On a recent Monday night, about 40 of Aurora’s religious leaders and congregants gathered outside of the Aurora Municipal Center and bowed their heads.
The group, known as the Aurora Community of Faith, spent nearly two hours reciting prayers directed at family members, perpetrators and victims affected by youth violence. Some six hours later, four people, including a 17-year-old, were shot in an incident near Utah Park.
“I was very much disappointed,” Barbara Shannon-Banister, the former head of the city’s Community Relations Division, said shortly after the shooting. “We’re not connecting with the people we need to be talking to. We can’t get them to come to a meeting, to stop what they’re doing, or to listen to us and learn that gun violence is not the way to solve issues. It’s very frustrating.”
That consternation has become achingly familiar for Aurora families, teachers, cops and teens this spring.
Three 16-year-old boys, all from different schools in different pockets of the city, were shot and killed in separate incidents during the first five months of this year. Several others, including two children shot in broad daylight at Norfolk Glen Park April 9, survived despite being shot. Just outside Aurora city limits, an 18-year-old rugby standout and Cherokee Trail High School student was killed May 8 outside of his home in Centennial. He died over an e-cigarette sale that had gone sour, according to court documents. That was a day after a pair of teens sprayed bullets into their Highlands Ranch high school, killing one and injuring several others.
This apparent surge in gun violence among children and young adults has put local leaders and young people on edge this spring, prompting questions about how and where people who can’t buy a six-pack of beer are getting firearms, and why they’re pulling triggers so often in 2019.
Many of the most basic details have been hard to come by. The very fact that the three slain Aurora boys were juveniles — legally defined as under age 18 — means their cases have been largely sealed by both the courts and police, leaving details like what exactly led to their deaths and where the suspects got their guns a mystery.
Still, preliminary information provided by police, recently released court documents and the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office describes where and when these young men suffered fatal injuries. Here’s what’s been released so far.
On March 6, Aurora police responded to the Town Center at Aurora mall at about 10:15 p.m. after receiving a report of someone “stumbling around in a parking lot.” Officers found Nathaniel Estes III, 16, who had been shot an unknown number of times. He was pronounced dead about five hours later at Children’s Hospital Colorado, according to the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office. Surgeons discovered Estes, who was wearing a black t-shirt and black hooded sweatshirt with “L.A.” stencilled on the front when police found him, had injuries to his liver, small intestine and heart, according to his autopsy report. Despite receiving a “massive transfusion of blood,” he died after developing pulmonary edema, blood clots, oxygen deprivation and other complications. As of mid-June, investigators had not made any arrests in connection with this shooting, which has been ruled a homicide.
Estes, a student at APS Avenue High School who went by the nickname Peewee, was a black belt in karate, a boxer, and a pianist who had already recorded an album, according to a memorial page posted by the Pipkin-Braswell funeral home. He’d worked at Streamline Car Wash and Detailers, and Jack in the Box. He planned to become a barber by 2020, and later enter an HVAC technical training program. “He enjoyed being the life of the party,” according to the memorial page. “When you were around Nathaniel, there was never a dull moment.”
Aurora police responded to the Sable Technological Center near East Sixth Avenue and Sable Boulevard around 11:30 a.m. on March 18 on reports of gunfire in the area. Officers found Jeremy Rudolph, 16, lying in the parking lot with a gunshot wound. Investigators determined Rudolph “was involved in an altercation … with several other individuals,” according to Arapahoe County Coroner Kelly Lear’s autopsy report. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital as the result of “a penetrating gunshot wound of the head,” according to the autopsy report. The bullet entered the back of his skull. Police arrested a boy in connection with Rudolph’s slaying — which has since been ruled a homicide — at about 7 p.m. the next day in the 15000 block of East Evans Avenue. Because the suspect is a juvenile, police have not released his identity.
The youngest of 10 siblings, Rudolph was a student at Colorado Early Colleges Aurora. Outside of school, he liked playing sports and video games. He excelled at reading, and attended the Light of the World Church. He is survived by his nine brothers and sisters and his parents. “Everyone loved Jeremy’s sense of humor,” according to a funeral program posted by the Taylor Mortuary. “His love and beautiful smile will never be forgotten.”
Investigators responded to the 4700 block of South Memphis Street near Wagon Trail Park and Independence Elementary School shortly before 6 p.m. on May 6 on reports of a shooting. First responders found bystanders rendering aid to Ryan Robertson, 16, who had been shot three times: once in the head, once in the lower back, and once in the right arm. When first responders arrived, Robertson, who was wearing a gray Hanes sweatshirt and a black Banana Republic t-shirt, had a weak pulse, shallow breathing and “significant blood loss,” according to Lear’s autopsy report. He died on the way to the hospital. Witnesses later told police Robertson was shot following an argument between he and another teenager, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by The Sentinel June 19.
