The writing's on the wall for KOZE, a graffiti vandal who thought he'd never be caught

Over the two years that George Gray has been a detective with the graffiti unit of the Denver Police Department, one crew of graffiti vandals has been the particular focus of his efforts. "We've been looking at TKO hard," says Gray. In the graffiti world, where respect is determined as much by artistic skill as by illegal risk-taking, the members of TKO "are kind of the shot-callers in Denver," he explains.

TKO got its start in Los Angeles, and in Denver its members tend to be men in their mid- to late twenties who focus on high-profile graffiti spots and are not afraid to maintain their turf with intimidation and violence. "I'm not going to just call them a tagging crew — they're a gang," Gray continues. "They associate with gangsters, and a lot of them are former gangsters. They're kind of the big dogs on the block that other crews fear."

And that status made it a graffiti unit priority to catch the leader of Denver's TKO: a longtime graffiti writer known as KOZE. But despite nearly a decade of writing his moniker in enormous letters across rooftops, light-rail cars and overpasses across the city, KOZE remained largely a mystery to police because he was very good at following graffiti's golden rule: Don't get caught in the act. Because of this, for a long time Gray and his partner, Detective Gerard Alarcon, didn't even know the crew leader's full name, let alone have a way to file meaningful charges that would stick.

But all that changed on October 23, when a Denver jury convicted 27-year-old Timothy Barajas of being the man behind KOZE, permanently attaching his name to the tag in the eye of the law. After the conviction, the Denver District Attorney's office even issued a press release noting that the "graffiti vandal who once boasted he would never be caught" had indeed been caught — and found guilty of seven misdemeanor counts, including criminal mischief, defacing public property and trespassing.

Barajas could not be reached for comment on this latest development. But two years ago, for a Westword article on Denver's graffiti culture, KOZE described how he had worked his way up from a small-time tagger in his westside neighborhood to what many in that scene describe as a "local legend," with a long, successful run of graffiti "bombing" and a network of younger graffiti writers recruited to work beneath him ("Tagging Up Denver," June 21, 2007). KOZE's work had even been featured in graffiti documentaries and art shows. "I like just plain-ass letters so that regular people will be able to read it," he told Westword. "K-O-Z-E...KOZE. I don't want just graffiti writers to read it; I want everybody to read it."

Though the Denver TKO crew had a reputation for being both secretive and abrasive, KOZE said he was willing to go on nighttime graffiti runs "with just about anybody as long as they're down."

That willingness could have been Barajas's downfall. Because the case against KOZE hinged on the testimony of a fellow graffiti vandal, 25-year-old Serge Smiljanic, who used the tag name SPIN. Smiljanic testified that he and Barajas had illegally spray-painted graffiti at three separate locations in industrial areas around Denver in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009. In a search warrant for Barajas's cell phone, detectives wrote that "Serge stated these spots were picked by Tim AKA KOZE. Serge stated that Tim AKA KOZE is also a family man. Serge mentioned that he asked Tim AKA KOZE because he saw car seats in the back of the Jeep SUV." The New Year's Day mission was the first time the two had done graffiti together, Smiljanic told police.

Detectives photographed the tags at three locations — at 5101 Colorado Boulevard, 1810 West Colfax Avenue and Colfax and I-25 — and on the back of the pictures, Smiljanic wrote, "We walked under the Colfax bridge the same night as the Vasquez and I-70 spot and painted burners side by side."

Armed with these photos, detectives arrested Barajas in March, and he finally went on trial in Denver County Court last week.

At the request of Todd Narum, Barajas's attorney, the instructions to the jury noted that the "witness was under investigation himself for the exact same crimes Mr. Barajas has been accused of, and told the detectives what they wanted to hear in order to successfully secure a light sentence for himself."

In fact, Smiljanic had several of his own charges dismissed; he's currently on probation and has to pay $545 in restitution.

Still, the jury believed Smiljanic and found Barajas guilty. Barajas "came in with the attitude that there's no way they're going to get me," says Gray. "When they start feeling the squeeze, the whole honor-among-thieves thing is the first to go."

Since this is Barajas's first conviction, he'll likely end up with probation at his December 29 sentencing — hardly the takedown police were looking for. Even so, Gray characterizes the case's outcome as a victory. "We wanted to get him in court and show that's who he is," he explains. "Now KOZE is Timothy Barajas. Now we can tie him to graffiti here and in other jurisdictions. We'll see if that slows him down or not."

Two years ago, though, KOZE was skeptical that anything could make him put down the can. "I got to stay up in this city, dog," he told Westword. "If I stopped, I don't know — I wouldn't feel like myself. I wouldn't feel like I deserved the name. I wouldn't be KOZE."