By the time Roberts got out, in 1996, most of his cronies were behind bars, confined to wheelchairs or dead. That made him a G, a shot-caller, top of the food chain amid a full-fledged gang war.
Only when he was back behind bars — now serving a seven-year sentence for getting caught with his Mac-11 — did Roberts start to see another way. He began learning about activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi and César Chávez. Watching the metoric rise of Billups — a kid from just around the corner — helped to cement his misgivings. "Me and him grew up on the same streets, from the same community, in the same Holly Shopping Center, and he is all about representing Park Hill in a different way," Roberts says of Billups. "For the first time, I really felt like being a Blood wasn't representing Park Hill in the right way."
He thought about how, instead of just seven years, he'd come close to being sentenced to a hundred years as a habitual offender. But the Denver district attorney had shown him mercy, and to Roberts, it seemed like he'd gotten a break for a reason. So one night, while sitting in prison, he made a promise to God: "If I am going to be real with life, then I can't do it and gangbang at the same time."
The next day, Showbiz told his colleagues that he was done with the Bloods, and Roberts started mediating potential gang riots in the prison. When he got out in 2004, he stuck to his promise, using his muscle-bound tattooed arms to sling bagels at an Einstein Bros. in Cherry Creek rather than directing gang hits. In 2005, an informal, after-school program he started at the bagel store morphed into the Prodigal Son Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to helping kids find alternatives to gang life.
"Terrance is one of several people who grew up in the lifestyle, who have been shot, been in gangs, been in prison, and are now trying to save lives by keeping kids out of the lifestyle," says Rhonda Jones, police commander of Denver District 2, which includes northeast Park Hill. "Without their help, we would have a much tougher job. There is no way to know how many lives they've saved by the work that they do."
Roberts focused many of his initial efforts in the area around the Holly, developing the sort of anti-gang organizations that had been popping up in Five Points since the 1980s but had never been actively attempted in that neighborhood's counterpart across Colorado Boulevard. As Roberts joked with his old friend, "If you're the King of the Hill, I'll be like the Robin Hood."
Roberts knew northeast Park Hill needed all the help it could get. He recognized that there were positive developments in the area around the Holly, like the Hope Center, a Denver community agency working with developmentally disabled clients, which had opened its vocational program in the former Safeway in 1979 and had been there ever since. And Skyland, the rec center where Billups had learned to play ball, had reopened in 2001 as the greatly expanded Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center, which today boasts track and volleyball programs recognized statewide and beyond. The Pauline Robinson branch library had opened in the southeast corner of the Holly, too, and was hosting well-attended after-school programs.
But gang and drug problems remained.
"It's the same back-and-forth between the Bloods and the Crips, but now there's even more trauma behind it," says Roberts. "There is lots of anger and vengeance going back 25 years. There is a lot of pain in Park Hill, a lot of pain in the Five Points area. It's the only part of town you see any representation of the African-American community, and it's split down the middle by Colorado Boulevard."
The powderkeg seemed poised to explode — and it did, on May 18, 2008.
Even before the embers cooled at the Holly, community activists were working to avert a gang war. Some spread the word that Michael Asberry hadn't been killed by a Blood. While no one has ever been charged with the crime, rumor has it that the Crips founder was gunned down by another Crip in an argument that got out of hand. Roberts and other leaders organized a march and a rally to call for peace – and for the most part, additional violence was avoided.
But the charred remains of the Holly remained at the heart of northeast Park Hill for months. A chain-link fence went up around the scene of the crime and a city truck came by every now and then to hose down the rubble and still-dressed mannequins and piles of shattered liquor bottles to keep any asbestos from getting airborne — but that was it. For neighbors, it was a slap in the face, proof that while gang members may have lit the fire, bureaucratic indifference was adding to the damage.