2007. Grantham isn't a gang member and isn't otherwise connected with Clark's crew. He was a high-school football star who won a full-ride scholarship to play in college but lost it when he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for aggravated robbery, for robbing fast-food restaurants with a gun while he was home on a break.
What he said: In prison, Clark repeatedly boasted of killing Williams. Once, while Grantham was reading a sports magazine that contained a tribute to Williams, Clark came up to him and "was talking about how he put that bitch to sleep." Then he pointed to a picture of Bronco teammate Javon Walker, who was in the limo that night, and said, "I don't like that bitch right there. I wish I would have got him."
Clark also talked about the dispute with the players, complaining that "when they were in the club, that drinks were getting on people and they weren't respecting them, and that this is Denver and this is where they're from." Clark said he thought the Broncos and their friends belonged to the Bloods and that "it got physical, and there was animosity in the club and it got to the street." Clark explained to Grantham that the vehicle "couldn't be attached to his name" because it belonged to Hicks.
In prison, Clark collected newspaper articles about the shooting and bragged about how he was protected. "He said that his crew and his Tre Tre Crip gang, they're notorious and he's basically a street kingpin and that he couldn't be touched by anything because his crew would take care of anything no matter what and no one would tell," Grantham said.
Why the jury might not have believed him: No other witness backs up Grantham's testimony, and some of Grantham's information doesn't match other witnesses' statements. For instance, Grantham said Clark talked about how his girlfriend was at the club that night, too, and how he was afraid she'd snitch on him. No one else mentioned seeing Clark with a girl that night.
Clark's attorneys also said it's unlikely that he would confess a murder to Grantham, who wasn't even a gang member, after only having known him a short while. "One month into being acquaintances, he confessed a murder to you?" defense attorney Abraham Hutt asked. "Yes," Grantham said.
Why they might have: Grantham is an outsider who isn't loyal to Clark or his associates. He also didn't seem to be afraid of them. While other witnesses showed up with lawyers, Grantham came to court alone. He seemed sincere on the stand. And of all the witnesses who received something for their testimony, Grantham arguably received the least. Rather than a plea deal, he described how a Denver homicide detective came to his parole board hearing and told the board about his cooperation in the case and asked that he be paroled immediately. The board granted the request.
THE TESTIMONY OF JULIAN VIGIL
Who he is: Vigil is associated with the GKI gang, which stands for Gallant Knights Insane. Born and raised in Denver, Vigil said he's known Clark for more than ten years and that their friendship started out as "mostly business." Through Clark, he met Hicks, Harris, Edwards and Clark's cousins, Anderson and Jackson-Keeling. Vigil was also related through marriage to attorney Michael Andre. A former car salesman, Vigil was working at a cell-phone store and living in a halfway house in early 2007.
What he said: On New Year's Eve, Vigil was not allowed to go out as per the rules of the halfway house, where he was finishing up a criminal sentence for theft. Early the next day, he turned his cell phone on and saw that he had five or six text and voice messages from Clark. Clark's tone in the messages was "panicky." "He said, 'I did some fucked-up shit last night. I need to get ahold of your bro,'" Vigil said, referring to Andre, who was best known at the time for representing Denver's high-end escort industry. Vigil called Clark right away and told him he'd contact Andre (who committed suicide in 2007) for him. But he couldn't get reach him and ended up driving Clark to Andre's house.
On the way there, Clark told Vigil that "they got into an altercation with some of the Broncos at club Safari, and that they followed them and dumped on them" — in other words, a shooting. Clark said the altercation revolved around respect, or lack thereof; the Broncos "were disrespecting Denver Crips, and they had to handle their business."
Clark talked to Andre, and then Vigil gave him a ride home. In the car, Clark called Harris and told him "they needed to get rid of the gun." Vigil offered his own advice: Get rid of the white Tahoe used in the murder by burning it.
Why the jury might not have believed him: Vigil got a deal for testifying. He was facing a charge of escape for walking away from the halfway house in order to relocate his family (because, he says, of threats due to his involvement in the case) that could have netted him 64 years in prison. Because he cooperated, that charge was dropped.
Vigil never showed police the voice and text messages from Clark and never produced his phone records. Vigil's testimony also contradicts Harris's in terms of who was in the white Tahoe. Harris says he, Clark, Anderson and Jackson-Keeling were in the SUV. Vigil says Clark told him it was only Harris and Edwards. (Edwards denies it.)
Vigil has lied to the police before, and to the people running the halfway house.
