The photograph offers a moment frozen in time: Four teenage girls playing dress-up, looking impatiently into the camera. An image nobody would have thought twice about if it hadn't turned out to be one of the last moments of innocence, before terrible things happened.
The photo is hidden away somewhere on Tiffaine Casados's MySpace page, a souvenir of the night everything changed. When you're eighteen, life can turn upside down in a moment.
Especially in lower downtown at Let Out.
What the picture says:
It's October 31, 2007, and Club Bash is having a costume party. Tiffaine has come with her best friend, Christine, and Christine's cousin Melissa and Melissa's friend Bertha, all in high heels and ready to break hearts. Their first stop is the bathroom, to check their hair and ask another girl to take their picture. That's Tiffaine on the right, an exquisite Tinker Bell: hair pinned up, green leotard, fairy wings. Next to her is Christine, in the Little Red Riding Hood cowl, and on the far left is Melissa, dressed as some Harry Potter character. And nobody can tell who Bertha is supposed to be.
What the picture doesn't say:
Halloween is one of the biggest drinking nights of the year, dreaded by every cop in LoDo. And no event of the local club scene circa 2007 was as ripe for trouble as the Boo Bash at Denver's largest hip-hop club, a 12,500-square-foot monster venue at 19th and Blake streets that drew its following from all over the metro area — frat boys and gangsta wannabes, 'hood diehards and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd from far-flung suburbs, many of them under 21 and not allowed in the bar area. Some clubbers considered Bash too ghetto, too packed or too rude, a place where fresh young things could count on getting thoroughly frisked at the door and then thoroughly groped in the booty-to-booty crush of the dance floor.
Tiffaine didn't see it that way. Ever since she'd turned eighteen in June, she'd been coming to LoDo practically every weekend to dance and check out the scene, with regular visits to Bash. She'd met a few jerks, but a lot of nice people, too. A senior who pulled good grades at Hidden Lake High School while working part-time at Rave in the Westminster Mall, she figured she was old enough to hit the club on a school night if she wanted to. So that Wednesday evening she told her mother, Julie Baca, that she was going downtown with friends, and Baca replied, "Be safe."
"Always," Tiffaine said.
The girls arrived at the Boo Bash shortly after ten and stayed through last call. The place was wall-to-wall girls in costumes, smooth dudes in athletic wear and even some genuine athletes; Tiffaine spotted Denver Nuggets Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Kenyon Martin. Around 1:30 the lights came up, and staff began hustling the eighteen-to-twenty crowd out the door that exited onto 19th Street.
Tiffaine went with the flow, arm-in-arm with Christine. On the sidewalk she ran into Levion, a young man she'd met before in the club, and his brother Nikko. The four of them chatted as they headed south across 19th to the block-long parking lot on the west side of Market, where Levion's car was parked.
Streams of people poured all around them — the Let Out crowd heading for their cars and other people who just seemed to be hanging out around the lot. Tiffaine gave Levion a hug and said goodbye.
A horn sounded. A white woman in a silver Kia honked at a clump of men blocking her path through the lot. The men — mostly black, possibly one Hispanic, several of them dressed in red — surrounded the car and began kicking and thumping on it.
"Blood!" someone yelled.
They smashed the driver's window. One of them started hitting the woman in the head with his fists and kicking her in the face.
The woman's boyfriend, a black man, jumped out of the passenger side. He, too, was quickly surrounded, kicked and punched.
For a moment, Tiffaine and Christine stood there, transfixed. Then they veered away from the fight and began walking hurriedly toward their own vehicle, which was parked a block away. Other people were rushing to their cars, too.
A shirtless black man threw a traffic cone at the driver of a big white Chevy Tahoe. "The only reason you don't get out and fight like a man is because you have a gun on you," the bare-chested one said.
The driver poked a chrome-plated handgun out the window as he took off. He fired once — maybe at the shirtless man, maybe the Kia driver's boyfriend or maybe someone else. But it was Tinker Bell who went down.
Tiffaine lay on her right side on the asphalt. She didn't feel any pain. She didn't feel anything. She put her hand on her back and it came away bloody. Her keys, her cell phone — covered in blood. Then cops and paramedics were all around her, cutting off her costume and telling her to hang on, and she's lying there naked, wings clipped, trying to hold onto the shreds of her leotard and thinking maybe she's going to die.
