Over the time that I’ve been here, it seems like we are seeing more gang-related violent crime, and we continue to see a lot of crimes involving firearms on the street. — Tom Byrnes, chief deputy district attorney
On July 13, 2017, a group of teenagers armed with handguns
surrounded a Jeep Wrangler in an Aurora parking lot. One of the teens put a gun to the back of the passenger’s head before telling the man, 20-year-old Jorge Garcia, “get the f*** out.”
The carjacker then got into the vehicle, peeled out of the Vasa Fitness parking lot and raced down South Tower Road. He hit a fire hydrant and a stop sign before careening the Jeep into a tree on East Kansas Place and fleeing into another car.
Police arrested the thief, then-19-year-old Joshua Cunningham, about nine months later on a pair of traffic charges.
That theft on East Quincy Avenue was the first in a violent series of 11 different crimes carried out by reported members of the Crenshaw Mafia Gangster Bloods gang across east Denver and Aurora in late 2017 and early 2018.
Nearly two dozen people in their late teens and early 20s were eventually charged with burglary, robbery and attempted murder for their involvement in the streak of violence in Arapahoe County, most of them under the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act. The specialized statute is reserved for large-scale criminal enterprises that carry out patterns of crime. It’s often used against bona fide illegal-drug manufacturers and human traffickers.
Set to formally wrap up later this month, the criminal cases involving Cunningham and other known Bloods gang members resulted in a rash of confessions and guilty pleas, including a 35-year sentence for Cunningham. That’s in addition to another sentence tied to a robbery charge and yet another 30-year punishment set to be formally imposed on the now 22-year-old next week in Denver. The forthcoming Denver sentence, which will run concurrently to the other two, stems from Cunningham pleading guilty to a second-degree murder charge related to the shooting death of Jekylis Ross-Henderson in spring 2018. Currently incarcerated at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, Cunningham will be eligible for parole in 2035, according to state records.
Though not a novel concept in the 18th Judicial District, using COCCA to prosecute gang members is one way officials are seeking to address an apparent rise in gang-related violence in the metroplex.
“If we have a big enough group, and it meets that criteria, we’re always looking at that,” Aurora Police Department Division Chief Terry Brown said at a public meeting earlier this year. “That’s really our preference if we can do a (Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering case) or a COCCA … We don’t always meet those thresholds, but we’re always looking at that.”
Aurora Police Captain Mark Hildebrand said police began pursuing more COCCA cases against gang members about five years ago, when investigators went after members of the Rich Boy Gang and a separate faction of Crips. Hildebrand said authorities are increasingly looking at such lengthy, resource-intensive cases in an effort to net longer, harsher sentences that can sometimes elude younger gang members.
“We’re not seeing these sentences that are really sending the message we need to send to the gangs; some are getting probation or one to two years,” he said. “ … We’re having a difficult time getting substantial sentences on individuals we know right now may just be involved in shootings, but if we don’t do something now, they’re going to be the next murderers. They’re going to be the next Josh Cunninghams.”
The state version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, COCCA cases often take outsized amounts of time and resources to outline a pattern of unlawful behavior. The recent case in Arapahoe County involved extensive interviewing, ballistic analysis and surveillance by way of GPS vehicle tracking and cell phone record scouring. The entire process took more than two years and resulted in an 85-page affidavit filed against the defendants.
“When you look at all of the data involved, it’s a little bit overwhelming,” Aurora Det. Andy Mcdermott, who wrote the nearly 100-page arrest document, said.
McDermott, who is currently assigned to a regional anti-violence network that works with a bevy of state and federal entities, said the case proved to be a bellwether for technology use in Aurora. The COCCA case against Cunningham was the first time Aurora police teamed with Radix Metasystems, an Aurora-based tech firm that distilled nearly 1 million pages of text messages, phone records and social media posts investigators obtained through search warrants in the case.
And although it was arduous, the case resulted in a batch of repeat offenders and firearms being taken off the street in a single push instead of a piecemeal dissection of a criminal enterprise, according to Tom Byrnes, the chief deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.
“I think the facts of this case lent themselves well to a COCCA prosecution because it was a number of them who were involved in a number of similar, violent crimes,” Byrnes said.
It’s unclear how many times prosecutors have used the state version of RICO – which can slap offenders with an additional felony charge and more prison time – against gang members in recent years as the local district attorney’s office does not track most gang-related statistics.