Robertson and a 15-year-old friend had planned to meet 18-year-old Joseph McCaughin at Wagon Trail Park and confront McCaughin about how he had reportedly assaulted his 17-year-old ex-girlfriend. The same girl had since become romantically involved with Robertson, according to the arrest document. Robertson and McCaughin briefly exchanged words before police say McCaughin pulled a semi-automatic handgun out of his backpack and fired half a dozen shots toward Robertson in rapid succession. Robertson’s 15-year-old friend told police, “he thought that (McCaughin) didn’t want to use the gun, but (Robertson’s) verbal challenge of ‘You’re not about it’ caused (McCaughin) to feel the need to pull the gun and shoot — the statement … set (McCaughin) off,” according to the affidavit. Another witness told investigators, “(McCaughin) acted out of anger, and aimed for Robertson’s head.” McCaughin’s ex-girlfriend — the same teen who had become involved with Robertson in the weeks before his death — told police she had dated McCaughin for about three years, but they broke up about a year ago. She said “McCaughin was physically abusive during their entire relationship, and that he continued to stalk and physically assault her after they broke up.” Police determined McCaughin had broken into the girl’s Aurora home while she was there just several hours before he met Robertson. Before McCaughin left the teen’s home, he whispered to her that “if she f***ed with anyone, he would kill her and the other guy,” according to the affidavit. McCaughin was arrested in Georgia 10 days after the shooting, and he’s currently being held without bond at the Arapahoe County Detention Center on a first-degree murder charge. He’s due to appear in Arapahoe County District Court for a preliminary demand hearing on June 21.
A student at Grandview High School, Robertson was a nature-lover and basketball fanatic, according to Andrilla Martinez, a friend of Robertson’s who attended a memorial service held in his honor last month. “He liked being right next to nature,” Martinez said. “He liked to go on walks and not be cooped up in the house.”
Riding the wave
While the public has yet to learn what exactly precipitated the deaths of Estes and Rudolph — and only recently learned about the circumstances leading up to Robertson’s killing — Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz said shootings like these are often the result of adolescent beefs, or perceived slights posted on Snapchat and Instagram.
“We’re seeing families shattered on both sides, the victim’s side and the shooter’s side,” Metz said. “You have a victim who’s either going to be dealing with serious physical consequences for probably a lifetime, or death, and then you have a suspect who’s going to spend the better part of their life in jail, and it was all over an emotional situation, maybe a fight, or a disagreement, maybe a diss on social media.”
What turned these everyday arguments tragic, however, was someone’s access to a gun, likely one they got illegally, according to George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District.
“They get them from other bad guys, by and large,” Brauchler said. “It is common for these handguns to have been used in prior crimes and then in subsequent crimes. They get passed around … and (juveniles) are not getting them legally.”
While children do sometimes nab guns stored in a parent’s closet or nightstand, those weapons comprise a small portion of the firearms used to commit juvenile crimes, according to Brauchler.
“We have seen kids avail themselves of whatever weapons are around the house, but I don’t think that’s the majority,” he said.
Regardless of the source, local children are getting their hands on guns. In the first 20 weeks of this year, Brauchler’s office filed 33 cases that included the second-degree misdemeanor charge of handgun possession by a juvenile. Over the same time, his prosecutors filed four cases in which a juvenile was charged with bringing a weapon onto school grounds.
Those statistics speak to a larger overall rise in youth violence in Arapahoe County — which is where all three of the 16-year-old Aurora boys were killed — and across the state, according to Brauchler.
“We’re seeing a significant uptick in violent crime and specifically handgun crime related to juveniles,” he said.
The number of first and second-degree felony cases directly filed against juveniles — cases in which people under 18 are prosecuted as adults — has risen in Arapahoe County District Court every year since 2015, according to the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. The trend peaked last year with 13 such cases filed against people who are 17 years old or younger. The number of cases filed in the first five months of this year is already on pace to eclipse last year’s filings.
Brauchler attributed much of the rise to an institutional shift in juvenile justice, a change he said has been promulgated on all levels: from state legislators to staffers working with the state’s Division of Youth Services. He said bond reform measures, statutory changes that make it harder for prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults and lax disciplinary measures at youth detention centers have all contributed to the establishment of a softer legal system for young defendants.
“That change in philosophy has become so universal that I think it has put the community at risk,” Brauchler said. “My prosecutors have expressed significant frustration in their inability to keep repeat offenders and violent offenders off the streets and out of their homes for an appreciable period of time.”
Because juvenile crime records are sealed in Colorado, it’s unclear whether any of the victims or shooters in the Aurora cases had previously interacted with the juvenile justice system. McCaughin, the only adult charged in any of the cases, had not been arrested as an adult in Colorado prior to last month’s shooting, according to Colorado Bureau of Investigation records. However, Aurora police identified McCaughin, who turned 18 last October, after the shooting using a booking photograph included in the department’s records, suggesting he had been arrested before, according to the affidavit.