"Tell my mom this isn't my fault," she said.
She lost consciousness on the way to Denver Health. She spent much of the next week in a coma in the intensive care unit. After several more days she was strong enough to sit up and talk to her mother, who told her that the reason she couldn't feel her legs was because she was paralyzed. The bullet had entered on her right flank and injured her spinal cord. And that was that. But the question of fault remained.
Whose fault is it? No one's put even a face to the shooter, who peeled out of the parking lot and down Blake Street. Almost three years later, the shooting of Tiffaine Casados remains unsolved. But in the course of investigating her situation, her family and attorneys discovered what they believe to be more than one accomplice to the crime.
The shooting wasn't the first eruption of violence in the parking lot in the 1800 block of Market, and it wouldn't be the last. In the view of several veteran police officers, for years the lot was the single-worst place to be when the clubs let out on a weekend or a drinking holiday, the most dangerous block in all of LoDo — a scene of beer-sodden fights, random gunplay and gang assaults both calculated and spontaneous. One Denver lieutenant would later testify that he'd never walk into that lot late at night if he wasn't armed and in uniform.
Attorneys for Casados filed a lawsuit against the lot operator, Central Parking System, as well as the owner of the property and the former operators of Club Bash, which closed last year. They contend that Central knew the lot was dangerous but didn't want to go to the trouble or expense of providing cameras or late-night security personnel; that instead, the company allowed its attendants to leave shortly after midnight because they didn't feel safe there; and that the unattended lot became a hangout for thugs who flocked to LoDo after midnight in order to mingle with the Let Out crowd — or prey on them. The suit also claims that Bash management contributed to the problem by attracting a "criminal element," as well as funneling its Let Out crowd into the lot despite the known problems there.
Lawyers for Central Parking and Bash have responded that the shooting of Casados, while regrettable, was hardly something their clients could have foreseen or prevented. Private companies, they argue, aren't in a position to control a phenomenon as inherently risky as Let Out in LoDo, a problem that Denver police have struggled with for years.
"We don't hold ourselves out to be a security company," says Johann "Chip" Manning Jr., senior vice president and general counsel for Central Parking. "We're a parking lot management company. There are police obligations that come into play, ownership obligations, and there are parts of town that everybody knows have issues."
Manning declines to comment on the lawsuit's specific allegations but insists his company meets a "reasonable standard of care" in its lot operations. While not conceding any fault, Central Parking and the property owner, Blecker LLC, recently reached a confidential settlement with Casados. The case against Bash is scheduled to go to trial in Denver District Court next month.
Through her attorneys, Casados declined to be interviewed, citing the ongoing litigation. An attorney for Bash didn't respond to a request for comment. But depositions and internal police documents produced in the case indicate that several factors, from club marketing decisions to enforcement glitches to corporate indifference, contributed to the Let Out madness that plagued LoDo for years.
Whose fault is it? The answer, the lawsuit suggests, has to do with how LoDo became a completely different place at two in the morning than it is at two in the afternoon or nine at night. At the witching hour, even a nondescript patch of asphalt can become the vortex of trouble, a no-man's-land — a few steps from the party, a few too many steps from a safe ride home.
Deborah Dilley's education in the agonies of Let Out began in the fall of 2003, shortly after she was named commander of District Six — the police substation responsible for patrolling central Denver, from City Park West to the Platte River. Accompanied by Lieutenant Catherine Davis, the officer in charge of late-night details in lower downtown, she made the first of what would become many excursions to the Let Out scene.
The trip was an eye-opener. Statistically, the overall crime rate in LoDo wasn't anything special. But at Let Out on weekends, the district couldn't keep up with the calls for service from the area. Thousands of shitfaced young people hitting the streets at once created a recipe for all kinds of mayhem, from traffic problems to vandalism, fights, stabbings and worse.
"I saw a great number of people in the street, in parking lots, in the general area," Dilley would later recall in a deposition about that first field trip. "Many of them were intoxicated...people are drunk, they're screaming, they're yelling, they're partying, those kinds of things."
