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Twenty years later, the facts of this Denver drive-by don't add up

Twenty years later, the facts of this Denver drive-by don't add up
Keith Negley

It has been a long time now. Twenty-two years this week. Long enough for the whole episode to be forgotten by the cops, the lawyers and just about everybody else. But to three graying convicts and their families, it's still unfinished business, a problem that has to be solved.

Eric Lightner remembers that night like it was yesterday. Sitting in a sparse prison visiting room with brothers Brian and William Lee, he goes over it all again:

It's just past three in the morning on June 14, 1992, a frenetic Saturday night fading into a somber Sunday morning. Brian, 22 years old, is at the wheel of his blue 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass with the gold rims, headed east on Martin Luther King Boulevard, headed home. Eric, 21, is in the passenger seat. William, a month shy of 19, is in the back.

Approaching Steele Street, they roll up next to a 1981 Chevrolet Malibu Classic wagon. Lightner looks over at the driver, Damon Roberts, also known as D-Dog, a member of the 187 AK (Anybody Killer) Gangster Crips. Roberts glares back.

"I don't know what was said," Lightner says. "We had the music up kind of loud, and the music in Roberts's car was even louder. He looked like he was upset. His face was frowned up, his mouth was moving. We knew it was hostile."

"He said, 'What y'all wanna do? This is Crip,'" adds William Lee. "I said, 'Fuck Crip.' I don't know if he heard me or not."

"Personally, I didn't really know Damon Roberts," Lightner says. "According to the police, there were four people in that car, but I didn't see them. I just saw him."

Lightner saw D-Dog, and then he saw a gun in D-Dog's hand. Of that he is certain. "I see Damon Roberts reaching down, like he's trying to get something from under the seat," he says. "Then I see the handle of the gun in his hand."

It's a moment frozen in time — a moment of decision, one of those forks in the road from which there is no turning back. The actions of the next few seconds changed everything.

When it was over, the Malibu wagon stood idle near Madison Street, with two flat tires and five bullet holes along the driver's side. Damon Roberts sat in the street clutching at his left thigh, bleeding from a gunshot wound. One of his passengers, 15-year-old Tiffany Locke, flagged down cars, calling out frantically for an ambulance. Another, Robert McGregor, also 15, looked in disbelief at the body of his 23-year-old cousin, James, in the back seat, dead from a single shot to the heart.

To the Denver press, the shooting was a drive-by crime of the times, one more senseless killing in a city in the throes of gang violence. It seemed to fit a familiar pattern: bellicose young men from rival sets square off, eye-fuck each other, bandy insults or flash signs — and then the gats come out. More young lives ruined or cut short, another occasion for mourning and soul-searching in east Denver's African-American community. Prosecutors would argue that the killing of James McGregor was, in fact, one of the more heinous acts of gang violence the city had seen up to that point because it was not random at all. They claimed that Lightner and the Lee brothers had gone out looking for Roberts to "do some dirt" — to get payback for an altercation at a club earlier that night between the Crips and members of the Gangsters of Love, a "street gang" associated with the Lees.

Aided by information from eyewitnesses, the Denver police arrested Lightner and the Lees 35 minutes after the shooting. All three were charged with numerous felonies, ranging from murder and conspiracy to second-degree assault. The three went to trial together — a tumultuous proceeding during which several witnesses changed their stories or refused to testify, prompting Denver District Court Judge Richard Spriggs to complain that the courthouse "reeked of perjury." All three were convicted of first-degree murder and are now serving identical sentences of life without parole plus fifty years.

Lightner and the Lees exhausted their legal appeals years ago. They have exemplary records at the Limon Correctional Facility, the high-security prison where they have now spent half their lives. They have matured into quiet, disciplined individuals, respected by other inmates and staff alike. They hope to one day be considered for Colorado's clemency process, a pardon or reduction of their sentence by the governor.

But there's a catch: Clemency candidates are expected to take responsibility for their crimes. William and Brian Lee and Eric Lightner have expressed remorse for what they say is their role in what happened that night 22 years ago, but they insist — and have always insisted — that they didn't kill anyone.

