By: Brian D. Crecente
Dank pumped his legs, powering a bicycle around the manicured lawns and shiny cars of Highlands Ranch.
He was 14.
He was scared.
He couldn’t believe what he was about to do.
Dank dropped the bike onto the front lawn, and his new friend glided in next to him and dropped his bike nearby.
The two walked up the tidy sidewalk, past a black Chevy, and knocked on the door.
That day seven years ago is hard for the 21-year-old to talk about. It was a moment he sometimes wishes had never happened, the moment when a little boy who had lost a father found a gang to replace him, the day he became “Dank.”
“My cousin told me a little bit about how his organization worked and all of that,” says Dank, talking about his entry into a black Aurora-based gang. “At first, I didn’t even want to hear it.”
But soon the things his cousin was telling him started to sound good: It wasn’t a gang; it was a family. It wasn’t about crime; it was about helping your brother. He wasn’t going to be beaten into the gang; he would be sworn in.
“I joined the gang after I realized I didn’t have to get jumped in, that it was more of a blessing,” he says.
After the blessing, standing in the darkened basement of a gang member’s home, Dank learned the truth about his new family.
“After we were blessed in, they gave me and this other guy – he had just been blessed in, too – a backpack,” Dank says. “That night we were wearing all black. They told us, ‘You have to be back here at 6 a.m. I want these backpacks to be filled with anything you can.”
Dank pauses for a moment.
“That night we went to the Dope Man’s house, got the Dope Man for all his,” he says.
The drug dealer known as the Dope Man opened the door to his Highlands Ranch home. He was huge, a wall of muscle looking down at Dank and his fellow initiate.
Dank told him they were there for $20 of drugs.
The Dope Man opened the door a bit more and Dank’s friend piled into him. The man fell back, hitting his head on the stairs. Dank rushed in and punched him in the chin as hard as he could.
The two teens hog-tied him as he lay there half-conscious, then they beat him.
After, Dank stood over the Dope Man and asked where the drugs, the cash, the guns were.
Dank threatened to kill him if he didn’t tell.
So the Dope Man told.
The two took the loot and rode their bikes to a nearby 7-Eleven.
They bought sodas, tried to drink them, tried to relax, to calm down.
“Our nerves were really shaky,” Dank says. “I’ve broken the law before, but I’ve never run up to someone’s house and done something like that.”
Dank couldn’t stop thinking: Why was the Dope Man a dope man? Maybe he had kids to support? Maybe he needed the money?
The boys made their way back to a basement in a Denver home, met their gang and handed over the full backpacks.
But Dank didn’t stay around to revel in the glory of his first spree.
“I just handed it to them and walked out,” he says. “I still have a conscience. The stuff I had did, I wasn’t comfortable with.
“I didn’t realize that was what they were about, jacking.”
Getting more organized
There are 14,000 Danks in the city of Denver alone, according to recent Denver police statistics – double the number estimated a decade ago for the entire metro area. They are men and women, boys and girls, tagged by the cops as gang members because of their criminal backgrounds, the people they hang with, their gang tattoos.
Gangs cross the boundaries of race, city and economic standing, but they share a world of nicknames and constant crime, most of it petty but some of it deadly.
Ten years ago, gangs exploded so far out of control, with murders and shootings of innocent bystanders, that the summer of 1993 became known as the Summer of Violence.
It started with a stray bullet hitting a 10-month-old at the Denver Zoo and led to a police crackdown, new state laws on guns and juvenile offenders and a flood of youth programs aimed at keeping kids out of gangs in the first place.
Today, much of the money for those youth programs has evaporated with a bad economy and budget cuts. And gangs haven’t gone away. Since the beginning of the year, five of 16 homicides in Aurora and 10 of 48 homicides in Denver involved at least one gang member, police say.
But as times have changed, so have most of the gangs.
Gang violence still flares up, and sometimes a gang turns especially virulent, as is the case this summer with the Hispanic west-side gang GKI, or Gallant Knights Insane. A July police raid of a west Denver home believed to be connected to the gang uncovered a shooting range and a cache of weapons and ammunition. A month earlier, a reputed GKI member fired on police answering a call about a sex assault at the home, investigators say. They have formed a task force to target the gang.