The Let Out dance wasn't exactly what city fathers had in mind when they created the Lower Downtown Historic District in 1988. Planners had envisioned a more sedate entertainment zone coupled with a real-estate turnaround, fueled by upscale restaurants and warehouse loft conversions. But the arrival of Coors Field in 1995 had brought an influx of giant sports bars, and some of them quickly morphed into dance clubs, extending the newfound vibrancy of the area into the wee hours. Club Bash, for example, had started out as the Blake Street Baseball Club, a huge open-air bar with a grass infield, then was transformed into the LoDo Music Hall. In 1998 the operators changed the name to Bash and began marketing to the eighteen-to-twenty crowd with a mix of deejayed music that, over time, became increasingly focused on hip-hop.
By the time Dilley became the district commander, the situation was getting out of control. Lieutenant Davis had prepared a memo noting a surge in weekend violence in the summer of 2003, most of it going down in the general area of Bash and another hip-hop venue, the Russian Palace at 1800 Glenarm:
July 5, 2:10 a.m., 1800 block of Market, stabbing. July 12, 1:53 a.m., 1800 block of Market, shots fired. July 23, 2 a.m., 16th & Market, shooting, four victims, one arrest. August 2, 1:54 a.m., 1800 block of Market, shots fired. August 9, 3 a.m., 19th & Glenarm, shooting, one victim, no arrest. August 15, 1 a.m., 1500 block of Market, shots fired. August 16, 12 a.m., 20th & Chestnut, shooting, one victim, no arrests. August 16, 1:39 a.m., 1800 block of Market, shooting, 1 victim, three arrests. August 16, 3 a.m., 19th & Glenarm, shots fired, running gun battle between two cars. August 30, 1:45 a.m., 1900 block of Market, shots fired, no victims, one arrest.
To Davis, it was obvious that the problems were more complicated than simply a tide of alcohol and testosterone pouring into the streets. While most of the clubs did an adequate job of policing their own premises, some were also attracting a gang element — and a significant number of the troublemakers weren't even bothering to go into the clubs, where they might be frisked, but were waiting outside to be seen, to settle scores, to get something started.
"We have experienced a large number of individuals who gather in the parking lots in the 1800 block of Market in order to meet with the out crowd from The Bash," Davis wrote. "There appears to be a direct correlation in the number of reports of violent acts...and the format of the music being played at these clubs (ie: hip-hop) on the nights in question."
During her first months on the job, Dilley concentrated on what she considered some of the most troublesome areas, including the hip-hop clubs and nearby parking lots. Shortly after the "running gun battle between two cars" on Glenarm that summer, the Russian Palace dropped its hip-hop format. The parking lot in the 1800 block of Market, then operated by a company called Interpark, agreed to hire security guards for Friday and Saturday nights. The guards would have the authority to sign criminal trespass complaints, which Dilley regarded as a huge step; since the lot was private property, the police otherwise had little authority to intervene unless they witnessed a crime taking place.
But changing the chemistry of an operation as large as Club Bash was another matter. Alcohol and large crowds of adults from widely different backgrounds was a heady mix to start with; wooing eighteen-year-old females and thrusting them into close proximity with much older clubbers just added more fuel. Michael Bertinelli, the club's director of operations, would later acknowledge to Casados's lawyers that costume contests like the Boo Bash, which "compelled the girls to dress scantily," was "our typical M.O."
Dilley and Davis couldn't dictate format to the club. Their officers couldn't be everywhere at once, either, and frequently felt outgunned.
"Honestly, unless you've been down there, it's hard to describe just how you can sense the tension in the air," Davis would later recall in a deposition. "Some nights we would stand there and go, you know, 'It's not feeling good tonight.'"
One night Davis was standing in the 1800 block of Market when a young man twenty feet away from her pulled out a gun and started shooting into the crowd. Officers chased him down and arrested him, but the incident left Davis wondering. If someone is going to open fire with cops right there, what would it take to stop them?
The hazards of the club scene made headlines during Dilley's first summer on the job. On June 14, 2004, a group of eleven young black men went on a crime spree in the late-night crowds outside Bash. They smashed car windows, slugged passersby, swarmed drunks and whomped on them — and were videotaped in action. When a tape of one segment of the rampage found its way to police and then to TV stations, the Denver media lit up with lurid accounts of the "wilding" and the dangers of Let Out.