"We're not innocent," says Brian Lee. "We're guilty of being in that thing and shooting at them. But we didn't kill James McGregor. We're sorry as all outdoors for his death. If we could bring him back, we would. But we can't. And we don't want to be in prison the rest of our lives for something we didn't do."

Police investigators recovered a semi-automatic TEC-9 when they arrested Lightner and the Lees. Testing soon established that the gun had been used to spray the Malibu with bullets; shell casings left at the scene and slugs in the tires of the car matched the weapon. But ballistics also indicated that the bullet that killed McGregor came from a different gun, one that was never found. In effect, three men are now serving life for one fatal shot — even though prosecutors never established which one of them fired that shot, or whose gun it was, or the wayward path the bullet must have taken to strike the victim square in the chest where he sat in the back seat behind the driver, next to a window that was up and intact after the shooting stopped.

The missing murder weapon is just one of many troublesome issues in the conviction, which hinged on several assertions made at trial that the men in Limon say are simply untrue. The death of James McGregor was supposed to have been the result of gang warfare, but Lightner and the Lees, as well as former gangbangers who've known them for years, insist that they were never in a gang. It was supposed to have been payback, but the occupants of the Cutlass say they had no beef with D-Dog and no reason to be hunting him.

Most of all, it was supposed to have been murder, not self-defense; for all three to be found guilty of killing McGregor, the jury had to believe that they planned in concert to go out and do some dirt. Yet ballistics findings, witness accounts — some of which surfaced before the trial, some years later — and even the bizarre sequence of escalating violence that night suggests otherwise. That evidence also indicates that there was, as Lightner has always maintained, at least one gun in the other car, setting up a more complicated shooting scenario than the one presented in court.

Yet the fear of gangs, the specter of gangbangers roaming the streets and gunning for each other — turning MLK Boulevard into a "virtual war zone," as one prosecutor put it — hung over the trial like a toxic cloud. It was surely on more than one juror's mind as the panel returned a verdict that would send the defendants to prison for life. All three remember exactly what they were feeling when the verdicts were read.

"I broke down and cried," says William Lee. "It was just crushing."

"It took my breath away," says Brian Lee. "I don't think I've regained that breath yet."

Lightner didn't allow the terrible finality of the judgment to sink in. "I didn't think we would be here that long," he says. "We would get back in court in a year or two, get the conviction overturned, and that would be the end of it. Never once did I think we'd be sitting here 22 years later."

**********

To hear Gail Lee tell it, her boys spent their youth running away from gangs, not with them. The whole point of the Gangsters of Love — which consisted of William and Brian and a few cousins and close friends — was a repudiation of street violence. It infuriates her that the term "GOL" was used at trial to label her sons as thugs.

"I was a working mother, and I tried to show my children the positive things in life," she says. "I kept them close. Back when I was driving for RTD, if I saw William walking down the street, I made him get on the bus with me."

Gail came from a big family — a dozen siblings, more than fifty first cousins. Brian and William had only one older sister, but there were scores of other relatives to play with, scattered from their neighborhood in Park Hill to Aurora and beyond. It was while visiting cousins in Montbello that Brian, age twelve, met Eric Lightner for the first time.

"We would just get together and do things," Lightner says. "Might be the East Denver Y, or basketball courts in Aurora or at the women's college on Montview or City Park. Sometimes we would catch the bus and go to Celebrity Sports Center."

By the mid-1980s, offshoots of California street gangs were beginning to make their presence felt in Denver's black neighborhoods. The pressure on teens to pick sides, in search of status, cash or protection, was intense. In Montbello, Lightner felt few of the tremors of the gangs' rising influence; he was much more focused on sports and preparing for college. For the Lees, though, the situation in Park Hill was rapidly deteriorating.

"On one side was the Crips, on the other was the Bloods," recalls Demond Robbins, a close friend of the Lees. "There was a handful of us who didn't want to join none of them."

At Gove Middle School, William Lee got sucker-punched by a member of the Bloods, who dislodged some teeth. At Manual High School, his brother Brian got jumped by Crips. Gail took Brian to the police station to file a complaint — and was dismayed when the officers frisked her son and then started tossing gang terms at him.

"I just went ballistic," she recalls. "They asked me what 'dis' means. Well, my kids don't talk street talk."