But for many members of the 220 gangs in Denver, being in a gang is less about colors, territory and a public show of force than it was in 1993, when just wearing a gang’s trademark bandanna or T-shirt could spark a confrontation and gunfire. Now, belonging to a gang means respect and money – but mostly just money.
Most Denver-area gangs have evolved over the decade from street thugs to more-organized criminals, dabbling in carjacking and home invasions but concentrating on drug sales.
A form of social Darwinism is to blame for the less overt, harder-to-catch gang members, says Aurora gang officer John Fiordalis.
“The older they get and more contact with the law they have, the more cases they catch, the more they want to blend in, the more they don’t want us to know who they are any more,” Fiordalis says.
The result is that many gangs operate just below the surface, keeping their crimes and misdeeds out of public sight until a double-cross on a drug deal or personal rivalry escalates tensions.
“A gang will be quiet for weeks and weeks and weeks, and then all of a sudden you have a bunch of problems,” says Denver gang unit technician James Dempsey.
Working for the big bust
As gangs have changed, so have the officers dedicated to keeping their bloody power struggles in check.
“We have a working relationship with a lot of the gangs,” says Denver gang unit Capt. Joseph Padilla. “When the gang unit shows up, they will tell us a lot of things they won’t tell other officers.”
Most gang officers are less concerned about making a lot of arrests than in gathering string that could lead to a bigger bust and making sure things don’t erupt.
“Gangs aren’t going to go away, no matter what you do,” says Denver gang unit Sgt. Bill Mitchell. “Our job is to keep a lid on it, keep it down.”
It’s a service gangs count on, especially during a summer when many of the old-time gang members are getting out of jail, coming back to town and expecting to move into territory that someone else has taken for their own.
“It’s gonna get way worse,” says G Money, a member of a Hispanic west-side gang. “But it won’t get worse if the cops keep doing what they’re doing, if they keep it from getting started.”
Scars and tattoos
If belonging to a gang commands attention from the people around you, talking to the media about it widens the audience. And gang members have a reputation for exaggerating or talking bigger than the facts support, experts say.
Dank is no exception. Like all of the gang members interviewed by the Rocky Mountain News, he agreed to talk if he was identified only by his gang name. Dank also asked that his family members, who disapprove of gangs, not be contacted.
Some of what he says cannot be verified officially, including his tale of initiation by robbing a drug dealer. But the News included in this story only those things that either rang true to gang unit officers or were verified by relatives, documents or law enforcement or corrections officials.
At age 21, Dank’s criminal record is slight compared with some gang members’ sheets.
He’s been arrested on traffic charges, aggravated assault with a knife, domestic violence, menacing, failure to appear in court and theft.
Dank first talked to the News in May, a year into a two-year parole on his sentence for felony menacing. He was released from the Fremont Correctional Facility in Canon City on May 18, 2002.
In prison, Dank says, he was stabbed and almost raped.
“I’m just loaded up with scars,” he says.
He sports gang tattoos on both of his shoulders, his back and his left forearm. A large scar next to his right eye shows what he says is the outcome of a May run-in with a rival gang. “They tried to jump me in the alley.”
Since his release, Dank has lived in Aurora with his mother.
His father died of AIDS when Dank was 8, Dank’s brother says. The death hit Dank hard and probably helped push him into gang life, his brother adds.
Dank grew into a troubled teen, eventually getting kicked out of Aurora Central High School for disciplinary problems. He was sent to the Colorado Christian Home, a treatment facility for severely troubled children.
Tried to go straight
Dank says he tried going legit after getting out of prison, working as a cook at the Colorado Convention Center for less than a year before he was fired. He was accused of stealing meat from the kitchens, something Dank says he didn’t do.
He looked for another job, but nothing surfaced.
“Some of us stay straight,” he says, “but a lot of us don’t want to, so we make money slinging (selling drugs), jacking (stealing)and robbing.”
In the gang, Dank is more than just somebody’s cook. He’s the chief violator. That means he decides whether a fellow gang member who has violated the rules gets a warning, a beating or worse.“Someone might need six to the chest,” he says, “or maybe a pumpkin head.”