Suddenly Dilley had access to resources she'd never had before. Up to that point, there might have been two or three officers and a lieutenant patrolling LoDo on weekend nights, in addition to a handful of off-duty cops working security in the clubs. Over the next few weeks, the police presence soared to as high as eighty officers, including some in riot gear, as the DPD vowed to crack down on street crime in the area.
The surge produced between twenty and forty arrests in LoDo every weekend — mostly black or Hispanic males, on charges ranging from public fighting to owning a pit bull. Some critics complained that the cops were provoking confrontations by bum-rushing people, ordering them off public sidewalks, trying to empty LoDo like it was some kind of occupied zone. Club owners griped that the heavy-handed tactics were an overblown response to an overhyped and isolated event ("Where the Wilding Things Are," July 22, 2004). Worse, the crackdown was scaring away business and demonizing the hip-hop clubs, when many of the people causing problems weren't even patrons of the clubs; they were the cheap thugs hanging out in the parking lots.
By working with club owners and community groups, Dilley eventually was able to replace the riot squad with a more cooperative — and arguably more effective — approach. Denver has certain advantages over other cities trying to get a handle on their late-night entertainment districts, notably the availability of off-duty officers to work in the clubs. Although they were being paid by the clubs, Dilley ordered those officers to stick around until 2:30 a.m. to assist in maintaining some semblance of order. She encouraged club owners to stagger their Let Out times so the entire horde wasn't hitting the street all at once; Club Bash was one of the first to comply, moving last call to 1:15 a.m. And LoDo began to see more foot patrols and street closures, designed to discourage cruising, curtail simmering fights and steer the blottoed into cabs.
But the privately owned parking lots remained a sore point — especially the one in the 1800 block of Market Street, the lot closest to Bash. Hiring security guards and getting lot operators to file trespassing complaints "resulted in a decrease in shots fired and weapons-related offenses but has shown no significant decrease in general conduct-related infractions," Lieutenant Davis reported to Dilley in a 2004 memo. "Limited District resources have hindered the ability to adequately address the problem."
To Dilley's distress, the security guards soon disappeared from the lot. When she called a representative of the parking lot operator to ask why, she was told "that they felt it was too big of a liability issue," she later recalled in a deposition. "I then [asked], Did he not think that things that were happening, like fights and shootings and stuff in that parking lot, were also a liability for him? His response was no, that they were willing to accept that."
That fall, Central Parking System took over the lot from Interpark. The operator of more than 2,500 parking facilities across the country, Central didn't see any need for security guards, either. Instead, the company allowed its attendants to leave around 1 a.m. on weekends and eventually closer to midnight, essentially ceding the lot to whomever wanted to park there for free around Let Out. Central didn't join in the DPD's effort to develop a "no-trespass" program for the lots, and company reps were later conspicuously absent from task-force meetings discussing LoDo parking lot issues.
In her deposition, Dilley, who retired earlier this year, admitted that she didn't personally engage the new operators in conversations about security needs; dealing with the previous operator had been "like beating my head against the wall," she said. But other police officers had talked to Central employees about the incidents that went down in the lot after they left at night, and Dilley thought management surely had to be aware that the lot was a dangerous place at Let Out.
"I just can't believe that they would not know what was going on in the lot," she said. "It was in the newspapers...it was a buzz everywhere...plus with [the] comments of your own employees who were afraid of being in that lot, there had to be some discussion going on within Central."
Police gained access to a rooftop overlooking the lot and sometimes conducted surveillance from there. Once in a while, foot patrols or a SWAT team would sweep through the area. The DPD even parked its paddy wagon at the corner of 19th and Market, trying to discourage trouble in the immediate area. But Dilley couldn't devote full-time police attention to a single parking lot, and the violence continued. (At one point Bash's Bertinelli suggested that his club might pay for security in the lot, but the idea was never pursued.)
