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.
According to Kelly, Orlando's mother tried hard to keep her son out of trouble. "His mother," Kelly says, "would not condone bad behavior. She wouldn't put up with his messin' up, fighting, not going to school. There was a time when Orlando was forced to live with his grandma."
"His mother," agrees a police officer who's known Orlando for nearly a decade, "seems like a nice, caring person. She has a nice house. Very clean. From her body language you get the idea that she's saying, `I'm sorry. I tried.' It's like her heart is broken. Why Orlando turned out to be a turd, I don't know."
Orlando "wasn't a handful" as a young kid, says Denver gang unit officer Dan Alverson. "He was just another kid out on the street. He was a likable kid. He was really easy to talk to. At that age, you never know which way they're going to go. A lot of them are on the fence about what they're going to choose, if they're going to go in with a gang. I don't think they do it consciously, but by age twelve or thirteen, somehow that decision is made."
By Kelly's estimate, that's about the age Orlando got involved with gangs. "It was just something to be a part of," Kelly says. "It gave him a sense of self and acceptance. Security. Money. It's the same reasons a lot of other kids in his peer group joined up."
Orlando began hanging with Jones, Asberry, Jefferson and Crips member Adrian "A-Bone" Williams, all of whom were a few years older. The four were his role models. And what models they proved to be. Jones is now serving a life term in California for shooting a 63-year-old store clerk to death during a robbery. Williams is serving a life term in federal prison for running a cocaine pipeline to local street gangs. Jefferson is serving time in the state pen for drug possession (he's already pulled a six-year hitch on two manslaughter convictions), and Asberry, who's been in and out of prison several times in the past ten years, was arrested again last month for allegedly assaulting a police officer. Among Orlando's friends, Wooten alone managed to escape the gang life. He's now a lieutenant in the Salvation Army and works in Seattle as a gang intervention counselor.
In the early days of Orlando's gang involvement, says a police officer who once patrolled the Rollin' 30s' territory, "he was smart enough to stay out of trouble. But he was always there when stuff went down. We would run into that kid time after time after time."
It wasn't long before Orlando's brushes with the law became more serious. In 1988 or 1989, says another officer, Orlando was sent to Lookout Mountain school, a boys' reformatory. (Juvenile arrest records are confidential, and the officer says he can no longer recall why Orlando was jailed.) "He escaped," the officer adds. "We caught him three hours later and put his little butt back. He finished up his time and got out. And somewhere in that time span, he became Little O."
Gangs tend to be loosely organized affairs, but a kind of mentoring program is used to bring younger kids into the fold. Wannabes need a sponsor to stand up for them and say "This kid's okay." Orlando was sponsored by a gangster named Orlando "Big O" Martin."
Little O's gang affiliation "caused him to develop a reputation for himself," Kelly says. "He became more aggressive, more hard. Like a leader. He became more stable in his identity as a Rollin' 30."
Orlando dropped out of Manual High School, where Wooten says he was briefly involved in the junior ROTC program. He got himself "tatted up" with gang tattoos. He began bragging about dealing drugs and being a good shot. And he became known as a gun collector with a soft spot for 9mm handguns and high-powered rifles with scopes. His age never hindered his ability to acquire weapons, and he even haunted the gun shows at local convention centers.
Orlando's fondess for firearms was matched only by his appreciation for the ladies.
Ruth Lucas, the now-retired receptionist for the Red Shield Center, recalls running into Orlando once at a neighborhood store. "He must have been fifteen or sixteen," she says. "I asked him why he was there, and he said he was `buying food so my woman could cook it.' At that age!"
Little O went on to father at least three children. His first arrest as an adult, for carrying a concealed weapon and "flourishing" it, came less than three months after he turned eighteen. Arrests for assault, giving false information to police, interference, and still more weapons violations soon followed.
In April 1992, Glendale police arrested Little O and two of his friends for investigation of attempted first-degree murder and attempted assault after a drive-by shooting at a local apartment complex. (No one was injured.) "When the officers responded to the scene," says Glendale police lieutenant Dean Fountain, "witnesses said they'd seen a vehicle take off down the street. As the officers pursued it, the suspects threw weapons out the car windows." When the driver stopped the car, Fountain says, the suspects ran. Officers caught up with the youths--Orlando and two others--and recovered two weapons, a Winchester rifle and a shotgun.
The charges against the trio were dropped when witnesses failed to positively identify them and the physical evidence proved inconclusive. But Orlando closed out 1992 with another arrest on a weapons charge.
The following year would prove a turning point for Denver gangs in general and for Little O in particular. The city was about to embark on its "Summer of Violence."
Between 1985 and 1993, gang membership and gang rivalries had increased to the point that residents of some neighborhoods--north Park Hill and Curtis Park, in particular--felt they were under siege. But it wasn't until May and June 1993 that events galvanized citizens and politicians.
On May 2 of that year, a ten-and-a-half-month-old boy was struck in the head by a bullet while watching the polar bears at the Denver Zoo. Police later determined that the bullet had been fired by feuding gang members in neighboring City Park.
At the end of the month, two people (including a 62-year-old grandmother) were killed in drive-by shootings in northeast Denver. On June 8, Governor Roy Romer called for a special session of the General Assembly to consider legislation regarding kids and guns. The following day, six-year-old Broderick Bell was shot in the head and critically wounded after being caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. That was the final straw.
The day after Bell was shot, Mayor Wellington Webb declared war on gangs, promising more cops and more money to fight the scourge. (Bell survived but lost some movement on the left side of his body.)