That former is six punches to the chest. The latter consists of six men standing around a victim in a chair and punching him in the head six times. When they’re done, his head looks like a pumpkin.
Although he can order death, Dank says he never has.
Despite the monitor strapped to his ankle as part of his parole, Dank’s daily life is steeped in crime, both those committed for the gang and against its members.
“In a given week, I probably break the law seven times,” he says. “I’m always doing something, or carrying.”
But behind the half-closed eyes and the corn-rows, behind the flash and the gang tattoos, is a father who wants the best for his son. A man who wants what he says he can’t get without gang money and a gang lifestyle.
At the time of the interview, Dank’s son was about to turn 4 and Dank wanted the party to be everything a boy wants.
“My boy wants a Chuck E. Cheese birthday, but I ain’t got Chuck E. Cheese money,” he says. “So I gotta go score (some drugs), and it’s gotta be good or he’s going to have a party at his grandmother’s house.”
Denying the brotherhood
Aurora officer Fiordalis knows the city by the gang crimes committed in it – the dozens of homes where shootings, robberies, drug deals and busts went down.
Fiordalis points to a house as he cruises past. “A boy was shot and killed there, and his mother was shot.”
Fiordalis calls several young men by name as they hang out in front of a set of squat brick houses.
“This is Genero. Remember, I was telling you about Genero,” he says.
Genero, slumped in his car, jerks his head up at the officer. “Why are you telling people about me?” he says.
“You a CMG (Crenshaw Mafia Gangster), aren’t you?” Fiordalis answers.
“Uh-uh, I’m not in no gang.”
“What’s the CMG on you?”
Genero looks down at the gang tattoo and smiles sheepishly.
A few minutes later, Fiordalis gets back in his car and heads off to a reported gang fight.
That evening, back at headquarters, Fiordalis checks whether the people he’s seen are in the gang database. It lists gang members by name and aliases and includes their tattoos, how often police have run into them, the people they hang with.
But the real gang databases are in the minds of the officers in the cities’ gang units.
After five years working with gangs, Fiordalis knows how to separate a gang member from a teenage wannabe. He knows who’s with the Folks and who’s with the Peeps and when a Colorado Rockies jersey means more than being a baseball fan.
He also knows how to talk to gang members and why they decide to talk back.
“Everything is fear and retribution around here,” Fiordalis says. “They are either afraid to talk to you, or they want to get their retribution.”
Guns and little kids
Dank lives in a world where people don’t earn respect and money. They take it.
And someone has taken money from his gang. He calls to say he is headed to a meeting to talk about whether to go to war with a Hispanic gang that has burned one of his homies in a drug deal.
The next day, sitting on a park bench on the 16th Street Mall with his son and 8-month-old nephew, Dank describes the gathering.
Gang leaders met in the ebbing twilight at an Aurora park and voted whether to war with the other gang.
Black marbles meant yes, white marbles meant no.
There were six times as many black marbles as there were white, Dank said.
“I think there is gonna be hell this summer,” he says as he balances his nephew on his knee, one hand holding a bottle filled with water to the child’s lips. His son sits nearby staring off into space.
Dank stops talking, stiffens, stares across the street at three young men and a woman standing on the corner – all are dressed in the same color.
He pushes his nephew down his leg toward his knee as if he’s about to hand him off.
They are members of a rival gang, he explains.
A few seconds later, the group turns and struts down the sidewalk, heedless of Dank.
“Tonight, we’re meeting to decide how to proceed on this, if it’s going to be a gun war or not.”
Dank’s son interrupts.
He says he’s bored. That he’s hungry and thirsty. That he wants to go home.
And for a moment Dank changes from chief violator to father.
“If you don’t wait, I’m gonna put you in time out now,” Dank says, staring hard at the little boy.
A few minutes later, he places his nephew back in a stroller and walks down the mall holding his son’s hand.
Anger and alchohol
The city blooms with gangs during the summer as the heat soars toward triple digits, and they take to parks, street corners and front porches.
Three men lounge and drink in a front yard overlooking Mariposa Street and the Lincoln Park housing. One wears a T-shirt with the picture of Luis Ramirez, 27, who was killed in gang crossfire the previous weekend of May 17. Another is dressed all in purple, the color of GKI, the gang to which the dead man once belonged.