Not all of the weirdness in the 1800 block of Market ended up generating a police report; if there was no identifiable victim, no witnessed crime, there might not be an actual report. But Daren Ciempa, who took over as the graveyard-shift lieutenant in LoDo in 2007, found the bad juju there spiking just about every weekend. He'd barely started in his new post when a report came in of shots fired in the parking lot — while his officers happened to be patrolling the lot. Over the next six months, there were at least half a dozen reports of shots fired in the 1800 block of Market, maybe as many as ten.
The Central lot had become a place to hold an impromptu tailgate party if you couldn't afford the bar prices for liquor. It was also a useful weapons stash. And fights were frequent — sometimes several in the same night.
"There were multiple fights involving multiple combatants," Lieutenant Ciempa told the attorneys in the Casados case. "Sometimes it would be five or six, sometimes it would be thirty to fifty people fighting — throwing bottles, breaking out baseball bats, picking up chunks of concrete from a nearby dumpster, fists, feet, a couple of knives...
"Not everything gravitated into that parking lot, obviously, but yes, that parking lot, I would say, was a big part of the problem. I should say, a big center of the problem."
"As an unarmed civilian," asked Casados attorney Michael Porter, "would you have walked through that parking lot, say, at 1:15 on a Friday or Saturday night or a big drinking holiday?"
"No, sir," Ciempa replied.
"And why is that, sir?"
"Because I wouldn't have felt safe."
Heather and Jonathan Hiltz found out just how unsafe the Central lot could be around one o' clock on a Saturday morning in March 2007. With two small children at home in Englewood, the young couple rarely came downtown, but it was their third anniversary and a friend's birthday, a night to make exceptions and go celebrate.
The Hiltzes parked at the north end of the Central lot. As they headed back to their car, Heather was complaining loudly about something that had happened right before they'd left the club. A drunk had fallen and hurt his neck, and Heather had tried to help. When the paramedics arrived, they'd pulled her away and treated her roughly.
"I would say I was a little tipsy, but I wasn't drunk, and I was really upset," she recalls. "I was running in front of my husband and my sister-in-law, and I was screaming about it. Then this girl said, 'What did that dumb white bitch say?'"
Hiltz turned and saw a group of five to ten black males and females who seemed to be just standing around on the lot. "And I said, 'I wasn't fucking talking to you, bitch' — which were the wrong words to come out of my mouth," she says. "I'm from Aurora, and I can hold my own most of the time. The girl got right in my face, and I said, 'I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that.' And she said, 'You're not going to get away with this.'
"She up and punched me right in the face. It was like hamburger meat. She hit me a second time in my hairline."
Jonathan Hiltz pulled the woman off his wife. Others started hitting him. He tried to shield Heather, picking her up and actually heaving her over the top of their car. "I have never been so scared in my life," Heather says now. "I thought they were going to kill my husband. They were kicking his face in and pummeling him, and one of them tried to stab him."
Jonathan saw the knife and pulled away as the blade poked into his left side, below the rib cage. The beating continued. At one point Jonathan made it to the car, long enough to hand his wife his watch, before being dragged away again. Heather spotted a police cruiser parked across the street and screamed for help.
"I highly doubt they didn't hear me, but they didn't respond," she says. "I screamed for Jonathan, and a citizen came out of his car and pulled them off him."
The assailants took off. Jonathan Hiltz was later treated for a fractured jaw. The couple filed a police report that night and went down to police headquarters the next day to follow up. The officer who took their report appeared greatly unconcerned. "They said it was a privately owned lot and not their problem," Heather says. "They said there were no cameras, so there's nothing they could do for us."
She called Central Parking to complain about the lack of security. She felt that the company should have attendants, or cameras, or at least a sign telling people that they were on their own late at night: "I tried to explain to the guy that their lot is dangerous, that we fought for our lives that night. I told them they need cameras, or something really bad is going to happen. He told me there was no reason to make a report because they hadn't had any other complaints about that lot. He said they couldn't afford cameras when there were no other complaints."
The police never called back. Neither did Central Parking. Heather Hiltz talked to attorneys but soon concluded there was nothing to do with her outrage but swallow it.
She hasn't been back to LoDo. "I don't go downtown," she says. "Never. I'm terrified of it. We are so scared, just because of that incident. I still have nightmares about it. It seemed like these kids are sitting down there waiting for trouble."
