There's something about Orlando Domena that makes people want to save him--from poverty, from gangs, from himself. Community leaders, from Denver's chief of police to gang intervention officials, politicians and respected businessmen, offered up jobs, money, a cellular phone and a college education in an attempt to turn the gangster known as "Little O" onto the righteous path of salvation and a middle-class lifestyle. They tried to mold him into a spokesman, a community activist, a clean-living guy. And they wanted him to lead all the little gangster wannabes he hung out with on Denver's northeast side in the same direction.
But Orlando as a sociological experiment hasn't gone as planned. Even as city officials reached out to help him, he was being arrested again and again on charges ranging from weapons violations to assault and robbery. Days before he made headlines by leading a group of protesters into the mayor's office to complain about police harassment, he shot a man in the leg.
Now Orlando, 21, is in the Denver County Jail awaiting trial on murder and assault charges stemming from a gang-related drive-by shooting. And as he bides his time with his other homies in lockup, Orlando's would-be saviors have been left to deal with the political repercussions of coming to his rescue. When mayoral contender Mary DeGroot accused incumbent Wellington Webb, police chief Dave Michaud and one of the chief's aides of being soft on gangs, Orlando was served up as Exhibit A.
Michaud now admits that his good intentions may have been misplaced in Orlando's case. "I think," Michaud says, "that deep down inside, he may have wanted to change. Maybe he did make an effort to try. But I do think he's a manipulator. I think a lot of [gang members] are."
"He talks a good game," adds another Denver cop, explaining Orlando's appeal to the softhearted. "He's smart. He's charismatic. They try to save him from his environment and all this bullshit. But all the time, he's playing them."
Long before he was a rough, tough gangster named Little O and anointed with the honorary gang title of "O.G." (Original Gangster), Orlando Domena was known on the street as "Puppy J," an appellation given him because of his large, soulful brown eyes. He was like a lot of kids growing up in the Curtis Park and Fuller Park neighborhoods--the product of a single-parent home, often at loose ends because his mother had to work to support the family.
To many of those kids--including Orlando and his two brothers, Antonio and Angelo--the Salvation Army's Red Shield Center served as a combination home, haven, recreation center and social circle. The Domena boys often could be found there playing basketball after school and on weekends. Watching over them was a staff hoping to provide diversion, direction and a dose of Christian values.
One of the Red Shield counselors at that time was the Reverend Leon Kelly, who now serves as the executive director of the nonprofit agency Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives. A towering man with a booming Barry White voice, Kelly took the neighborhood kids under his wing. He urged them to succeed and didn't judge them when they failed, an attitude formed by his own experiences: He was a good kid who went bad, a college student who turned to crime and, ultimately, an ex-con who found God. It was through his capacity as a Red Shield counselor that Kelly came to know Orlando.
"Little O," Kelly says, his voice a sigh expressing both fondness and regret. "Orlando was like one of my own kids. When he was little, he used to run around Red Shield crying when he didn't get his way." Other times he'd enter crying, upset because an elementary-school classmate had taunted or bullied him.
"It was yoking up with a gang that made him tough," Kelly says. "Made him hard."
Los Angeles-style gangs began to take hold of Denver in the mid-1980s. Three young thugs--Albert "Pooch" Jones, Phillip Jefferson and Michael "Cyco" Asberry were at the heart of the new criminal wave. The trio started up the Rollin' 30 Crips, named after an L.A. gang. They claimed as their turf an area roughly encompassing Downing to York streets and East 22nd to 38th avenues. The Domena family lived at the heart of Crips territory.
If Orlando had had a strong male role model, says James Wooten, a former schoolmate who is also "Pooch" Jones's brother, perhaps things would have turned out differently. But Orlando's father was absent. Even those people who profess to know the family well say they never saw the man. And Orlando's mother (who couldn't be reached for comment) seemed unable to control the boy.