“Hey you, hey man, come here,” the man in purple shouts at two journalists who walk by.
He grabs the press badge hanging from the neck of the reporter, looks at it then stares at him.
“You want me to take you in the house and shoot you? I’m going to kill you.”
The men standing behind him smile, shaking their heads “No,” waving off the purple man’s threats.
But he persists.
“What are you doing here? Are you Five-O (cops)? You Five-O? Get off our street, man. This is our street.”
The man is affiliated with GKI, one of Denver’s most violent gangs. Police think the gang is responsible for many shootings early in the summer, Lt. Jimmy Martinez says.
Police have made a half-dozen arrests that put a dent in shootings and crimes by the gang, Martinez says. But the gang hasn’t disappeared.
Raising a child
Dank is scared.
Not of gang tensions and threats of war.
Not of rival gang members who jumped him in early June while he was taking out the trash.
Dank is scared of being a father again.
“I just found out my ex is having a baby, and she says it’s mine,” Dank said. “She thinks it’s a girl. I’m kind of scared because I ain’t ready for another one.”
His son has been in the gang since his birth, Dank says.
“When he was born and I was actually there to see it, I was like ‘Wow! Who do I call?’ ”
He already was surrounded by the people in his life who were not in the gang. So he called his gang brothers. They came to the hospital and held a short ceremony, “blessing” the boy into the gang, he says.
He regrets the decision now.
“I wish I could take back that day, but I can’t,” he says.
Now Dank hopes his son will grow to accept the lifestyle he was born into.
“If he wants to get out, he can go off and be himself when he grows up.”
Dank knows gang life isn’t the best life. But he’s too wrapped up in it to change – so immersed that he knows his second child will join the gang at birth, too. He believes it’s the best he and his family can do.
Gang life, Dank says, gave his son a bedroom set, nice clothes and a laptop he’s too young to use.
“I’m always thinking about how I can better my son more than myself,” he says.
His son lives with Dank’s ex-girlfriend, but Dank tries to spend time with his boy, watching TV or playing together with his son’s GI Joe collection.
“But he don’t play with the guns,” he says. “That’s one thing his mom and me both agreed on.
“Right now, his mind isn’t ready to know what a Tech 9 or an Uzi or a shotgun looks like.”
But the boy knows what Dank does.
“He always ask me, ‘Where you going, Dad?’ so I tell him, ‘I’m going to a meeting. You gotta stay here,’ ” Dank says.
“I definitely worry about my son, but you can’t get away from gangs.”
“Gang members get out because they are in prison or dead,” says Padilla of Denver’s gang unit. “For the ones that survive, getting out becomes a necessity. They have to get out if they want to stay alive.”
Big Smoke, 24, spent more than half of his life in a black east Denver gang before being sent away for nearly two years for drug possession.
“A lot of joining a gang had to do with the neighborhood I grew up in,” he says. “I was always out there on the street, and it eventually became part of my life.”
But when Big Smoke got out of prison in January, he decided to drop the gang and get serious about life.
He had two motivations: One is 2 years old; the other is 4.
His two boys and wife now take up most of his life, and he likes it that way.
“It just took a whole bunch of self will and a whole lot of goal planning,” he says. In prison, he got help with his resume and advice on finding work.
Getting a job is an important but difficult step in leaving a gang, says Rudy Balles, 26, program director for the Gang Rescue and Support Project, a private, nonprofit foundation.
“No matter how much they say they want to change, they are not going to go work at McDonald’s,” he says.
Often that is because they don’t want to lose the respect and power of being in a gang.
“Power is a like a drug. Once you have it, you always want it,” says Felipe Perez, 27, a former core member of GRASP.
But Big Smoke says that’s a poor excuse.
“I could see that in someone who is very weak and someone who doesn’t have any self-control over themselves because other people tell them what to do,” he says. “No one tells me what to do.”
Sometimes when things get quiet, Dank thinks about a life outside of gangs.
Not that he wants to leave. He doesn’t. But what if he could?
“I can’t,” he says emphatically. “People say you can get jumped in and jumped out. Sure you can get jumped out, but you won’t see your next birthday.”