Six months later, Tiffaine Casados made her own late-night journey through the lot. Like Heather Hiltz, she'd never thought of the place as dangerous until it was too late.
At first the doctors said she might not live. Then they said the spinal damage was so severe that she would probably have little mobility at all.
They figured wrong. Casados went from Denver Health to Craig Hospital in a wheelchair. After three months of therapy and hard work, she could use a walker for a few minutes at a time and had enough strength in her arms to pull herself up and down the stairs back at her mother's house.
She had setbacks. Shortly after her release, the depression almost overwhelmed her. But she talked to a counselor and focused on helping other people. She had two brothers who were reputed gang members, and she was determined not to lose the youngest. She went back to high school, made it across the stage to get her diploma, leaning on two administrators, and won a scholarship to Metropolitan State College. She wrote her application essay about what she'd been through and called it "Beautiful Struggle."
She would not let the disability rule her life. She set up a website, featuring photos of a strong, lovely twenty-year-old woman and no wheelchair anywhere; why couldn't women like her be models, too, and possibly inspire others? "I hit rock bottom bad, like super bad," she wrote to anyone who might discover her portfolio, "and for a minute there I let this get to me and stop me from my dream, but I fought hard and started to get movement and feeling back. I still have a lil ways to go till I'm up walking again, but I promise you I will."
Casados was on the move. The search for her shooter, though, stalled out. Police interviewed witnesses who said that the shooter had been in the crowd that attacked the Kia and was flashing his gun before he slipped behind the wheel of the Tahoe. At least three witnesses appeared to have gotten a good look at the suspect.
The case was pursued for months by a detective from the DPD gang unit. But as often happens in instances of gang-related violence, promising leads had a tendency to evaporate. One involved a veteran gang member with an extensive record who'd been picked up in connection with a 2008 assault in the 1900 block of Market. The suspect and his ride, a white Chevy Tahoe, matched the general description of the suspect and vehicle in the Casados shooting. But the witnesses were unable — or unwilling — to make an identification.
Officially, the case is now listed as "inactive, not cleared." Unofficially, Tiffaine's mother and other family members decided to do some investigating on their own. Julie Baca, her boyfriend and a cousin (who also happens to be Tiffaine's godparent) went to lower downtown shortly after the shooting, trying to understand what had happened and looking for cameras that might have captured the fleeing suspect's vehicle. Baca saw her daughter's blood, still staining the parking lot.
They returned the following July, determined to see the Let Out phenomenon at full blast. They parked in the Central Parking lot around eleven, paid an attendant, then went to dinner and wandered the neighborhood. By the time they got back to the lot two hours later, the attendants were gone. But cars were still coming into the lot, parking and not paying.
The trio got in their car and started shooting video of the gathering throng. The noise level ramped up amid drinking and possible drug deals — enough furtive activity that the investigators got nervous and stopped recording the scene. They could see cops on Blake and Market, but none on the lot itself.
Around 1:30 a.m., people started streaming out of Bash, the bouncers urging them to keep moving. There were police barricades on Market and Blake, and most of the crowd flowed across 19th, right into the congestion of the parking lot. Some had cars parked there; some, like Tiffaine months before, were seeing others off; still others were simply cutting through on their way to somewhere else.
Baca and her companions watched tensely as the crowds thinned out amid hoots and police whistles. Amply educated, they headed home.
The attendants who'd left the lot hours earlier were already well-schooled. Just a few weeks earlier, the lot had been the scene of a deadly Saturday-night shootout between police and two cousins.
Responding to calls about a fight breaking out in the lot, officers had arrived in time to see "a number of individuals yelling and jumping up and down as others were removing their shirts." Two gang-unit officers spotted an African-American male with a handgun exchanging fire with a Hispanic male, later identified as Andres Junior Castillo, who'd retrieved a 12-gauge Mossberg pistol-grip shotgun from the trunk of his car.
Castillo opened fire with the Mossberg on the officers. The blast just missed Officer Jason Simmons, ripping through his shirt. Simmons and Sergeant Vince Lombardi returned fire, wounding Castillo, who handed the shotgun to his cousin, Mark Tabullo, as he fell. Tabullo aimed from the hip, evidently not knowing the gun was empty.
