Julian Rubinstein wrote the book on a notorious September 2013 Denver shooting: The HOLLY: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood, which was released May 11. This excerpt from The HOLLY picks up as Rubinstein is looking for the answer to a question that echoes through the book: Why did activist Terrance Roberts shoot Hasan Jones?
As a steady rise in Denver’s gang violence continued, the city’s federal anti-gang effort was conspicuously absent from public reporting. I couldn’t find any mention of it since the prestigious grant had been announced in 2010. One night, I went to a public meeting of the Holly Area Redevelopment Project (HARP), held in the old Safeway building at the top of Holly Square. District 2 commander Mike Calo was there, in uniform. He had a broad chest and a high forehead. His black-and-gray hair was combed to one side. Afterward, he told me he’d be happy to discuss his work. “What we’re doing here is a model for the nation,” he said, and gave me his card.
Denver’s policing had in fact become a model. Since the latest Project Safe Neighborhoods effort had begun, at least fifty cities had sent officers to Denver to train with District 2 and its primary partner in the effort, the ATF. The presence of law enforcement headquarters had given Denver access to resources such as the ATF’s state-of-the-art ballistics lab.
I started going to public meetings the police held, often in the District 2 community room. At one of them, hosted by Commander Calo, an ATF agent said that Denver’s law enforcement community had discovered that most of the city’s crime was being committed by a small group of “trigger pullers.” It was a variation on [criminologist and gang violence prevention expert] David Kennedy’s findings about “impact players” in Boston. The same findings had been made in other cities, but Kennedy felt it didn’t account for the fact that many of the “trigger pullers” were put up to the violence they carried out by the OGs. In Denver, according to the ATF agent, law enforcement knew who the violent offenders were, and would bring them to justice.
Magic’s story of becoming an informant for America’s premier anti-gang effort was also common. According to court papers, sometime in 2012, he was in the Denver Jail facing his ninth felony. In exchange for going undercover as an agent of law enforcement, his charges were dismissed, he was paid $7,000 in cash, and his car was taken out of the impound lot. A few months later, he was escorted to a restricted area of District 2, where a technical team fitted him with a small camera under his shirt. On three occasions, he recorded one of his best friends, Freddy—who ran the shop on Colorado Boulevard—selling him a “zip,” or an ounce of crack, which Magic told Freddy that he needed.
Freddy—who Terrance swore had tried to entrap him into talking about a drug deal with some “Russians”—was now facing a long federal prison sentence. Freddy decided to argue an entrapment defense. With no media coverage, the case went to trial in 2014, and Magic was required to testify. On the witness stand, according to transcripts I obtained, Magic admitted being an ATF informant and seemed to agree he thought Freddy had been entrapped. “I set up my friend,” he testified. “I’m not accepted by Park Hill no more. My mom barely accepts me. I’m nobody,” Magic testified. “I don’t remember anything until I set up my best friend.” He said someone who did that “deserves to die.”
According to experts like law professor Alexandra Natapoff, the DOJ guidelines on informants were frequently violated. Most infamously, the Boston FBI used the Irish crime boss Whitey Bulger as an informant from the early 1970s into the 1990s. During that time, Bulger killed or ordered the killing of at least eleven people, including another informant. Still, no law exists regulating informant conduct; there are only the guidelines. Despite possible problems with the use of Magic as an informant, the jury convicted Freddy on all but one count. He is in federal prison.
In Denver, the 1,440 police officers on the city’s force are expected to cultivate informants if they want to move up the ladder. Within the gang unit, informants are seen as vital to making arrests, because gang loyalty and the mistrust of law enforcement complicate efforts to get information on crimes
An officer can become an informant’s handler without even arresting them. Terms of the agreements vary. Most state that the informant will give his handler actionable information in exchange for the handler asking the district attorney’s office to request leniency for the defendant in a pending case. But some informants may have long-term relationships with officers, particularly if they are higher up in a gang structure and in a position to consistently identify the players. All informants are paid in cash, disbursed by a district-level manager. They go by nicknames, which they are allowed to choose. Their real names are kept in a safe in Denver police headquarters.