At the time of the Bell shooting, police chief Michaud was attending a chiefs' conference out of state. A major topic of conversation at the gathering was whether it was possible for law enforcement agencies to convince rival gangs to call truces. Gang summits were being planned or discussed for Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
"When Broderick Bell was shot, it was pretty ugly," Michaud says. "So I thought about what was said at the conference. Can we get these dudes together and talk some common sense into them?" Upon his return to Colorado, Michaud asked Kelly to round up influential gang members and invite them to a meeting in the conference room adjoining his office. Little O was among the forty or so gangsters called to the table.
Michaud aide Judy Will, a police sergeant, also invited select members of the black community to attend. Barry Frye, a businessman and ex-con who later helped establish a controversial anti-gang program called Operation Reconstruction, was among those who gathered for the meetings.
Not surprisingly, the meetings took on a hostile edge. "What I tried to say to them," Michaud says, "is that I don't get it. I said, `You're all in the same boat. You're all dropouts, none of you have jobs, and you've all got [criminal] records, or you're on the verge.' I said, `A lot of you went to school together. What the hell are you fighting about?'
"And it was, `Well, he dissed my sister' or `He dissed my friend.' Stuff that just defied common sense. There was so much animosity, I realized that this approach would never have much success." Nonetheless, Michaud handed out his business cards to some of the gang members. On them were the chief's phone number and pager number. He encouraged them to call him with problems and crime tips, promising to keep their names secret.
Michaud says he met with the de facto gang council at police headquarters on two occasions before calling it quits. Will recalls the number of meetings as closer to five. No matter the number, the short-lived attempt at reconciliation had three tangible effects: The gang members decided they wanted to continue meeting on their own to work out their differences; a few of them, including Orlando, quickly grew to appreciate the power and panache of having city officials' ears; and some of Michaud's troops turned against him for what they saw as an attempt to cater to criminals.
"Some people were very down on us for the meetings," Will says. "At the time, though, I think the mayor said we'd meet with the Devil if necessary to attain peace. We decided to be risk-takers.
"The gang unit was very disconcerted about it," Will continues. "They let it be known that they did not approve of this tactic. But I think if we had done more to include them in the front end, it might have mitigated some of the hard feelings."
Will says that despite the criticism, she found it "gratifying" that the gang members continued to meet in various city parks to "communicate." Those meetings, however, created more problems between Michaud and his officers.
Much of the friction was caused by the fact that the chief ordered his officers to take a hands-off approach to the gangsters' alleged peace talks. "We'd watch them there drinking beer, smoking dope and playing with guns," says one officer, whose anger at the situation still simmers. "We wanted to go put them in jail, and the chief ordered us to take no action. What kind of message does that send to us foot soldiers?"
To add insult to injury, the same officer claims, Orlando continued to maintain direct contact with Michaud and didn't hestitate to bring up the chief's or Will's name when he was stopped by Denver cops. "When we'd stop him, [Orlando] would get on the cell phone and call the chief direct all the time," says the officer. "He'd complain that we were harassing him and say that he thought we were going to leave him alone." The officer says Michaud never made a move to intervene.
Michaud says he can't remember if Orlando ever called him from the scene of a possible arrest. As for the gang meetings in the parks, he says he told his officers to "monitor" the gatherings from a distance but never expected police to look the other way if they saw a crime being committed.
If Michaud wasn't exactly willing to run interference for Little O, he wasn't ready to give up on him, either. Orlando told him sometime in the summer of 1993 that he wanted out of the gang. And in their meetings at police headquarters, Michaud says, Orlando mentioned that all he and his homies wanted were decent jobs. "He was talking that game," the chief says. "Somewhere along the line, I guess it came out that I had been in the Marine Corps. He said he'd always wanted to be in the Corps. I told him that if his criminal record wasn't too bad, that maybe we could get that done. I linked him up with a recruiter I know."
Marine staff sergeant Lee Tibbetts remembers Michaud's request that he "screen" Orlando for possible enrollment in the Corps. But "if you're associated with gangs," Tibbetts says, "that's an immediate disqualification. We don't deal with gang members, whether he has a record or not. Also, he lacked the academic credentials." (To get into the Marines, a person needs a high school equivalency diploma or to have completed ten credit hours of college classes.)
Michaud's request for a screening was the extent of the chief's involvement, says Tibbetts. But, adds the recruiter, Orlando soon became "Judy Will's little project."
That August, Will and Orlando agreed to a joint interview with USA Today reporter Robert Davis, in which they discussed the need for "one-on-one" involvement to reduce Denver's gang population.
No one, Orlando told Davis in that interview, can help kids get out of a gang unless they want out. "I'll never be all the way out," he admitted. "I'll always be a Crip. But my homies support me. They say if I can do this, I'll take being a Crip to a new level. If I can do this, I'll be a man."
"These guys are bright, charismatic and have great organizational minds," Will was quoted as saying in the same article. "That lawyer, that banker...he's got to help us show them that they're willing to put up a little money and get these kids redirected, with some self-esteem, so they can function in a positive way." Davis informed USA Today's readers that Will had "found a donor who's agreed to pay for enough college credits to get Orlando into the Marine Corps." He also wrote that one of Will and Orlando's favorite social activities was "going to a local shooting range for target practice."
That statement, Will says, "was a lie. It caused a huge uproar. When doing the interview, we were on a break, and [Orlando] said in an offhand way, `Judy, go get your nine [9mm handgun] and let's go out and shoot.' I didn't even have a nine-millimeter then. I said, `Fuck you,' or something like that.
"Clearly, USA Today fucked me royally. The cops here went ballistic and believed I did that. Maybe they want to believe it, I don't know." (Reporter Davis could not be reached for comment.)
What the now-infamous article did not tell readers was that Will herself was the anonymous "donor" who'd agreed to pick up the tab for Orlando's foray into academia.
end of part 1