The officers had no way of knowing that, either. They shot him seven times, killing him. A later count of shell casings and shotgun wadding indicated that the man with the handgun (who was never caught) fired six times, as did Castillo. Simmons and Lombardi fired a total of eleven rounds.
Castillo was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 33 years in prison. The two officers were cleared of any wrongdoing by Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey.
"When someone brings a fully loaded, pistol-grip shotgun to LoDo, it is reasonable to conclude they are not there to enter a skeet-shooting contest," the DA declared. "When the weapon is indiscriminately fired repeatedly in a crowded parking lot...the assailant should expect to be shot."
Central Parking employee Ernest Miller showed up for work the day after the shootout and found the lot wrapped in crime-scene tape. The boss had been asking employees to stay until one in the morning, he says, but after that Miller made a point to leave around midnight, and so did his fellow attendants.
"I really wasn't comfortable working down there with no protection," says Miller, who left Central's employ last year. "We asked if we could just work till twelve, and they were fine with that."
After clocking out at another location, Miller sometimes drove by the lot on his way home. He saw drivers pulling in and not paying. The lot has more than 200 spaces, at ten bucks a pop on weekend nights. There was significant revenue being lost between midnight and Let Out, but Miller wasn't about to try to collect it.
"Some of the police officers told me, 'If you don't have to be down here at night, don't be here,'" he says.
His buddies are laughing at him, but the young man in the SECURITY T-shirt persists in hugging a utility pole a few steps from the intersection of 18th and Market. After a few drink specials, it seems to be the only stable feat of engineering in LoDo.
"I'm securing myself," the man explains.
It's a Friday night in the heat of summer, half an hour before the stroke of Let Out, just a little over two years and a few steps away from the shotgun showdown of '08. Blake and Market are thick with pub-crawlers intent on hitting one more spot, collecting one more phone number or making plans to head elsewhere. The vibe tonight is festive and far from sinister; the greatest danger on the street seems to be the possibility of a wallet-mauling by the gauntlet of burrito vendors, gyro assemblers and panhandlers.
A young woman in a pink dress tugs at her heavy-footed escort, giggling and boasting about keeping him from getting run over. Packs of teenage girls in short skirts stutter-step like hobbled prisoners, either because of their torturous footwear or their tight apparel. Two of them take off their high heels and step gingerly, barefoot, around puddles of vomit. A bleary-eyed fellow gazes benignly on the throng milling around him. His shirt reads DRINK. REFILL. REPEAT.
"Are you leaving?" one big-haired, Jersey Shore-worthy sibyl shrieks at another across Blake, incredulously. "Don't you want to go someplace else?"
Market is closed off at 19th by a police barricade, giving the block a pedestrian-mall feel and allowing an impromptu cab stand to operate at the edge of the disgorging bars. A foot patrol of five officers casually circles the block, from Market to Blake, which tends to shut down earlier, then back to Market.
The Central Parking lot in the 1800 block of Market is quiet and far from full. Three police cars move slowly down the alley, checking the lot for suspicious activity, but there's nothing to see but a couple of men standing on Market Street, helping themselves, with at least an attempt at discretion, to tallboys out of the trunk of an old Ford.
After years of fine-tuning their approach, Denver police believe they've made some strides in keeping the peace at Let Out. "We don't have a problem with people coming down there to enjoy themselves," says Lieutenant Ciempa. "But people who come down there to commit acts of violence, or people who don't understand when to say when — we're not going to tolerate it. We'll find them a place, either in detox or jail."
Until a recent schedule change, Ciempa was the primary lieutenant in charge of the Let Out detail. He's spent every weekend of the past three years in LoDo, except for his vacations, and he sees several forces at work in the gradual easing of the situation: savvy policing, more cooperation from club owners, a different kind of crowd.
"One of the issues we had was people coming into downtown and just hanging out on the street, roaming in LoDo in fairly sizable groups," he says. "Some of them were down there looking for problems. I'm not saying it's completely gone away, but with the police presence we've put down there, it's a constantly improving process."