A prosecutor assigned to handle only gang cases in Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties previously declined an interview request for this story, citing safety concerns.
Byrnes, who has handled all manner of felony cases in the 18th judicial district for some seven years, said he’s prosecuted gang members under COCCA a handful of times in the past, and will likely continue to do so going forward.
“I think we’ll continue to use it for criminal street gangs,” Byrnes said. “ … It will be a valuable tool going forward. We may be using it more often depending on the cases that come up that seem to fit.”
Indeed, there could be more gang-related cases coming to local dockets. Byrnes said he’s noticed an anecdotal increase in gang-related crime since he’s been a prosecutor.
“Over the time that I’ve been here, it seems like we are seeing more gang-related violent crime, and we continue to see a lot of crimes involving firearms on the street.”
But even with attorneys and investigators netting clusters of sentences, there’s a general consensus that legacy groups like the CMGs will remain active.
“You could do a 50 person RICO on that group and it probably is not going to dismantle that gang,” Hildebrand said. “There’s just too many of them that are active out here today.”
A city with a history
The Crenshaw Mafia Gang subset of Bloods has been squarely at the front of gang violence across the metroplex for more than three decades, according to Jason McBride, a former program assistant with the Gang Rescue and Support Project in Denver and current Secondary Prevention Specialist with the Struggle of Love Foundation. Imported to Colorado from Los Angeles in 1986, the CMGs and their affiliated Bloods subsets have always carried a reputation for violence, McBride said.
“CMGs have kind of been on the forefront of everything,” said McBride, a former gang member himself. “They’ve always been the ones kicking up the most dust, and they always get the most respect.”
CMGs comprise the largest subset of any gang in Aurora, with at least 97 known members living in city limits, according to Aurora police statistics compiled earlier this year. In total, nearly 1,300 people associated with gangs call Aurora home, including nearly 250 people affiliated with various factions of Bloods.
That hasn’t historically been the case. But as housing prices in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, a longstanding bastion of CMGs, have skyrocketed, cells have been pushed further into surrounding municipalities, according to McBride.
“Especially with CMGs, what you have is that Denver never handled their gang problem the way they were supposed to,” he said. “And those groups migrated to Aurora and now it’s Aurora’s problem because it’s too expensive for kids to live in Denver.”
McBride said the migration has also meant increased gang violence in southwest Denver, Jefferson County, Brighton and other municipalities that ring the state capital.
“Those gangs in the Park Hill, Cole and Whittier neighborhoods are being priced out to where it’s more affordable to live, so those problems are just heading to those areas,” he said.
And though it may be more dispersed than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, CMG tendrils remain firmly entrenched, McBride said.
“They’ve been one of the biggest groups that’s been able to consistently survive over time,” he said. “They will be here because they are generational now. You might have had a granddad CMG, a son CMG and now the grandson is doing the same thing because that’s what he knows … Like it or not, they’re going to be around.”
Much of the violence carried out by CMGs has been directed at rival Crips gang members, oftentimes members of the local offshoot the Tre Tre Crips.
Such was the case in Aurora and Denver in late 2017, according to court documents. Several of the incidents carried out by Cunningham – who previously went by the nickname Fat Body – and his confederates centered on retaliation against Crips. One suspected member charged under the recent COCCA case shot a 19-year-old Crips member out of the window of a car at the Rodeway Inn in Denver on Oct. 11, 2017, according to court documents.
Cunningham, who was in the car when the shooting occurred, told police “he ‘earned’ his position of respect in the gang by shooting at rival gang members, specifically the Tre Tre Gangster Crips,” according to court documents.
The shooting was precipitated by a party where both Crips and Bloods were invited. At one point, a Crips member slighted a deceased Bloods affiliate killed in a previous, gang-motivated shooting. That caused tensions to rise, according to police.
“It is extremely confrontational and an enormous sign of disrespect for a gang member to speak in a derogatory nature regarding a deceased rival gang member,” McDermott wrote in court documents. “This type of exchange typically results in some sort of a violent confrontation between the rival gangs and/or gang members.”
Through a video chat, Bloods members saw that specific Crips members were partying at the Denver hotel. Those members “were Crips that the Bloods would ‘get stripes,’ for if they were able to shoot and kill them,” according to court documents.