Federal informants were also common in Denver, particularly in northeast Denver’s gang communities. The FBI, DEA, ATF, and Homeland Security all had large offices in the city and dedicated gang agents, who relied on such relationships to do their work.
According to the law professor Natapoff, federal law theoretically allows any defendant to cooperate in any case, and many do. From 2010 to 2015, the DEA employed approximately eighteen thousand informants at a cost of $237 million per year, the ATF operated about two thousand informants per year at a cost of $4.3 million, while the FBI did not release numbers. Inspector General reports on the agencies showed that many of the informants had committed serious crimes.
Prosecutors and former cops I spoke to told me that using informants often requires an “ends justifies the means” approach. Many informants are useful precisely because they are criminals themselves. Natapoff’s research corroborated what I was starting to see in Denver: while informants are not supposed to be immune from prosecution, they were often accorded significant favor. Aside from the ATF informant involved in the Fero’s Bar stabbings, I also became aware of other violent men in Denver who had assault, domestic violence, DUI, or weapons charges dismissed and gone on to sting others in undercover operations.
Terrance believed they were their own subset of informants. He called them “goons” and “assassins.” To him, they were the neighborhood’s real “impact players,” to use anti-gang expert Kennedy’s term, guys calling the shots if not pulling the trigger. Yet they remained on the street and close to politically charged events, despite being the well-known authors of violent crimes. They were an invisible army inside the invisible war.
Their dangers were many. Nationally, informants were the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases. Terrance and others I would soon meet believed they were also enlisted by law enforcement to undermine and intimidate activists.
Those who would speak to me on the subject said most people from the community knew at least one person they suspected was an informant. In some cases their suspicion stemmed from that person’s ability to avoid arrest themselves; in other cases it was because they had seen “the paperwork,” usually a court document with the person’s statement; in others, they had been stung by the person themselves.
All of them told me there was only one person who had been willing to speak out about informants. It was Terrance. Doing so, they said, had both distinguished him and quite possibly placed him in danger. “Calling out those forces is the most necessary and dangerous thing you could do,” Hasira “H-Soul” Ashemu, a northeast Denver activist and the son of Lauren Watson, told me. “Think of the community as a body. Terrance is the immune system of the Black body. When there’s a foreign entity that comes in and threatens the health of that body, Terrance is the one to say, ‘Listen, this is inside, you know, we’re sick because that.’”
Alex Alonso, the sociologist and founder of Streetgangs.com, said that his research suggested a recent surge in the numbers of informants. Alonso, who lived in Los Angeles, believed that this was an untracked but leading factor in the rise of gang violence. He estimated that between 10 and 30 percent of gang homicides were connected to informants—either committed by them, or as revenge against their perceived presence. This was one important reason why intra-gang violence had surpassed inter-gang violence, and why gang violence statistics were often so off-base: the FBI and many municipalities, including Denver, defined gang violence as an action by a member of one group against another group. A member of the Bloods killing another Blood didn’t count.
Alonso told me he was not surprised by Terrance’s opinion that the growing presence of informants in Park Hill had helped stir up violence. Gerald Wright, the thirty-nine-year-old former leader of the Camo Movement, and the activist Alex Landau, who was twenty-five, and others told me they believed the problem went deeper. They believed the police used informants in northeast Denver to strategically undermine opposition to initiatives sought by city hall. To them, what happened at the Holly and to the Camo Movement was the most obvious example.
“Terrance wanted to save a neighborhood he came from and the city wanted to gentrify it,” Alex Landau told me. “We’ve had plenty of people targeted for much less.” He said that the group he worked for, the newly formed Denver Justice Project, had recently outed an infiltrator at one of its protests.
Denver law enforcement’s record of illegal spying was not reassuring. Denver’s FBI had illegally conducted surveillance on the Occupy movement in 2011, a year after the birth of the Camo Movement. And in 2002, Denver’s “Spy Files” case was a scandal at the end of mayor Wellington Webb’s administration, revealing that the Denver police had been conducting illegal surveillance on peaceful activists, including a police watchdog group that Denver police categorized as “criminal extremists.”