By "presence," Ciempa doesn't just mean foot patrols and traffic diversions. In 2008, in preparation for the Democratic National Convention, the DPD installed a network of High Activity Location Observation (HALO) cameras downtown; combined with existing traffic cameras, the system has given law enforcement a much better handle on street activity in LoDo. The cameras have contributed to scores of arrests, Ciempa says. They also allow police to react more quickly to brewing trouble — and possibly deter people who realize their stunts might be recorded.
"They don't know where the cameras are," Ciempa says. "It keeps them in check, maybe where the cameras aren't."
Ciempa believes there's less tension between his officers and the bar crowd, as regulars come to see them as a calming influence rather than a buzzkill. He'd still welcome a bit more cooperation, though, especially when people observe trouble in progress and make 911 calls. "So many of our assault cases, we can't make positive ID, because the people who saw what happened just disappear," he says. "A lot of our victims are targeted because they're intoxicated; they don't know what happened. I would ask people to stay around and be good witnesses."
Another encouraging factor Ciempa cites is a general "decrease in volume" of Let Out crowds. The chilly economy has closed some clubs and compelled others to change format. One of the biggest developments in the area of 19th and Market has been the demise of Club Bash last year; it's now a live concert venue, Summit Music Hall. The place can still pack in close to a thousand, but performances tend to end earlier and attract a different mix of people than Bash did.
"The whole situation has changed dramatically since Bash closed," says David Cole of the Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association. "The whole business plan for the Summit fits the neighborhood better."
"The biggest change, in my opinion, is the type of operations that are down here," says Frank Schultz, the driving force behind the Tavern Downtown (originally the Soiled Dove) and several other popular venues. "You've got to be able to adapt to make it safe and make it work. You've got people who are here for the long haul, and LoDo is a completely different place now."
Schultz has been operating downtown since 1997. When the "wilding" case stampeded customers a few years ago, he got tired of people asking him if it was "safe" to come to his places at night. He's invested heavily in upgrades and expansion, taking over another club that had given police headaches, Market 41, and transforming it into the Cowboy Lounge. He's a strong believer in subtle but intractable dress codes and the wisdom of hiring off-duty cops.
"It's not what they fix, it's what they prevent from happening," Schultz says. "Somebody sees a uniformed officer, they're less likely to be a knucklehead. I've had off-duty since the day I opened, and I've kept them even when I was losing a lot of money. It's a privilege to be able to hire those guys."
The absence of Bash, coupled with the frequent police patrols down the alley, apparently helped thin the hangaround crowd in the Central Parking lot, too. Concerns about that lot and others had been high on the agenda of neighborhood task force meetings organized in 2008 by Denver City Council member Judy Montero and Awilda Marquez, then director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. But the only company rep to show up at any of the meetings was from Ampco, which runs the lot on the east side of the 1800 block of Market.
"That was my biggest disappointment," Montero says now of the task force effort. "The ongoing issue has been parking lots, and I really wish the parking lot owners were more cooperative. When you have all these venues closing and people leaving at the same time, and you have a parking lot that allows people to hang around, then you've got a cross-section of not-so-good possibilities."
Parking lots may still be the ongoing issue, but LoDo in general seems tamer these days. "I certainly don't think it's gotten any worse," says Jim McCotter, an attorney who lives downtown and co-chairs a "good neighbor" committee with Cole and others. "My wife will not go out with me when I'm out at one o'clock, but things are pretty decent down here now. There are times when you can get worried, but it's been a while since anything really bad has happened."
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The most recent eruptions of Let Out violence have occurred in the vicinity of Club Vinyl on Broadway, including a shooting behind an Arby's last month and a 2008 spray of gunfire outside the club that wounded five people. Last fall, another purported "wilding," actually a series of assaults and robberies that may have been part of a gang initiation, led to the arrests of more than thirty African-American men and women suspected of participating in the attacks; several of the incidents occurred elsewhere downtown or near Five Points.
Any place, it seems, can be the wrong place at the wrong time. But some times and places are consistently more wrong than others.
As Let Out begins in earnest, the young man in the SECURITY shirt who was holding up the light pole has surrendered to gravity and is now lying on the ground, his cheek on the asphalt. One of his bros stands over him with a cell phone, either summoning help or taking his picture.
Man down. He sleeps on, unaware of the fluttering of wings above him.