Her sons told her that the gangs were harassing them, threatening them, even chasing them down the street. Gail didn't know what to think. Then it happened one time while she was driving them home; a pack of youths tailed her yellow Sunbird and shouted at them.

"I was bewildered," she says. "I wanted to get out and tell these kids to stop. Brian said, 'Mama, they're going to shoot you.' I didn't believe it. I knew the mothers of a lot of these young men."

The Lee boys came up with their own response to the problem. Along with Lightner, Robbins and a few others, they declared themselves the Gangsters of Love. They started wearing pink as their chosen color. It sounded like a crew, or maybe a parody of a crew, but the only banging they were interested in was the kind that took place between the sheets.

"Our thing was to see how many women we could, for lack of a better word, bed," Brian Lee explains. "I had a net that we used to collect women's underwear in."

"We just sort of made it up," Robbins says. "It was just a group of friends, like a close family. It was never a gang."

"It was about the girls," says Paletha Barnes, Brian's older sister.

The Gangsters of Love didn't show up on the Denver Police Department's gang list as a criminal entity. Several of its members were making their mark in other ways. At 22, Brian Lee was working as a handyman to support his three sons. By the time he was eighteen, William had two sons of his own.

Aside from a menacing charge Brian had picked up over a domestic situation, the Lees and Lightner had avoided any kind of serious police record. Still, trouble seemed to be collecting around them as the summer of '92 approached. Lightner was finishing his first year at Metropolitan State College, but William had dropped out of high school. A few days before the shooting of James McGregor, both of the Lee brothers were charged, along with their father, in a drug sting; they were accused of attempting to purchase cocaine from a friend who was secretly working for the police.

Barnes acknowledges that her brothers were involved in activities that they never shared with her or her mother. "We were a very close family," she says. "We were taught to respect our elders and not talk back. But there were things they would do that they never brought into the house."

Like all young men, they had their secrets. The Intratec TEC-9, for instance. Brian had acquired the handgun, the favored gat of urban adventurers everywhere, months before the shooting. He put it in the Olds whenever he went to a club, concert or other event where bangers might be acting up. He had never fired it, but he figured a man with a $3,000 wheel package should have some protection against being jacked. Every other young male of color seemed to be armed to the teeth, so why not him?

"That was a pretty chaotic time," he says now. "Carrying a weapon just seemed to come with the territory. Truth be told, had I not had a TEC-9, I would have had another gun."

**********

Demond Robbins is sure that his friend Eric Lightner is telling the truth, that the driver of the Malibu wagon had a gun that night. He knows this because he saw D-Dog's gun himself, less than an hour before Lightner did. It was pointed right at him. It's not something you forget, not even after 22 years.

Robbins's confrontation with Roberts came in the parking lot of a Thornton nightclub during let-out. But it wasn't a Gangsters of Love versus Crips thing, he says. More like a Demond-Damon thing.

"I went to school with Damon Roberts," Robbins says. "We had our disagreements — from high school all the way up. The argument started inside, and we already had a beef with each other. Then it escalated outside."

That night, several members of the GOL decide to check out an all-ages concert at the Arena, a club in Thornton. William Lee is there, along with his girlfriend, Nakia Gilmore, and his cousins, Tajuana McKinley and Aaron Qualls. So are Robbins, a young man named Carl Bennett, and a few others. Various Bloods, Crips and Hispanic gangbangers also decide to put in an appearance.

It's a volatile mix. As closing time nears, the skirmishing begins — shoving matches, chairs hurling through the air. The security team cranks up the lights and orders everybody to clear out. In the parking lot, Bennett, who'd gotten into an argument inside with a Crip known as Pooh, is decked by a fist flying out of a crowd. Other fights erupt, and Thornton police are summoned to help shut things down.

William Lee leaves in a car with Gilmore and McKinley. Qualls helps the still-woozy Bennett into another car. Meanwhile, Robbins carries on his animated argument with Roberts, who's behind the wheel of his Malibu and attempting to leave the parking lot. Robbins blocks his way.

According to Robbins, D-Dog bends down beneath the dashboard. When he comes back up, he has a black automatic in his hand — something bigger than a .22, possibly a .38 or .380. And points it at him.

"If you're going to pull it, you better use it," Robbins says.