Why would law enforcement want to undermine a successful anti-gang activist? Commander Calo, who at first told me he was happy to speak to me, ultimately declined to be interviewed. I don’t imagine he would agree with the premise. But for longtime anti-gang activists like the LA-based Aqeela Sherrills, the answer is clear. Sherrills saw the gang war as a critical piece of the multibillion-dollar-a-year criminal justice industrial complex. Gang communities across America were the targets of the biggest law enforcement programs, and sites of the most arrests. “Law enforcement is invested in the problem,” Sherrills told me. In Denver, about one-third of the city’s nearly $1.5 billion budget went to the Department of Safety, including the police, GRID, and other law enforcement programs. Gang violence comprised the bulk of the city’s violent crime. Theoretically, in a world without gang violence, law enforcement stood to face severe budget cuts.
Whatever the truth of such views, in northeast Denver, many people believed that Terrance had become a target not because of his inefficacy but because of his success. For H-Soul, the northeast Denver activist, Terrance was the very prototype of a law enforcement target. “He’s young, tenacious, fearless, intelligent, articulate, charismatic, and he knows how to use weapons and is not afraid to use them,” H-Soul told me. Plus, he pointed out, Terrance was leading an unprecedented movement of unified gang members who wore camouflage and talked about “taking back the land” as northeast Denver began to rapidly gentrify and the FBI regional headquarters opened blocks away from the Holly. “We may not find out for thirty, forty years exactly how high up Terrance’s name has traveled inside the halls of those that want to keep people of color oppressed,” H-Soul said.
In northeast Denver, several conspiracy theories surrounded the arson of the Holly Shopping Center in 2008. Some believed the police were involved. Some thought that the city was behind it, in order to wrest control of the area. Others, including Terrance, believed Rev Kelly was involved, which struck me as far-fetched, but one day when I was with Rev, he surprised me by sharing that he had been with the Crips late on the night that they decided to burn the Holly down. “They always said they would do it if Mike got killed,” Rev told me. I had to wonder if he’d shared with them the information that might have stopped them: that the Bloods hadn’t killed Mike. I had pulled the news coverage that showed Rev misleading journalists at the time, saying there was no connection between the fire and Mike’s death. One thing Rev certainly knew was why the Crips were motivated to commit the arson.
Eventually, Terrance told me something that I’d begun to gather he believed: that law enforcement had used gang informants to infiltrate the Camo Movement. He took me into the office of the house he was staying in, which was empty but for a desk, two chairs, and a desktop computer. He had stayed off Facebook, but his page—which had five thousand friends, the max—was live. It was the only place he had photos and videos of the events and actions he’d held. But this time he wanted to show me something about Carl McKay.
I understood that Terrance thought Carl’s shop was suspect and seemed like a law enforcement storefront. And I had seen court documents showing charges against Carl that the district attorney had dropped. But that wasn’t enough for me to know if Carl was working with the police.
According to people I spoke to, after Carl opened his shop in the Holly, he often acted like he was a supporter of the Camo Movement, but Terrance and others didn’t believe him. In a neighborhood like the Holly, if you’re “on the block,” meaning still “gang banging”—or remaining involved in criminal activity—it is hard to hide. Carl’s Facebook page, which I could see, didn’t dispel the rumor. It featured a red car as its profile photo, and photos of him in a Boston Red Sox hat with the red B on the brim, indications of his self-identity.
Terrance told me that two months before the shooting, he had organized a Camo Movement photo shoot. Supporters came and took vanity shots in camo gear. Carl surprised them by showing up. Terrance pulled up the photos. In one, Carl, who was thin and had a trimmed goatee, posed holding the bill of a camouflage cap with a P on it, for Park Hill.