When asked if he sees himself as a 70-year-old gang member, Dank is silent for a moment.
“Honestly, I doubt if I’ll ever see 70,” he says. “If I do make it, yeah, I’ll still be in, knowing me.”
Despite his commitment, Dank is conflicted about gang life.
“There are some times when I don’t want to be in,” he says. “But there’s the occasions where (being in a gang) is like a high that can’t even be sold on the streets.”
Life for Dank is spent balanced between the dual threats of gangs and cops. He wears an ankle monitor that limits what he can do. He wears tattoos that mark him as both a potential suspect and future target.
The struggle to mesh gang life and family life has left Dank with little money. He gets by living with his mother and making a little extra change baby-sitting, painting a house or cleaning a garage.
“There are a lot of things I feel that just don’t make me happy. I don’t know if it’s the way I’m living or what,” he says. “The only times I think about that is like when I get down and out, and sometimes I wish someone would come on and do me in.”
A different place
Three men sit near Barnum Park on a recent summer night. It’s 10 p.m., the end of an evening spent cruising the west side in their tricked-out ‘64 Impala on streets that years ago might have cost them their lives.
If it were 1993, “we wouldn’t be sitting here drinking a beer, chilling out with my car,” says one of them, a 29-year-old father of two, soon to be three. He won’t give his name.
“It ain’t like ‘93 – ‘93 was (expletive). All the cops, all the different mayors, they made a difference. Ten years, there’s a big, huge difference.”
Today, he wouldn’t be afraid to let his kids play in this park.
He says he and his cousins used to be part of a Hispanic eastside gang. All three still sport the gang’s tattoo just below their throats.
The three had their share of problems, they say as they listen to music, drink beer and smoke pot in the night air. They brought most of their troubles on themselves, they admit.
But now they are older and wiser – fathers worried about their own kids. The man stares out at the city, a panorama of high-rise silhouettes and twinkling lights.
“Back in the day, you’d lose five or six friends in one month. All of my friends are in prison or dead.
“You get older, grow up, understand. I spend time with my kids now. It’s totally different.”
Ten sets of clothes.
No CD players.
Dank goes through the list in an angry voice.
“I leave tomorrow, 12 o’clock in the afternoon,” he says.
Four days after his son’s June 6 birthday and 13 months after being released on parole, Dank is headed back into custody, this time to a halfway house for 45 days.
He’ll be tucked away at The Villa at Greeley, a residential treatment center for people with chemical dependency problems.
“This is out of the blue,” Dank says. “Some (expletive) caught up with me.”
He says he “dropped hot” – tested positive for marijuana.
He knew he wasn’t going to make it through his parole. He’s just glad he made it to his son’s birthday. Now he’s worried that being away from his 4-year-old will be hard.
After watching his son grow up through pictures during nearly a year in prison, Dank says he knows he can make it. “I can do 45 days.”
Life is about to start again for Dank.
For the past six weeks his world has been on pause in Greeley as he waited out a summer ripe with violent possibilities.
It’s a Wednesday in late July, and he has two days left before his stint at the center ends.
“When I walk out this door, at this moment I know I’m going to go back to the house, and I know I’m placing phone calls” to his gang, he says. “I know I am still the same person.”
Dank says he’ll never be happy in gangs, that if he continues he’ll probably be back in prison one day. Yet he refuses to solve his own problems.
“There is always a solution to any problem if you look hard enough, and I found some solutions,” he says. “Am I going to enforce them solutions? No.”
The solution, Dank knows and experts say, is for him to remove the tattoos from his skin and remove himself from a lifetime of gang friends and a neighborhood of gang hangouts.
“I know it’s not going to happen,” he says.
Sitting in an office at the center, the conversation swings back to his son. Dank doesn’t want his boy to end up without a father, reaching out for family and finding gang. He doesn’t want to look at his son and see another version of himself.
Dank knows that if he dies, his son would need gangs instead of choosing them. He thinks about his death a lot. “What happens when my son turns 8, and one day I’m there, and the next day he’s getting a phone call?”
This story original ran in the Rocky Mountain News on Aug. 23, 2003
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