Thornton police officer David Zabroski sees Robbins arguing heatedly with the driver of the Malibu. He grabs Robbins, handcuffs him and puts him in his patrol car. Robbins tells him that D-Dog has a gun. Zabroski performs what he would later describe as a "quick search" of the Malibu "involving the seats and under them." He also searches the car's occupants, Roberts and Tiffany Locke. He doesn't find any weapon. He tells them all to get moving.

The Malibu is barely out of the lot before it becomes involved in another ruckus on 84th Avenue. A witness sees a small sports car pull alongside D-Dog's wagon and start shooting. (Locke would later testify that some "Mexican guys" in the sports car got offended at Roberts's weaving in and out of traffic and opened fire at them, then sped off.) Roberts pulls off the road, and he and Locke are promptly joined by James and Robert McGregor, who emerge from another car.

The four of them then head to a car wash at 35th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, where they check the Malibu for bullet holes and find none. Another Crip at the car wash advises D-Dog that he shouldn't be "tripping" over what just happened but should just go home. But Roberts isn't yet ready to call it a night.

A scant two miles away, at 34th and York, William Lee spots his brother's blue Olds while on his own way home from the Arena debacle. His girlfriend, Kia, pulls over so William can climb into the Olds with Brian and Eric Lightner — and tell them about Bennett being waylaid by a Crip outside the club. Lightner and the older Lee hadn't gone to the all-ages gathering; they'd been drinking at another club and had been on their way to a Five Points "gambling shack" patronized by Crips. But from what William tells them about the troubles that night, it sounds smarter to head home, to their mother's house in Mayfair. They turn east, onto MLK. The teenage girls, Gilmore and McKinley, follow in Gilmore's car.

After a few blocks, they are suddenly jowl-to-jowl with D-Dog's ride. The Malibu is in the right lane, headed east; the Olds is in the left. Damon Roberts does not look happy to see them. He probably recognizes the car, maybe even recognizes William from the rumble at the Arena and figures these lads are looking for trouble. At least, that is what Lightner believes.

Lightner sees Roberts reach down and come up with the gun. "As soon as I see the gun in his hand, I grab the TEC-9 under the armrest," he says. "When I point it out the window, he ducks beneath the window. We don't see anybody else in the car. I proceed to try to shoot the tires out."

Yes, it's college boy Lightner who fires the TEC-9, scattering shell casings over a couple of blocks as the two vehicles weave and accelerate, everybody ducking and yelling. Driving half a block behind them, Nakia Gilmore would later report seeing flashes from both cars; Tajuana McKinley ducks at the sound of gunfire and doesn't see much of anything until the Malibu comes to a stop at Madison. Then Tiffany Locke, a good friend of both girls, gets out screaming.

The Olds barrels into the night. The first police car arrives minutes later, then an ambulance that takes Roberts to the hospital. It's too late for James McGregor. His cousin Robert didn't get a good look at the occupants of the other car, but Locke readily identifies William and Brian Lee and provides a description of the third man. She directs the police to Gail Lee's house on Jersey Street, where Brian, William and Eric are arrested at 3:45 in the morning — only minutes after the three had arrived home, after dropping off the Olds at Brian's girlfriend's place and walking the remaining few blocks.

A search of the premises finds a TEC-9 with an eighteen-round clip, stashed in the trunk of a yellow Pontiac parked in back of the house.

It's a swift solve for the DPD, but there's one problem. When the ballistics come back, it turns out that the bullet that killed McGregor, as well as the slug in Roberts's leg, are both .38 caliber. They didn't come from the TEC-9, a nine-millimeter weapon.

The fourteen rounds Lightner fired at the other car didn't injure or kill anyone.

**********

From the start, the police had ample reason to believe that what went down on MLK Boulevard that night was a cold-blooded ambush. All three of the surviving victims described the attack as unprovoked; they heard shouts of "GOL," they said, and then the dudes in the other car opened fire.

Under such circumstances, any claim of self-defense seemed absurd. There were no bullet holes in the Olds, and a search of the bullet-riddled Malibu — which had also been searched by Officer Zabroski just an hour before the shooting — didn't turn up any weapons.

