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HOW TO CODDLE A CRIP

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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.

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Karen Bowers