Gangs on the rise
Although there has not been any official confirmation that the shootings in Aurora are directly related to any specific, organized groups, gangs, too, are to blame for the recent rise in youth crime, according to Brauchler.
“Gang activity is growing and … it’s significant,” he said. “And it’s not just limited to the old Bloods and Crips models, there are a lot of other factions that are going on out there.”
To combat that, Brauchler said he hired a prosecutor last year to specialize in prosecuting gang members. Last month, Brauchler’s office announced a judge sentenced a 20-year-old Aurora resident and member of the Park Hill Bloods gang to 35 years in prison following a lengthy investigation that resulted in numerous charges filed under the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act, or COCCA. More than a dozen other people were charged as a result of the investigation.
Officer Matt Longshore, a spokesman for the Aurora Police Department, echoed Brauchler’s sentiments, saying gang activity in the city is up.
“Youth in gangs are on the rise,” he said.
Martinez, Robertson’s friend, said gangs are actively recruiting young people in Aurora and within youth detention centers scattered across the Front Range. Martinez said the recruitment efforts are an attempt to attract younger members who will net lighter sentences if they are caught and prosecuted. The maximum penalty for most juvenile offenders in Colorado is seven years in juvenile detention.
“The sh** has just been getting out of hand,” Martinez said of recent gang activity in Aurora.
Martinez, 18, said he recently moved to Lafayette from his prior address in Aurora to avoid the increased violence in the city.
“The energy in Lafayette is better,” he said. “I don’t have to look over my shoulder while walking down the street as much.”
Despite a perceived uptick in gang activity in the metro area in recent years, a cadre of local law enforcement agencies last week announced they’re ditching the long-standing Metro Gang Task Force and forming a new network to combat gun violence on Colorado streets. Known as RAVEN, the new group will focus on tracking illegal guns, and expediting the apprehension of people using them. The team will center much of its work on advanced ballistics analysis to track guns to their source, and determine whether weapons have been used to commit multiple crimes, which is often the case.
David Booth, special agent in charge for the local branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBN, helped investigators link 13 crimes that took place in Aurora and Denver from April 2017 to March 2018 to a single gun used by a single criminal street gang.
Locally, the task force formed at the start of this year is already having an impact. Although he declined to provide details, Metz said RAVEN investigators helped Aurora police apprehend a suspect in connection with the quadruple shooting near Utah Park on June 11.
Summer in the city
As RAVEN investigators and other law enforcement officials are working to ensure fewer people are getting their hands on illegal guns, Brauchler, Metz and others are imploring parents to keep an eye on their children as summer vacation rolls and temperatures rise.
“The crime ebbs and flows, and we anticipate that summer is going to be more active, but we do that any time there’s warmer weather and people are outside and out of school more,” Brauchler said. “We just know there’s going to be more juvenile crime.”
Criminal activity typically spikes when the weather is warmest, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Despite hosting five murders in the first three months of the year — one more than in the first few months of 2018 — violent crime was generally down in Aurora in the first quarter of 2019 when compared to the same time last year, according to statistics compiled by the Aurora Police Department. And crime rates are far below than what they were in the mid 1990s.
“It doesn’t feel like the ‘90s to me,” said Shannon-Banister, who retired from her work with the city earlier this year. “I don’t feel that sense of terror I felt back then.”
Still, Metz has been loudly lobbying for Aurora parents to be hyper-vigilant of their children’s whereabouts this July and August.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” he said. “And we can’t be the ones who are solely responsible for keeping these kids safe, so parents need to step up, the faith organizations need to step up, the social service organizations need to step up, schools need to step up, and we need to do everything we can to start educating these kids to start making some better decisions.”
To that end, the city is hosting a youth expo on June 22 in an effort to get children into jobs and recreation centers and off the streets at least until public school classes begin again in August. Claudine McDonald, the new manager of the Community Relations Division, said she started planning the event after Metz outlined the rise in youth violence in Aurora during the May meeting of the Aurora Key Community Response Team.
And at a recent city council committee meeting, Metz said he’s planning on unveiling a public service announcement intended to encourage parents to speak to their children about violence this summer. The announcement, planned in coordination with sheriffs in Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, is still pending.
“We want to actually put a message out to the community about this issue that this is of epidemic proportion,” Metz said.
Brauchler, too, urged parents to get their sons and daughters into summer programs that can distract them when they’re not in school.
“Over these summers, where there isn’t the rigor or formality of a school day, you have the opportunity for kids to fall in with the wrong people,” he said. “And once they do that, it’s really hard to get them out and move them on … I am rooting for Aurora police and the Aurora community because when it doesn’t work out, it just shows up in court.”