True, the lack of the actual murder weapon was a puzzle. But there could have been two shooters in the Olds, two guns — and the suspects ditched one of them before the arrest. In interviews with police detectives, Locke said she thought she saw William Lee firing at the Malibu; Roberts said he heard two different guns going off.

But the ballistics problems with the case went deeper than simply the absence of the gun that killed McGregor. Gunshot residue tests on the Lees and Lightner failed to establish that any of them had fired a gun. Tests for gunpowder residue inside the Olds proved that a firearm had been discharged in the car, but so did tests on the Malibu. And tests on the cotton gloves worn by the deceased, James McGregor — an odd fashion choice in the middle of June, but not entirely unknown among members of the Rolling 30 Crips — indicated that he had recently discharged a weapon himself.

At the insistence of defense lawyers, police technicians went over the Malibu more closely. They found one exit hole in the back-seat passenger door, where McGregor had been sitting, that indicated a bullet had been fired from inside the car. There was no way of telling when that hole had been made, any more than there was a way of nailing down the precise time McGregor had fired a gun.

Other anomalies kept surfacing. A jacket that had been lying under McGregor when he was found, clearly depicted in crime-scene photos, was apparently never logged into evidence. Defense attorneys speculated that the missing jacket could have contained a weapon, or possibly have powder burns if the shot that killed McGregor had actually been fired by someone in the Malibu, trying to return fire from the Olds.

There was also another fatal shooting that evening that the defense attorneys found too weirdly coincidental to ignore. At 2:40 a.m., a gas-station attendant named James Ridpath was killed by a stray bullet outside a Diamond Shamrock at East 83rd Avenue and Washington Street — right about the same time and at the same location that D-Dog's Malibu had endured yet another supposedly unprovoked attack by the shooters in the blue sports car. Although records indicate that the bullet that killed Ridpath was a .38, it didn't have the same kind of rifling as the bullets that killed McGregor and wounded Roberts, and prosecutors rejected the idea that the killings were somehow related. The Ridpath homicide has never been solved.

Yet the case against Lightner and the Lees didn't rest solely on the test results. The police had gathered numerous witness statements, including the solid identification of the Lees by Locke, who'd known them for years. But some of the witness accounts were even hinkier than the physical evidence.

Besides Locke, the star witness for the prosecution was a seventeen-year-old high-school football player named Aaron Qualls. Qualls was a cousin of the Lees and particularly close to William. He had been at the Arena that night when things started getting rough, and he had been at Gail Lee's house, waiting for a ride home to Aurora from his mother, when the police arrived. He had been arrested along with the Lees and Lightner and had given a videotaped statement to a detective a few hours later.

Qualls told the detective that he'd left the Arena in the Olds with Brian, William and Eric Lightner. He said his cousins were angry over the clocking of their friend Carl Bennett and that Brian vowed to show the Crips what real gangbanging was all about: "If they want to get their OG involved, then I'm going to get involved." On the way home they spotted D-Dog's Malibu but decided to go get their guns before confronting him. Brian said he had the "keys" to the TEC-9, Qualls explained, while William "says something like he knows were the Tre-57 is."

They dropped Qualls off at the house on Jersey Street, telling him they were going to "do some dirt." According to Qualls, Brian Lee went so far as to declare, "There is going to be a murder tonight, son, and you don't need to get involved." The three left and returned forty minutes later, right around the same time the police and Qualls's mother showed up.

From a prosecution standpoint, the statement was dynamite. It offered a motive, indicated that William had armed himself with a second weapon — a .357 Magnum, which could fire a .38 round — and conveniently cleaned up a lot of other loose ends. But in certain basic details, it was at odds with just about every other witness account of what happened.

Out of dozens of witnesses interviewed by police, Qualls was the only one to claim that Brian Lee and Eric Lightner were at the Arena club that night. Other witnesses saw them drinking at a club across town well after two in the morning, around the time the fights were breaking out at the Arena. Qualls didn't leave with them, and he didn't leave with William, either — not according to Gilmore and McKinley, who were with the younger Lee until he got into his brother's Olds, shortly before the shooting. A man named Richard Walton said that he drove Qualls from the club to the Lee house on Jersey; that squares with other witness accounts.