At about 2 a.m., Cunningham and other CMGs drove a black Ford Fiesta to the hotel near the intersection of Interstate 70 and Peoria Street and shot a man in the stomach outside of Room 238 one day after his 19th birthday. The teen who was shot, East Side Crip Myron Johnson, survived his injuries.
About two months later, Cunningham and others travelled to east Denver “looking for Crips to shoot,” a Bloods member told police during a proffered interview that prevented her statements from being used against her in court.
A month after that, Cunningham and others engaged in a car-to-car shootout with Tre Tre Crips in front of the Colorado Capitol at approximately 1:30 p.m., one week before the start of that year’s legislative session.
At the end of the affidavit filed against Cunningham and his associates, McDermott painted the Aurora teen as a repeat offender ambivalent about his future.
“(McDermott) has found that (Cunningham) takes pride in his gang membership, and is particularly proud of the fact that he has achieved a degree of status within the Crenshaw Mafia Gangster Bloods organization for shooting rival gang members,” according to the arrest document. “Cunningham has told (McDermott) that he estimates that he has been involved in around 13 gang motivated shootings in his lifetime. Furthermore, Cunningham has told (McDermott) that he has no intention of changing his life and that he believes he will either end up dead from a gang motivated shooting or in prison.”
Getting the gang back together
Despite a perceived rise in Aurora gang violence in recent months among detectives and advocates, crimes committed by known gang members have in fact plummeted in the city this year, according to new data tabulated by Aurora police.
The number of gang crimes recorded by local police in 2020 is on track to be the lowest in at least five years, data show. There are typically between 130 and 250 gang-related crimes in the city each month, bringing the totals to about 2,000 such crimes per year since 2015. Even if crimes against gang members surge in the final two months of the year, Aurora likely won’t hit the threshold of 1,700 gang crimes in 2020.
The types of crimes carried out by local, known gang members run the gamut from vandalism to arson to murder, data show. Aurora’s gangsters have killed an average of seven people per year in the city over the past five years, and at least a pair of homicides that occurred in the city in the first half of 2020 were linked to gang members, officials have said.
But between the beginning of August and the end of October, the city recorded just 272 gang crimes, per department data. That’s about 200 fewer such crimes compared to the same time frame in each of the past four years and about 320 fewer crimes than the same stretch in 2015.
A direct cause for the decreases is not immediately clear, though overall physical arrests and summonses have been down in the city since the coronavirus pandemic careened into the country this spring. In August, physical arrests in the city were down some 65% over the same month in 2019. During the same month, gang crime was down about 41% when comparing this year’s data to that of 2019.
Still, violent crime was up 17% in the first half of the year compared to the same time frame in 2019, and gangs have remained at least a partial boogeyman for that conundrum.
“Gangs and gang membership are proliferating, and gang-related crime and violence are increasing in the city,” Aurora staffers wrote in a memo inked to Aurora City Council members last month.
McBride chalked up the perceived rise in violence to the lockdown this spring, which he said caused social media beefs to metastasize and boil into violence once people were able to leave their homes. And while he acknowledged the rise of so-called hybrid gangs, or loosely organized groups that sometimes originate on platforms such as Fortnight, he said this summer saw a resurgence of violence between more traditional pods of Bloods and Crips.
“You had kids who were locked in and if you watched social media and you understand that kind of thing, you saw the tsunami,” he said. “In March, April, May, and then what happens in June? We start getting shootings as soon as kids come out, and then July comes and all hell breaks loose.”
There were 14 murders reported in the city between May 15 and July 15, according to Deputy Police Chief Harry Glidden. That was a 250% increase from the four murders reported in Colorado’s third-largest city over the same time last year.
Despite that rise in violence, anti-gang crusaders in Aurora have seen their wings clipped in recent months due to a decimation of local funding sources.
Aurora’s Gang Reduction Impact Program was cut entirely earlier this year after voters killed the photo red light funding largely supporting the project in 2018.
That means fewer resources for Aurora teens susceptible to being recruited into gangs.
Earlier this year, Lawrence Goshon was the Gang Reduction And Support Project’s only youth outreach coordinator in Aurora. Goshon was previously the central figure in AGRIP, but he hasn’t been directly involved with the defunct program since it lost funding on Dec. 31 of last year.