Then Terrance asked if I remembered what Carl had said in the Denver Post. It had been some time since I’d read the coverage, and I didn’t know who Carl was then. Terrance clicked on the stories. In both of the Post’s big feature stories about the shooting, it was Carl who appeared as the voice of the community. He was identified as the owner of a cleaning company in the neighborhood.
Speaking to the Post, Carl criticized the Camo Movement, saying it sent “mixed messages” because people wore camo hats with letters on them for their neighborhoods. He also clearly intimated that Terrance had fallen back into criminal life. Hasan [Jones], Carl told the Post, “got a chance to witness two different individuals.” Speaking of Terrance, Carl added: “When you’re not firm in who you are, and you allow people to see a different side then, yeah, it’s going to lead to questions . . . The way [Terrance] was feeling suggested he had forgotten what career path he had chosen. I had to remind him of that career path.”
Of all the places I visited in the community, I always felt most uneasy at these meetings, as if I was under scrutiny. One night after a meeting an African American woman introduced herself to me and said she was interested in my work. She said she worked for a new “community news” network, called 60 Second News. I couldn’t find its website. Eventually I found the LinkedIn page of one of its advisers, who had listed it as a project he oversaw before going to work for the Department of Defense. A former employee later told me he had quit his job there because he believed the company was operated by law enforcement, and that it wasn’t a real news site.
At first, Miripol appeared interested in befriending me, insisting on taking me to dinner. He had told me that he was impressed with Terrance’s work and “the energy he brought,” but I sensed there was more. One afternoon he agreed to meet me at the Holly. It was cold and few people were around. He showed me the original Holly Shopping Center sign, white with purple lettering. It lay against a wall behind a fence.
I asked him about tensions between Terrance and others involved in the redevelopment prior to the shooting. “Terrance was pretty frustrated with a number of things and at times it came out,” Miripol said. When I pressed him to be specific, he pulled out his phone and forwarded me a March 2013 group email from Terrance. It was a long email; Terrance sounded aggrieved, but, at least to me, his frustration seemed understandable. Terrance had written the email from the state capitol, where he was waiting to testify about a juvenile detention bill. He had just read the Denver Post feature that purported to tell the history of the Holly redevelopment, with no mention at all of Terrance. Terrance had emailed Miripol, the Denver Foundation staffers, and others and said that he felt he was being “strategically alienated.” He added, “I am really hopeful we can have a dialogue about this before next week’s meeting. I will come where ever I need to so we can address this.”
He also brought up the documentary. “That mockumentary, that Drugs, Inc. thing, upset a lot of people,” Miripol told me. “The drug warfare that’s portrayed there—it wasn’t giving a full picture. That’s just saying it’s a drug community.”
It was difficult for me to understand how anyone would think that Terrance had had any real input on the program, even if the Prodigal Son logo appeared at the end of the show. I assumed Miripol didn’t know that the material Terrance had in fact helped the producers obtain included the interview with Hasan and the Bloods, talking about leaving gang life behind.
When we stepped over a part of the courts, Miripol had me look down. A section was a different color. The night of the shooting, one of the police cars that had pulled onto the courts had left the scene so quickly that the car’s wheels had torn out five pieces of the courts, which were later replaced. Recalling that day, Miripol became emotional. He said that upon getting a call about an hour after the shooting, he headed straight to the Holly. He said he’d spent most of the night there with Rev Kelly and dozens of other community members, in shock. “That questions all your work, Terrance,” he said to me. “All the eight years you did to build this up—now to take it down by shooting someone. It felt very personal. I was very angry. We were going to lose momentum because of this. There was definitely some heartburn. But it made us stronger. One incident is not going to derail the work we’ve done.”
On August 9, Terrance’s thirty-eighth birthday, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. When I got to Terrance’s place, he and [his father] George were watching the protests on CNN. Ferguson, Terrance said, was a Bloods community. He took me into the office and pulled up Brown’s Facebook page, which included photos of Brown and his friends in red. Terrance began to follow posts of the activists on the scene. Many were gang members who had become politicized by the fight for justice for Mike Brown.