There was simply no opportunity for Qualls to hear the crucial conversations about premeditated murder that he described to police. And there wasn't sufficient time for the Lees to spot the Malibu on the way home, drive three miles to arm themselves, then return and find the Malibu in almost the same place they'd left it. Because of being detained by the search for a gun in the Arena parking lot, D-Dog apparently didn't leave Thornton until close to 2:45. He drove to east Denver, hung out at the car wash, then headed onto MLK Boulevard. Police estimate that the shooting happened at around 3:10.

No one attacked the veracity of the Qualls statement more than Qualls himself, who recanted soon after he made it. He said the police told him that they had a witness who placed him in the Olds that night and that he was facing forty years in prison. His mother and grandmother urged him to "do whatever he had to do" to get out of the situation, so he drew on details he knew — such as the fact that Brian had a TEC-9 he stored in an old car behind the house — and concocted the rest.

Now 39 years old, Qualls is still haunted by what he said all those years ago. He was a junior at Gateway High School, he says, who loved to play middle linebacker and had no street experience at all. He knew it was possible, though, for young black men to go to prison for things they didn't do.

"They took me to the police station, and I told them I didn't know anything," he recalls. "Then they started saying there's a person dead, that all the dreams I had are going to go down the drain, that I'm going to get life in prison because I know something. They were threatening me to the point where I was actually terrified. I had never been in trouble with the law ever in my life."

The detective who questioned Qualls denied threatening him in any way. The youth's mother and grandmother were present during the questioning, he noted.

On the eve of trial, the Denver District Attorney's Office offered the defendants a deal — plead guilty to second-degree murder and receive a sentence of no more than thirty years. It's a deal that looks better than ever in hindsight; under the statutes of the time, Lightner and the Lee brothers could have been out in fifteen years. But to their younger selves, the offer seemed like a mountain of time for a crime they denied committing.

"At 22, if someone's telling you to take a thirty-year deal, all you're thinking is you're going to be in prison until you're fifty," Brian Lee says.

They turned down the offer.

**********

A trial isn't always about facts. Sometimes it's about competing narratives. The side that tells the best story — not necessarily the most logical one, but the most compelling one — has an excellent chance of carrying the day. Jurors are suckers for good stories.

Lightner and the Lee brothers went on trial for murder in the spring of '93, just before a season of drive-by carnage and random shootings that would be dubbed Denver's "Summer of Violence." The moniker was more media hype than reality — in sheer body count, that summer was less violent than the summer of '92 — but the rising tide of gang violence was a frequent topic of discussion around the city even before the label arrived.

It was a theme sounded early and often by Deputy District Attorney Doug Jackson during the trial, starting with the fourth sentence of his opening statement to the jury. The case they were about to hear, he explained, is about "a conflict between two different groups of people...who happened to belong to different street gangs in Denver."

The prosecution's story line was simple: The Gangsters of Love were a "rival gang" of the Crips, possibly affiliated with the Bloods. The three hotheads in the Olds went out seeking revenge for the humiliations inflicted on their homies at the Arena. They fired indiscriminately at the Malibu, killed one man and wounded another, tossed one of their gats but kept the other, and went home.

Tiffany Locke was a reluctant witness. Only sixteen years old, torn between her loyalty to the people in the Malibu and her friendships with various people associated with the Lees, she claimed not to have seen anything or identified anybody doing the shooting. She also denied that anyone had threatened her. After she was finished testifying, she sent a note to Judge Spriggs, claiming that she'd been high on alcohol, marijuana and LSD that night. Attempts to locate her and call her back to the stand went nowhere. Spriggs declined to share the note with the jury, calling it "a calculated attempt to cause a mistrial" and its author "one of the most transparent liars I have ever seen in my life."

Aaron Qualls was a reluctant witness, too. He had a doctor write a note, explaining that he was fearful of gang retaliation if he testified — but the doctor messed it all up, implying that it was "his cousin's gang" he was afraid of. ("I've never had a reason to be afraid of my cousins," he says now.) When the note didn't spare him, he took the stand and insisted his statement about overhearing the plotting of the GOL's revenge was a complete fabrication.

