Longform

Twenty years later, the facts of this Denver drive-by don't add up

It has been a long time now. Twenty-two years this week. Long enough for the whole episode to be forgotten by the cops, the lawyers and just about everybody else. But to three graying convicts and their families, it's still unfinished business, a problem that has to be solved.

Eric Lightner remembers that night like it was yesterday. Sitting in a sparse prison visiting room with brothers Brian and William Lee, he goes over it all again:

It's just past three in the morning on June 14, 1992, a frenetic Saturday night fading into a somber Sunday morning. Brian, 22 years old, is at the wheel of his blue 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass with the gold rims, headed east on Martin Luther King Boulevard, headed home. Eric, 21, is in the passenger seat. William, a month shy of 19, is in the back.

Approaching Steele Street, they roll up next to a 1981 Chevrolet Malibu Classic wagon. Lightner looks over at the driver, Damon Roberts, also known as D-Dog, a member of the 187 AK (Anybody Killer) Gangster Crips. Roberts glares back.

"I don't know what was said," Lightner says. "We had the music up kind of loud, and the music in Roberts's car was even louder. He looked like he was upset. His face was frowned up, his mouth was moving. We knew it was hostile."

"He said, 'What y'all wanna do? This is Crip,'" adds William Lee. "I said, 'Fuck Crip.' I don't know if he heard me or not."

"Personally, I didn't really know Damon Roberts," Lightner says. "According to the police, there were four people in that car, but I didn't see them. I just saw him."

Lightner saw D-Dog, and then he saw a gun in D-Dog's hand. Of that he is certain. "I see Damon Roberts reaching down, like he's trying to get something from under the seat," he says. "Then I see the handle of the gun in his hand."

It's a moment frozen in time — a moment of decision, one of those forks in the road from which there is no turning back. The actions of the next few seconds changed everything.

When it was over, the Malibu wagon stood idle near Madison Street, with two flat tires and five bullet holes along the driver's side. Damon Roberts sat in the street clutching at his left thigh, bleeding from a gunshot wound. One of his passengers, 15-year-old Tiffany Locke, flagged down cars, calling out frantically for an ambulance. Another, Robert McGregor, also 15, looked in disbelief at the body of his 23-year-old cousin, James, in the back seat, dead from a single shot to the heart.

To the Denver press, the shooting was a drive-by crime of the times, one more senseless killing in a city in the throes of gang violence. It seemed to fit a familiar pattern: bellicose young men from rival sets square off, eye-fuck each other, bandy insults or flash signs — and then the gats come out. More young lives ruined or cut short, another occasion for mourning and soul-searching in east Denver's African-American community. Prosecutors would argue that the killing of James McGregor was, in fact, one of the more heinous acts of gang violence the city had seen up to that point because it was not random at all. They claimed that Lightner and the Lee brothers had gone out looking for Roberts to "do some dirt" — to get payback for an altercation at a club earlier that night between the Crips and members of the Gangsters of Love, a "street gang" associated with the Lees.

Aided by information from eyewitnesses, the Denver police arrested Lightner and the Lees 35 minutes after the shooting. All three were charged with numerous felonies, ranging from murder and conspiracy to second-degree assault. The three went to trial together — a tumultuous proceeding during which several witnesses changed their stories or refused to testify, prompting Denver District Court Judge Richard Spriggs to complain that the courthouse "reeked of perjury." All three were convicted of first-degree murder and are now serving identical sentences of life without parole plus fifty years.

Lightner and the Lees exhausted their legal appeals years ago. They have exemplary records at the Limon Correctional Facility, the high-security prison where they have now spent half their lives. They have matured into quiet, disciplined individuals, respected by other inmates and staff alike. They hope to one day be considered for Colorado's clemency process, a pardon or reduction of their sentence by the governor.

But there's a catch: Clemency candidates are expected to take responsibility for their crimes. William and Brian Lee and Eric Lightner have expressed remorse for what they say is their role in what happened that night 22 years ago, but they insist — and have always insisted — that they didn't kill anyone.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast