The Gang's All Here
On the last Saturday in June, eighteen-year-old Timothy Kemp was headed home after a visit to Six Flags Elitch Gardens. It was Gay Pride weekend, and the bus he usually caught at 16th and Broadway had been rerouted to Colfax and Logan. That shady corner was hopping at 11 p.m., when Kemp joined a crowd of would-be passengers, drug dealers, junkies and prostitutes.
Kemp leaned against the wall of a liquor store, keeping to himself. He'd spotted ten Crips around the corner. One, who knew Kemp from the basketball court, stepped up and asked him to turn his hat around. Kemp was wearing a cap on which he'd branded the initials "CK" -- C for Crip, K for Killer. Crip Killer.
As the bus pulled up, Ronnelle Murrell put his beer on the sidewalk and started spitting Crip-speak. "Hey, cuz," he said. "Take off your hat. What's up with the CK?"
"Fuck you. It's all about the CK," Kemp replied, according to police reports.
Twenty-six-year-old Murrell was four inches taller and more than a hundred pounds heavier than Kemp; he'd run the streets a lot longer. But Kemp was still willing to take him on, he says -- until he thought he saw Murrell reach for a piece.
In Kemp's pants was the .22-caliber pistol he packed for situations like this. "All I was thinking when he reached is, it's him or me," Kemp remembers. "If he wanted to fight me, he would've swung."
The first shot Kemp fired hit Murrell high in the back. The second stuck in the wall of the liquor store. Murrell stumbled into the store, asking for an ambulance. Kemp took off northbound on Logan, holding his pants up with one hand as he hustled along the bushes on the west side of the church.
Timothy Kemp had shot someone before: his younger sister, then a fifteen-year-old track star. She and a friend were painting their fingernails in her bedroom. Kemp, who'd been drinking Hennessey, was sitting by the bed, playing with his 9-millimeter handgun. It went off and hit his sister in the calf.
The girls tried to stay calm and called a friend for a ride to the hospital. Kemp punched a hole through the wall, then put the 9mm on a table by his sister. "Shoot me," he said. "It's an eye for an eye."
But she didn't want revenge -- just a doctor.
Kemp wound up with two years' probation for that shooting. Before then, his life had been school, work and family, since he had to be the man of the house. But now the pressure got to be too much to bear, he says, and he quit the Life Skills Center, where he'd been going to school. His mother began searching his room regularly, so he kept his weapons away from the house. He'd worn red before, but he started wearing a lot more. A red bandanna hung like a flag in his bedroom; someone hung a burned red bandanna on the door of their Aurora apartment.
Earlier this year, a few months after the shooting, Kemp had a run-in with police; he calls it "harassment."
The family had lived in Park Hill from 1997 through 1999; this past summer, Kemp tattooed "Park" on the underside of his right forearm and "Hill" on the underside of his left, to represent his hood. The tats were Blood red.
Murrell wasn't an angel, either. His father was a thief who "would steal the blink off your eye," according to his mother, Damita Murrell. By the time Murrell was twelve, Damita was dating a drug dealer. When Murrell asked him for $20, the man handed him a sack of crack rocks instead.
"Don't be begging me for money; extend your hustle," he told the youngster. Murrell's mother never had to buy her son clothes, shoes or anything else ever again.
Murrell was a talented artist, but he dropped out of art school because his friends said it was sissy shit. He got jumped into a Crip set and learned how to dish out an ass- whupping and how to take one. Although there was a falling-out in his set, he continued to represent Crips. When he was fifteen, he accidentally shot himself with a Saturday-night special he'd picked up from a friend. A few years later, he went into a room with a girl and came out with a bullet in his shoulder. He said he'd shot himself again; his mother thinks he may have taken a fall for the girl.
He was shot at several other times but never hit. "I was dodging bullets like the Matrix," he once told his mother after one episode. "The Lord ain't ready for me yet."
Murrell making it to eighteen was a big deal for his mother. Then 21, then 25. Every birthday was like he'd beaten some fatal disease. And in a way, he had: Street life was deadly. Murrell was still dealing drugs, although his mother said he had a conscience that wouldn't allow him to sell to people who looked like they needed to get off the pipe, or if he knew they had kids to feed.
When the cops arrived at the liquor store, Murrell was on the verge of shock. He was also holding a sack of rocks. While they waited for the ambulance, he told a police officer that the shooter had forced the crack on him with an order to sell it, so he could pay off a debt. When he refused, Murrell said, the shooter pulled the trigger.
Murrell's mother and grandmother met him at the hospital. "It's going to take more than one bullet to take out the OG," he told them.
Murrell was rushed into open-heart surgery, which was followed by a second operation. He was fighting hard, but even if he made it, he'd have a long road to recovery. Doctors told his mother that he would have to learn to walk and talk all over again. Before he went in for a third operation a few hours after the shooting, his mother put her hand inside his unconscious fingers. "You're not a punk," she told him. "You fought a good fight, baby, but you lost this one. Don't fight for me; don't fight for your brothers."
Damita knew that her son wouldn't come out of that final operation. Ronnelle Murrell made it to age 26.
While Murrell was dying, Timothy Kemp was walking the streets of Park Hill. He didn't think he'd killed anybody. If he'd wanted to kill someone, he would have emptied the entire clip, he says. All he wanted to do was create enough of a disturbance to get the hell out of there.
Two days later, the Denver Police Department announced that it was cleaning up Capitol Hill; ground zero was a vacant lot three blocks from where Murrell had been shot. Both Damita Murrell and the Reverend Leon Kelly kept a close eye on the media for news of the killing, but they never saw a word reported. The DPD counts Murrell's death as one of five gang-related murders this year.
Kemp eventually made his way home. That's where he was a few days later when he and his sister noticed the police outside, obviously looking for someone. Kemp didn't even consider that it might be him. He walked outside with his mother, and the cops asked for his name. "That's my son, Timothy Kemp," his mother said.
Out came the handcuffs. The police said they had a warrant. Figuring there must be some mistake, his mother asked what the warrant was for. One of the officers leaned over and whispered: "Murder."
DeShawna Moore, Kemp's sweetheart since they met at Bible study in the seventh grade, was raised in a Christian environment and taught to frown upon gangs. As Kemp started showing more symptoms, she tried to distance herself, but she loved him too much to let go. She bought him a suit so that he could go to church with her. Now she's paying for his defense attorney.
Kemp says Murrell's story about the crack was bullshit, and since he'd never met him before, there's no way the murder could have been planned. He says he acted in self-defense because Murrell reached for a gun, which the police never found.
Moore agrees that Kemp shot Murrell in self-defense. She believes that no sane jury could convict Kemp of the first-degree murder he's charged with, because first-degree murder means premeditated. And a first-degree-murder conviction means life in prison without parole.
Damita Murrell wishes her son was still here, but she knows why he's gone. "I'd always told Ronnelle, 'One day you're going to run up on the wrong one,'" she says. "And I feel sorry for Kemp's family, because that's two lives lost. And I also feel sorry for his mother, because I often thought I'd be in her shoes with Ronnelle."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.