Why they might have: No other witness contradicted Vigil's testimony. And Vigil testified despite fears that doing so would put his life in danger. His attorney told the judge that Vigil's house was broken into a few weeks before the trial; the thief took a TV and Vigil's grand jury transcript. Because of that, he first refused to take the stand after the judge, Christina Habas, ruled that the media could report his name over his objections. But Vigil changed his mind after spending a night in jail for contempt. There's more evidence that Vigil's fears weren't imagined. While in prison on the theft charge, Vigil learned that his name was on a "hit list." The alleged reason? Someone believed he might have information on the Williams murder. As a former gang member, Vigil understood the threat — and the so-called gang code of silence — very well. "The code of silence is snitches get stitches, pretty much," he said.
CLARK'S ALLEGED CONFESSION LETTER
What it says: The key excerpt from the letter says, "The Rican might say something stupid talk to law enforcements about the death of D-Will he seen me with the gun + shoot out the whip." "The Rican" is a nickname for Harris, and "whip" is slang for vehicle. It appears that the author is afraid that Harris, an eyewitness, will talk to the police about Williams's murder. The letter also says, "I am alone and abandoned," and, "since I been in jail they have not produced any real physical solid evidence against me."
It's signed "Willie D. Clark." At the bottom are the words "death by dishonor," which is a threat to those who snitch, and "Boss Moneyz." Clark has the words "BOSS MONEY" tattooed across the top of his back.
Who turned it in: A former Compton, California, Crip named Marquise Harris who goes by the nickname "Gangster Sin" and has a rap sheet beginning in 1991 that includes burglary, selling drugs and threatening someone with a deadly weapon. Harris, who was housed in the same federal detention unit as Clark and Hicks in 2007 and 2008, turned the letter over to the Rocky Mountain News, which published a story about it in May 2008. The Rocky then connected Harris with federal and state prosecutors.
Harris said he intercepted the letter in the prison law library. Passing letters via law books is common in prison, he said, and Hicks had asked him to pick up a letter from Clark because Hicks wasn't going to the law library that day. Harris said he read the letter and realized it pertained to the Williams murder. "I recognized what was going on with the situation with this case and whatever, and I thought the letter might be linked to some possible evidence in the matter," Harris said. After reading the letter, he said he photocopied it and gave the original to Hicks. He kept the copy for himself.
But he didn't immediately turn it over to the police. "I kept the letter concealed because I knew if I released the information there [in prison], my life would be in jeopardy," he said. "When I got out of incarceration, I contacted the police department several times and I didn't receive any response back." Harris said he also called the head of security for the Broncos and asked to be put in touch with the police detectives working the case. But again, he said he never heard back. Eventually, Harris said, he called the Rocky Mountain News. "I didn't feel I was getting an appropriate response from law enforcement, so I contacted the media," he said.
Why the jury might not have believed him: Although he denied it at trial, Harris was after the $100,000 in reward money offered by the Broncos for clues in solving Williams's murder — and still is. The police haven't decided yet who will get that money. He also asked for payment from the Rocky Mountain News, which refused.
The letter itself is also suspect. The signature is upside down, and some of the lines of text are cut off at the bottom. There are irregular gaps between the lines, and the sentences don't make sense. On the stand, defense attorney Hutt accused Harris of stealing a bunch of Clark's letters, cutting them up and then pasting certain bits together to create a confession. Harris denied it.
Harris also has a history of lying to the police. "If you're asking about whether I use aliases, yes, I've lied to the police before when I have a warrant," Harris said.
He also received a form of compensation for his role in the case. The witness protection program spent $21,686 to relocate five family members because Harris feared for their safety.
Why they might have: The police say Clark admitted that the letter was in his handwriting. After they obtained a copy of it, lead detective Michael Martinez says he and another detective visited Clark in prison in August 2008 with a court order to get a handwriting sample from him. Through the food slot, they asked him for the sample. But Clark refused, Martinez said; he told them it had already been proven that the handwriting was his.
His comment may have been a reference to a conclusion reached by a handwriting expert used by the Rocky Mountain News. The expert compared the letter to previous letters written by Clark and concluded that it was "the same writer, period."
Prosecutors say the language used in the letter also points to Clark. For instance, they say there's no way Marquise Harris would have known that Daniel "PT" Harris, the self-described eyewitness, goes by the nickname "the Rican."
On the stand, Harris explained his motivation by saying he felt a "moral wrong" had been committed and he was trying to right it. "My faith and my religion, Islam, is my main thing," he said. "And my metamorphosis that I'm trying to undergo to be a better human being."
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