The reluctance merely played into the story line — that the Gangsters of Love were something to be feared. The more these teenage witnesses tried to retreat from their own prior statements, the more weight the prosecution seemed to give those statements. "Despite the fact that both of those witnesses have been impeached in many ways," Judge Spriggs ruled, "and have given different, conflicting and wholly irreconcilable versions of their testimony, it's up to the jury to sort it out and determine which, if any, of the statements given by them is true."

The story told by the defense was more chaotic, fragmentary and complicated. A random collision of young people who were packing more firepower than sense. A phantom murder weapon that could just as easily have been ditched by the people in the Malibu as those in the Olds. A police investigation that had failed to secure key evidence and bullied a false statement out of a scared teenager.

Pieces of the story went missing. A friend of D-Dog's claimed that Locke had told him that a gun went off in the Malibu that night and asked him to hide two .38 pistols. Summoned to testify by the defense, the man decided to take a plane to Houston instead. Locke denied that the conversation ever took place.

A "bullet path reconstruction expert" hired by the defense testified that the bullet holes in the the Malibu couldn't be matched up in any reasonable way with the wounds inflicted on Roberts and McGregor. But Judge Spriggs had been skeptical from the start of the notion that the victim had been killed by friendly fire, quipping at one hearing, "There isn't a grassy knoll, is there?"

None of the defendants testified. Unable to secure separate trials, they had made a pact to stick together. If one of them didn't want to take the plea deal, none of them would. If one of them declined to testify, none of them would. One for all, all for one. Or, as Brian Lee put it, many years later: "All three were going to have to go down — not one of us, not two of us."

And so they did. Sitting together mute at the defense table, they looked like the gangbangers the prosecution said they were. The jury was out one day before finding all three guilty of the murder "by extreme indifference" of James McGregor and the attempted murder of Roberts, Locke and Robert McGregor.

At the sentencing hearing, Spriggs called the crime "a sad affair," a case of young men who foolishly decided "to show the rest of the world just how tough they are...and they probably would have gotten away with it if they'd not had the bad luck to go shoot up a car full of people which happened to contain a young lady who knows all of them and who immediately informed the police who was responsible for this."

Spriggs noted that he'd been inundated by letters in support of the three defendants. He scoffed at a petition being circulated that claimed the three were being "railroaded" because of their race.

"These are hard choices these young men have made, two really bad choices," he said. "One, in doing what they did, and two, in not accepting the offer that was extended to them. But ultimately, we all have to be responsible for our own acts."

"We didn't do it," William Lee said.

**********

Damon "D-Dog" Roberts didn't live to see the Gangsters of Love convicted of trying to kill him. He died in late 1992 of gunshot wounds inflicted in a drug deal gone bad. He was twenty years old.

The two other passengers in his car the night James McGregor was killed have passed away, too. Tiffany Locke died in a traffic accident in 2001, at the age of 24. In 1999, after a series of domestic troubles, Robert McGregor killed his two-year-old daughter and then took his own life. He was 22.

Eric Lightner and the Lee brothers have spent the last two decades at the Limon penitentiary. Inseparable as youths, they are now a middle-aged posse of three, looking out for each other and bolstering each other.

"Brian got here four or five days before us," Lightner recalls. "Me and William came together. It was a rude awakening. But when you got here, you had older dudes pulling you aside, saying, 'Hey, youngster, it's going to be all right, as long as you stay away from the three Ps — pills, punks and poker. Just mind your business.'"

William Lee says they've done exactly that, skirting the prison gangs and relying on each other: "We've been trying to keep ourselves busy, stay away from a lot of negativity."

Over the years, the three have continued to hunt for new evidence in their case. Leads have come from odd places, including former Crips doing time themselves. Much of the information was presented in a 1998 hearing before Denver District Court Judge John McMullen. Larry Webster, a close friend of Damon Roberts's, testified that he supplied the guns that Roberts had that night and that Locke told him she'd buried the guns. Another convict, Samuel Deas, testified that he'd heard that a gun had gone off in the back of the car, killing James McGregor. A third, Killou Ford, said that Roberts was his best friend and had admitted to him that both he and McGregor were "heated," or armed, that night. Roberts, who wore a medallion with the emblem of a gun around his neck, had a special stash area under the Malibu dash for hiding weapons, he said.