Denver was not among the cities that joined Ferguson in protest, but a shocking death in Aurora the following week changed the politics of northeast Denver’s gang war. I didn’t know whether to believe the news at first. According to Terrance, Hasan had killed the two-year-old niece of Pernell Hines, one of the top Blood OGs. “It’s all over town,” Terrance told me.
It hadn’t been in the media, though, and I couldn’t find Hasan listed as an inmate anywhere in Colorado.
The next day, George told me he’d been asked to do the baby’s funeral. “The coroner has listed the cause of death as a homicide by blunt force trauma,” he told me. He said that the baby, who went by Ny Ny, had wheelchair marks on her feet and cigarette burns on her body.
The next day, Rev Kelly told me he was going to visit Ny Ny’s family, and I accompanied him. The apartment was in a large complex. Inside, three generations of women were around a kitchen table. Quisa, Ny Ny’s mother, who was nineteen, wore a light green pajama shirt with a deer pattern. She had perfect skin and long braided hair. She seemed distracted and distant.
“It hasn’t really hit you yet,” Rev said to her.
“Nope,” she said, looking down. “Probably hit me when I see her.”
Quisa’s mother, Nicolia, who was thirty-nine and heavyset, said she used to be a Blood. “We ran the Holly,” she told me.
The apartment had a shag rug and leather couches and was the home of Ny Ny’s great-grandmother, Sandra, who was fifty-nine. Sandra was thin and wore a black headwrap. She had clearly been crying and was still emotional. She said she often watched Ny Ny and her brother, who was four and was now running around the living room, oblivious.
The wall across from the kitchen table was full of framed photos of family members. Sandra grabbed my arm and took me to it. “He’s dead,” she said, pointing to an image of a young man posing next to a lowrider car. “He’s dead,” she continued. “He’s dead. I don’t know if I can take another.”
Over the next few days, a picture of what had happened emerged. Quisa and the baby’s father, Carnell Hines—Pernell’s younger brother—had broken up about a year earlier. Quisa had since been dating Hasan, who was in a wheelchair and on the run from police for the drive-by. Quisa was allowing Hasan to hide out at her apartment. On the day Ny Ny died, Hasan had begun texting Quisa, demanding she come home from work, and threatening to hurt Ny Ny if she didn’t. When Quisa got home, Ny Ny seemed sick, perhaps constipated. Quisa went back out to get prune juice, but when she returned Ny Ny’s eyes were back in her head. She called 911, but Ny Ny was dead.
Carnell had allegedly been on a bender since getting the news, drinking and threatening members of Hasan’s family. Rev raised the issue of security for the funeral. “I’ll make sure the perimeter is covered so we don’t have to worry about drama,” he told the women. “You don’t need to be worried about someone coming up on you.”
I wandered into the adjacent chapel, which had several rows of chairs and, on the dais, a doll-sized open coffin. Inside was Ny Ny. Her cheeks were pudgy and her tiny eyes were closed. She wore a white wedding-style dress with a gold headdress. She looked like an African queen.
Relatives and friends were arriving in the foyer. I’d heard that Pernell, the baby’s uncle, was outside, and I managed to get someone to introduce us. Laquita let me use part of her office to speak to him. He was about average height and wore a sweatshirt and glasses. He told me I could not record the conversation. Of Terrance’s shooting case against Hasan, he said that if Terrance felt he was in danger, he was “within his right” to defend himself. I told Pernell that I assumed he felt the same way about facing Ty Bud in 2010, when I knew that Pernell had admitted to killing Ty Bud. Pernell went quiet and stared at me. “I don’t talk about that,” he said. The door opened, and Carnell, looking disheveled and acting drunk, entered and asked me if it was true that the coroner’s report had declared Ny Ny’s death a homicide. I told him I had heard this—and then regretted trading in this word-on-the-street information, as he turned and stormed out with Pernell chasing after him.
When I got back to the chapel, George was gathering about two dozen guests in a circle, all holding hands. “We bow our heads and tear-stained eyes,” he said. “Father of God, we ask you to touch right now this mother, touch her in a supernatural way. We ask in the name of Jesus that you touch everyone within this circle. We ask that you give us clarity that Ny Ny has made it home.”
