Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was riding in the back seat of a white Hummer limousine in the early hours of New Year's Day 2007 with five of his best friends from Texas, fellow player Javon Walker and several women they'd met earlier at a nightclub. At about 2:15 a.m., a spray of bullets hit the limo; one shattered the glass of the window by Williams's head and struck him in the neck. He died minutes later.
In the days that followed, some of Willie Clark's fellow Tre Tre Crips gang members and drug-dealing associates pleaded with him to confess to the crime.
"It was outrageous and out of control," Vernone "Lil Thirty Ounce" Edwards said at Clark's trial. Edwards said he was making fistfuls of money selling drugs and he was afraid that the attention accompanying the first-degree murder investigation of a popular NFL football star would ruin everything. "A lot of heat was going to come down."
Little did they know that things were already warming up. Authorities had been investigating the cocaine- and crack-trafficking operation of the Tre Tre Crips gang, and that of their associates in the more wide-ranging Rolling 30s Crips, since mid-2006.
"The heat was already on them," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Podolak. "They may not have known that the heat was on them, but the heat was on them."
The investigation of the Tre Tre Crips had actually been born inside another operation that began in mid-2003 and was headed by the Metro Gang Task Force, an agency that included officers from the Denver Police Department, the FBI and several county sheriffs' offices.
With the help of wiretaps and undercover surveillance, the task force spent a year and a half culling evidence of crack dealing by the Rolling 60s Crips, another faction of the notorious street gang that began in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Then, before dawn on December 16, 2004, more than 300 officers and agents from several jurisdictions fanned out all over metro Denver and arrested twenty of the thirty people who had been indicted in the case. Most were men in their twenties and thirties who lived in Denver and Aurora.
Some of the people arrested told federal prosecutors that the Rolling 30s Crips were up to the same exact thing. "The Rolling 60s case led to the Rolling 30s case," Podolak says. In 2006, officers began tapping the phones of low-level members of the Rolling 30s. "The idea of any drug investigation," she says, "is to work your way up to the sources of supply and then across to the other members of the drug organization."
Agents identified several suppliers and found out they were also supplying a violent subset of the Rolling 30s called the Tre Tre Crips. More information led agents to an even smaller but dangerously prolific group within the Tre Tres known as the Elite Eight — and to the leader of that group, Brian "Solo" Hicks.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey was aware of the federal investigation into the Rolling 30s and Tre Tre Crips, but he couldn't do much to help until after Williams was murdered and the Denver City Council granted him $350,000 for an investigator, two attorneys and a legal secretary to work full-time on the case.
So when it came time to go after Clark, prosecutors used a strategy familiar to those who investigate organized crime: Arrest his associates for their own sins and then offer them deals for telling the government everything they know about Clark's.
The police seemed to suspect Clark from the start.
Four days after Williams was murdered, Clark was arrested at his lawyer's office on a parole violation. The 23-year-old had $7,283 in his pockets. The police immediately named him as a "person of interest" in the Williams homicide but stopped short of calling him a suspect. Clark, who had violated his parole relating to a previous car-theft charge, was sentenced to six months in a facility for parole violators.
Meanwhile, the police continued working on Williams's murder case, and lead investigator Robert Fuller — a retired officer from the Adams County Sheriff's Gang Unit — kept plugging away at the Elite Eight and at Clark's drug-related misdeeds. The day Clark was scheduled to be released from the facility, Fuller swooped in. Clark was indicted on federal cocaine- and crack-trafficking charges — and promptly arrested again.
"We got lucky that we had enough evidence to charge him federally at the time he was getting out," Fuller says. "We could have not put the pieces together in time, and he could have gotten out and we'd have to find him."
A fourteen-page affidavit prepared by Fuller in late June 2007 lays out the federal case against Clark. It says that Clark was a member of the Tre Tre Crips and of Hicks's violent drug crew, which was involved in large-scale crack trafficking, drive-by shootings and burglaries, and whose members are linked to eleven unsolved murders — not to mention the 2006 shooting of 28-year-old witness Kalonniann Clark (no relation).