Goshon still meets with kids to attempt to steer them away from gangs, but he’s receiving fewer resources for his work across the city, from East Colfax Avenue to the mall across the street from the municipal center. Still, he’s been one of the primary outreach workers skippering a new program based at UC Health University of Colorado Hospital that places workers like him at the bedsides of patients who have been shot, stabbed or otherwise assaulted in an effort to cool tensions and stem further violence.
“The struggle is taking them out of their environment,” said Goshon, a former gang member himself. “Before we could do positive reinforcement for them, like you do this, we’ll do that, and they responded to that. Now I just have to sit in the ‘hood with them and say, ‘hey this is what tomorrow is going to bring.’ I pull up newspaper articles, social media, whatever it is to make them think and do some reflection of self.”
Goshon is slated to receive some backup in the coming months, however, as Aurora City Council just last month granted initial approval to a new gang intervention program in the city that could see the addition of six full-time workers. Council members have dog-eared $700,000 for the program that could work with as many as 80 Aurora teens in gangs or at risk of joining a gang at any given time. On top of developing the new unit, council members signed off on a new compact with Denver intended to curb violence among metro-area young people by sharing resources.
Though interventionists like McBride have lauded the city and the police department’s recent work intended to reduce gang violence, he said more needs to be done.
“I think Aurora is being more proactive than in the past under different administrations, and I think that’s a really great sign that they’re really trying to do things a different way,” he said. “But if citizens of your city and your community are losing their lives … They have to be more proactive.”
But just getting city staffers to talk about gangs can prove to be a morass, officials said.
“A lot of people in Aurora don’t want to admit that there’s a gang problem,” McBride said. “ … We’re still dealing with that in Aurora, with people saying there’s nothing really happening, with little isolated incidents. No, Aurora has a gang problem all over the city and nobody wants to talk all about it.”
Councilman Curtis Gardner, who was elected in November 2019, said he, too, experienced early push back when he began breaching the subject of gangs.
“I think there’s been some reluctance, especially early on in my tenure on council, to use the word ‘gang’ or at least that’s how I perceived it,” Gardner said. “Talking to community leaders and city leadership, I have been able to figure out in some cases that ‘gang’ is literally a four-letter word — and figuratively as well.”
Councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who serves as chairwoman of the council’s public safety committee, said while she doesn’t believe there’s an active push from city lawmakers to brush over gang violence, there is ample opportunity to expand conversations on the topic.
“I don’t think anyone in the city is trying to cover anything up or hide anything,” she said. “I think it’s more that we don’t know what to do.”
Both McBride and Hildebrand lamented that constant game of catch-up metro area municipalities perpetually seem to be engaged in with local violent groups. The former gang member and police captain both fulminated against the antiquated methods the system has used to address gang violence in the region.
“I really, honestly don’t think the criminal justice system as a whole — and that includes the DA’s offices — has really accepted the fact that the kids of 20 years ago aren’t the kids today,” Hildebrand said “I see 13 and 14 year olds, and when you look into their eyes when you’re contacting them and you see what the future holds for them, it’s not good.”
McBride said most young people affiliated with gangs have skirted the looks that originated in Southern California and permeated popular culture throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
“Parents don’t know what to look for necessarily because they’re looking for that Ice Cube, NWA sort of gangster when it’s skinny jeans and Lil Wayne nowadays,” he said. “And these kids aren’t necessarily identifying with colors or blocks or schools or something like that. It’s a totally different world now … If you’re a kid in some of these areas, you’re going to get dressed in the morning, and put on your skinny jeans and your Jordans and one of those Louis or Gucci belts, a hoodie, a backpack and you’re usually going to have a weapon. And when you walk out that door, you hope nobody makes you pull it.”
He encouraged local politicians to be mindful of that change in mentality and pursue increased intervention practices at younger ages.
“If you’re talking about true intervention and prevention right now, you can’t jump into middle schools and say, ‘hey we’re going to intervene.’ You need to start in first, second, third grade. That’s the sad thing, but it’s just the honest to God truth. Start there because I know 5 year olds who are identifying.
“Aurora has the unique opportunity to be the flagship for this kind of stuff that goes on all around the country. We don’t have to do what everybody else is doing, Let’s do something different … We have to. We owe it to these kids.”