Weeks came and went with no charges or media related to Ny Ny’s death. I called the Arapahoe County district attorney’s office and was told that the case was “under investigation” and that the DA had sealed the coroner’s report. It sounded strange that the district attorney’s office would censor the report; I was not given an answer as to why.
One day Sandra called me to ask for help. “It doesn’t make any sense,” she said, that Hasan hadn’t been charged. She said that Quisa had told her weeks before Ny Ny died that Hasan was abusing her. I managed to reach the Aurora police detective on the case, who testily asked how I got his number and referred me to the public relations officer.
Marshal [Seufert], Terrance’s lawyer, was not prone to conspiracy thinking, but even he shared the speculation that I heard from the community: that the Denver DA might have an interest in keeping its star witness in the Terrance Roberts case from becoming known as a “baby killer.” Any communication between the Denver and Arapahoe County DAs’ offices would be considered “prosecutorial misconduct,” Marshal said, “but how do we prove it?”
The seeming imbalance of justice began to eat at Terrance. “What if I did kill Hasan?” he said to me one day. “That baby would be alive today.” Another day he said, “Can you imagine what Hasan could do if he had two legs? But I’m a pariah.”
He was desperately broke. He had quit his construction job because he was having trouble with one of the crew members. Terrance said the guy was provoking him to fight. Terrance knew he could be locked up before the trial if he got in any kind of trouble and didn’t want to risk an altercation. He went weeks eating the same pot of rice and beans and spent much of his time working his phone, asking friends if he could borrow money.
He had also become mesmerized by the growing Black protest movement, which he followed on cable news and on Facebook. On November 24, St. Louis County prosecutors announced they would not pursue charges against Officer Darren Wilson, who had shot and killed Michael Brown. Ferguson, which had a strong Blood gang presence, exploded in protests that spread to other cities, as people marched and chanted, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
Terrance showed me the Facebook page of Deandre Joshua, whose brother had witnessed Michael Brown’s shooting and who had been part of the protests. Joshua was found dead in a burning car. He had been shot in the head. Some in Ferguson believed that he had been targeted because of his activism.
While several cities joined Ferguson in protest, Denver, where the mayor and police chief were both African American, was not among them. Many I spoke to said that normally they counted on Terrance to organize such demonstrations. Brother Jeff Fard, the often-busy northeast Denver activist, had not organized anything. Instead a Blue Lives Matter demonstration, in support of police, drew several hundred people.
The next time I saw Terrance, his predicament seemed to epitomize the state of the city’s protest movement. “I ain’t really even focused on what you’re saying right now, bro,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to pay the heat bill or they’re going to kick me out of this house. I don’t even have any toilet paper.”
Word got around that Terrance was in a bad way. People he hadn’t seen in ages “inboxed” him on Facebook and arranged to meet him on the street to give him cash handouts. Drettie [Hicks], from whom Terrance had largely stayed away because of his close connection to Bloods Terrance believed were involved in attacking him, spent several hours in a park trying to encourage Terrance. “Little old ladies over there are praying for you, and they know you shot this nigga down,” Drettie told Terrance. “You got something else working on your side not anyone can touch. Like Martin Luther King and them niggas. Those dudes bustin moves, homey, they was doing shit. That’s you, homey. You don’t see it but that’s what’s going on with you.”
But as the holidays approached, Terrance remained dour. Even George, who I’d never seen down, appeared dejected. “Someone told me a pastor got arrested down in Ferguson,” he told me. “I said that’s his problem. I’m worried about what’s going on here in Denver. What about the young man they just found murdered in the alley? What about the baby? What about my son? Did anyone come and protest for us? Terrance told me, ‘Pops, a gang war is coming.’ I told Terrance, ‘We ain’t activists no more. That’s not for us to deal with.’ ”
Excerpted from THE HOLLY: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood, by Julian Rubinstein. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Julian Rubinstein. All rights reserved.