"I don't have any question that he was shooting back," Ford testified. "I know him, knowing our activities at the time."

Asked to clarify what activities he was talking about, Ford replied, "Just wild shooting, and, you know, just not caring too much."

Tiffany Locke also testified. She denied saying anything to Webster or Deas about hiding guns. She denied there were any guns in the Malibu. No longer a recalcitrant witness, she stood by what she told the police in her initial statement, determined not to "let my homeboy die in vain."

"I don't want to see anybody do life," she said. "I'm sorry, you know, but I have a dead homeboy."

Judge McMullen wasn't impressed by the jailhouse witnesses. The defendants' bid for a new trial was denied.

But at some point after that hearing, Locke had another change of heart. After Robert McGregor's death, she was the last surviving victim in the case, and she seemed deeply troubled about the life sentences handed out to Lightner and the Lees. She even provided Gail Lee with a short, signed and notarized statement: "The night James McGregor was killed, we did have guns in the car. I don't think that the gentlemen that are incarcerated killed him. I think he accidentally killed himself while trying to shoot at them."

She hinted to others that someone else in the car had fired the fatal shot. "I'd see her over the years, and she would say that she was sorry that she didn't tell the truth," says Tajuana McKinley. "She said the bullet came from inside the car."

Prosecutor Jackson, now a chief deputy DA, says the jury got it right back in 1993. "I do not have doubts about the correctness of the convictions," he wrote in a recent e-mail response to Westword. "There is no question about the joint involvement of these three defendants in the shooting that killed James McGregor."

Despite Locke's claims, he adds, the friendly-fire theory remains "fantastical" and "contrary to the physical evidence, scientific evidence, and other evidence in the case."

Lightner and the Lees have taken all the self-improvement programs offered in a place like Limon and gone decades without any significant disciplinary violations. Schooled by old-timers when they arrived, they're now mentors themselves. "It's been a long journey," Lightner says. "I've been observing my circumstances, and I come to find out that there are a lot of twenty-, thirty-, forty-, fifty-year-old boys in here. There are individuals in here who are old enough to be our parents, but I can't go to them and learn anything. I try to pull a youngster aside and say, 'You're going about this the wrong way,' but it's a lot harder these days. I see a lot of riffraff."

Jackson says he would oppose any reduction in sentence for the three: "I do not doubt that the defendants have had good behavior while in prison...but do they yet acknowledge responsibility for these crimes?"

In letters to Governor John Hickenlooper, prepared as part of their clemency application, the three express regret for endangering the lives of the people in the other car that night, for their rank immaturity and recklessness. The one bad act they don't admit to is the one they say they didn't commit, the one for which they are serving life — firing the fatal shot.

Three years ago, outgoing governor Bill Ritter commuted the sentence of former Blood Sean Taylor, who'd served 22 years of a life sentence for a murder committed when he was a teenager. Taylor knew the Lees from the neighborhood before he went to prison, and he got to know them better at Limon.

"If any three individuals deserve a second chance, it's those guys right there," says Taylor, who now works for the Second Chance Center, a nonprofit that helps parolees transition back to productive lives. "You have to be aware of the things you've done, and you need to know who you've affected. They're trying to make up for all of it."

The families of inmates doing life either cut them loose or end up, in some sense, serving time themselves. The families of Lightner and the Lees are still marking the days.

"It's hard to go up there," says Barnes, the Lees' sister. "But I've always said I don't believe it's God's plan for them to stay up there all their lives."

William Lee is training to be an electrician. Harry Lightner says his brother reads all the time and has become a walking encyclopedia. Sons Gavin and Brian Lee Jr. say their father has done everything he can to be involved in their lives and help them make "sound, controlled decisions."

"I feel like I've been in jail the whole way with him," says Brian Jr. "He's taught me what not to do. I believe there's hope and that one day they'll be out."

Brian Sr. spends his days in Limon moving forward, not back.

"I came in here and have not participated in the hopelessness," he says. "This is one of the most violent prisons in Colorado. We have stayed away from that, in the hopes of one day getting redemption. I have tried to live my life as fully as I can within this confinement. And I have vowed to never become a product of my environment again. We weren't gang members, but in some ways we were the product of our environment."

Eric Lightner

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