The assassins drove into northeast Park Hill in the early-morning hours of May 18, 2008. They parked their vehicles in a dark alley and began filling glass bottles with gasoline.
They were Crips, young gangbangers who went by names like "Tre Hundred," "Baby Hoo Ride," "Li'l Mario" and "Quise." They were itching for a fight, having just clashed with a bunch of Bloods at Bash Nightclub in LoDo during let-out, a few hours after Michael Asberry, co-founder of the Denver Crips, had been shot and killed in Aurora.
Now it was time for payback. Although the police hadn't yet named a suspect in Asberry's death, it was inevitable that when a Crip got gunned down, the Bloods would soon suffer. That was the way things worked: a natural balance, an eye for an eye.
And Asberry wasn't just any Crip. He was a founder of the gang, akin to royalty. Payback would have to be big, an assassination that would cut to the heart of northeast Park Hill, the long-established home turf of Denver's Bloods.
They had the perfect target in mind.
Once the bottles were topped off and plugged with rags, the gangsters walked around the corner to the Holly Square Shopping Center at 34th Avenue and Holly Street. Everything was closed for the night; the windows were dark in Family Dollar, Tyson's Food Market, Park Liquor, Steve's Style Shop and Little Saints Daycare. No one was there to watch as several of the young gangsters lit their Molotov cocktails and tossed them onto the roof.
As the Crips hurried away, the fire moved through Tyson's and then Family Dollar. In the liquor store, heat-triggered bottles exploded like fireworks. The inferno spread quickly through the common area above the stores, consuming one business after another. By the time the fire crews arrived, the flames had broken through the roof and stretched thirty feet into the sky.
The assassination was complete.
Firefighters were still tending to the smoldering remains when neighbors began gathering a few hours later. Preachers stood side by side with gangbangers, awestruck by what they had lost. "This is worse than 9/11 to me," yelled a young man in red. "This is my home. It's Iraq right here."
Police at the scene suggested that an electrical malfunction might be the culprit, but no one was surprised a few days later when arson was determined to be the cause. Eventually, nine Crips would be indicted for the crime and receive sentences ranging from probation to ten years in prison, as well as paying a total of $1.98 million in restitution. One of them, Katsina Roybal, would ultimately pay a higher price: Last week, she was gunned down while sitting in the evening heat on a front porch in the Cole neighborhood. While police have yet to name a suspect, many assume that Roybal's murder was just another round in the city's vicious gang cycle. A casualty, like Holly Square itself, of the decades-old war between the Crips and the Bloods.
The Holly, or what was left of it after the fire, was more than just a battleground in this war; it was also a barometer for the economic climate of northeast Park Hill. In the early '60s, it had become the commercial heart of a nascent African-American community, a gathering place for generations of kids, including local boy-turned-NBA superstar Chauncey Billups, the neighborhood's beloved "King of the Hill." And then it had turned into ground zero for the community's gang and drug problems — social diseases to which it seemed to have finally succumbed.
"This is a blessing," declared a woman dressed in her Sunday best, standing over the Holly's charred remains. Like many residents, she'd had enough of the Holly and its troubles and was happy to see it go.
Terrance Roberts, standing in the crowd that day, had also long prayed for change at the Holly. But not like this. The neighborhood had already been a victim of crime, violence and neglect for as long as anyone could remember. It didn't need the extra damage.
So Roberts wasn't about to give up on the Holly. The community activist recognized that the shopping center had been the heart of the neighborhood, both good parts and bad — and it was all the residents had left. They'd already lost the area's other hub, the Dahlia Shopping Center. Once a proud African-American-owned enterprise, that strip mall a few blocks away had been ravaged by crime, neglect and broken promises, and was now a trash-strewn empty lot. But Roberts knew better than anybody that it was never too late for a comeback. He was living proof of that, thanks to all that he'd been through.
"The Dahlia and the Holly were the two community hubs," he says today. "We loved them both. They were like brother and sister areas. And the Dahlia is gone, man. What happened with the Dahlia is kind of like a death in the family. The Holly is kind of like a family member who needs some intervention and needs to be saved but is still alive. It's like having two kids but one is already gone, so we only have one that can be saved."