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August 15, 2007
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Web of deadly Colo. gang unraveled with help from wiretaps

Case believed to be the largest of its kind in the history of the Rocky Mountain region
 
By Sara Burnett
Rocky Mountain News 
 
DENVER, Colo. — Photos of more than 100 suspects from the massive April 26 drug bust cover one wall of the "war room" at the Metro Gang Task Force headquarters.

Computers hold digital recordings of about 160,000 phone calls secretly obtained from more than 50 wiretaps.

Diagrams outline the connections uncovered during an unprecedented 18-month investigation. Photos of suspected drug stash houses are taped to grease boards alongside notes about the locations.

Together, they tell the story of that spring day, when at least 450 law enforcement officers scattered across metro Denver and served more than three dozen search warrants designed to take down the "Elite Eight" and their associates, described by investigators as some of the most sophisticated and dangerous street gang members in recent history.

It is from this enormous case - believed to be the largest of its kind in the history of the Rocky Mountain region - that prosecutors hope an answer will surface to the question of who killed Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams and up to 10 other people whose killings remain unsolved.

But that process - and the filing of murder charges in the Williams case - will take some time, if it happens at all.

There are strong indications that investigators have focused the search for suspects in Williams' death on three men, all tied to the Elite Eight and all indicted in the April drug bust.

Shortly after Williams was shot Jan. 1, police said they were looking for three men with key information about the slaying. They arrested one of them, 25-year-old Willie Clark, on a parole violation. Clark is one of three suspects in the killing, his attorney has said.

Daniel Harris was arrested on federal drug charges after returning from Mexico in June. Harris is a "person of interest" in the Williams slaying, according to law enforcement sources close to the case. Harris' attorney, Daniel Sears, declined to comment Friday.

The third man has not been publicly named by authorities, and the Rocky Mountain News is not identifying him. His attorney said the district attorney's office has told him his client is no longer a suspect in the killing.

All of the Williams shooting suspects are charged with conspiracy in the federal drug case and are being held without bail, according to authorities.

But they say they don't have enough evidence yet to charge anyone in Williams' drive-by shooting.

U.S. Attorney for Colorado Troy Eid declined to discuss any specific murder cases. But he said he invited the Denver District Attorney's Office to work beside federal prosecutors on the drug case in large part to help solve the open murders.

A spokesman for District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said Friday the office, which has convened a grand jury to hear the Williams case, could not comment. At a news conference the afternoon of the April bust, Morrissey said it was "very, very likely" the arrests would lead to charges in some of the killings.

The strategy is that the federal drug charges - and a possible life sentence for conspiracy - will pressure defendants to talk. It's a process some prosecutors call "shaking the trees," and it's one Williams' family hopes will work.

The family has been told that everyone suspected in the killing is behind bars, Williams' uncle, Demond Kennard, said. But for them, that's not enough.

"They're not being held accountable," Kennard said. "I want them to pay for what they did."

Williams' shooting

The popular starting cornerback known to family and friends as "Dee" went to a New Year's Eve party at Club Safari, a low-profile nightclub at 1037 Broadway in Denver, hours after the Broncos' final loss of the 2006 season. The party, attended by several Broncos and Denver Nuggets players, was to celebrate New Year's as well as Nugget Kenyon Martin's birthday.

While there, authorities say, members of the group Williams was with exchanged words with another group of men. Police haven't said what the argument was about, but indications are that it was nothing more than a couple of guys bumping into each other and then talking trash, one source said.

The disagreement spilled outside as the club closed and people began leaving.

Williams and his group, including fellow Bronco Javon Walker, got into the stretch Hummer they had rented for the evening. As they headed toward Speer Boulevard and 11th Avenue, someone in a white SUV fired more than a dozen shots at the Hummer.

One of the shots hit a University of Colorado student who was getting a ride from Williams and his friends. A man, described as one of Williams' high school friends, also was injured. Both survived.

Another bullet pierced Williams' neck, killing him at the scene. Williams, 24, is not believed to have been a target.

Authorities found the white Chevy Tahoe they suspected was used in the shooting a few days later, abandoned in the Green Valley Ranch subdivision.

The SUV was registered to suspected gang member Brian Hicks, who was in jail on drug charges and an unrelated attempted murder charge at the time of the shooting. Hicks' attorney has said Hicks gave the Tahoe to a friend, hoping he would use it to raise bail money. He also said Hicks has no idea who was using the Tahoe the night Williams died.

Four days after the killing, Denver police arrested Clark on the parole violation, saying he was one of three people they wanted to talk to about Williams' death. In late January, the Denver District Attorney's Office confirmed it had convened a grand jury - a secret panel with the power to force reluctant witnesses to appear - to hear evidence in a number of killings police believe are linked to the Crips gang, including Williams' death.

Like a battleship

As Denver police searched for Williams' killer, a larger gang and drug investigation - part of which focused on Hicks, Clark and their suspected drug ring - already was well under way. In August 2005, the Metro Gang Task Force launched an investigation into the Rolling 30s Crips and Tre Tre Crips street gangs. The task force - made up of local police, sheriff's deputies, FBI agents and other law enforcement officers - chooses its targets based on intelligence gathered by local police and crime analysts from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"We come together and say 'This is the biggest threat to our community,' " said Lt. Jim Welton, who leads the task force.

An Aurora police lieutenant, Welton likes to think of the task force as a battleship. Working separately, the 13 agencies that make up the task force might point their weapons in 13 different directions. But working together, he said, is "like cranking all the guns and pointing them at one target."

With the Crips in its sights, the investigation grew quickly. A tip from an informant would lead to a dealer who supplied other dealers. Using surveillance and wiretaps, the investigation expanded to include large-scale suppliers linked to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. Task force members worked night and day, 70 to 80 hours a week, Welton said. They kept their information in the "war room" - a conference room loaded with pictures, computers, diagrams and files, in a secret location the task force does not disclose.

During one of their stakeouts last November, investigators arrested Hicks along with Malcolm Watson and Haven Brewer, saying they caught them in a Lexus SUV with more than eight pounds of cocaine.

The men were in jail on those charges when Williams was killed. Later, Metro Gang Task Force investigator Robert Fuller would tell a federal magistrate judge that Hicks was the leader, and Watson and Brewer founding members, of a core group within the gang that called itself the Elite Eight. Formed on New Year's Eve 2002, the group joined forces to move millions of dollars worth of cocaine through metro Denver, Fuller said. He also said investigators linked the group to victim intimidation and, along with other members of their gang, up to 11 unsolved killings.

Massive roundup

On the morning of April 26, hundreds of law enforcement officers - including some who had flown in from out of state - descended on the metro area, arresting 49 of the more than 70 people named in federal indictments.

It was the culmination of the 18-month investigation. Combined with the people arrested earlier, a total of 103 were charged. All of the defendants facing major drug charges have pleaded not guilty.

Because the federal public defender's office cannot represent more than one defendant in related cases, the court began appointing private attorneys to represent the suspects.

Those attorneys are now in the process of reviewing evidence - a major undertaking due to the size of the case. The summaries from the 160,000 recorded phone calls total more than 100,000 pages, one defense attorney said. The applications for the wiretaps, with supporting material, total 8,000 pages.

It is so much information that prosecutors took the unusual step of providing it to defense attorneys on individual computer hard drives, each loaded with special software. The judge has approved a court-paid technology expert to help defense attorneys. He also ordered that computers be set up at the metro Denver jails where the defendants are being held so they may review material too voluminous to keep in their cells.

It could be several months before the lawyers argue all of the possible motions to suppress evidence or otherwise challenge the case. Those motions likely must be decided before the defendants decide whether to agree to a plea deal.

It's through those deals that prosecutors hope they'll get information to file charges in the death of Darrent Williams and the others.

All told, it could take months, maybe a year, maybe more - if charges are filed at all. But with no statute of limitations on murder, authorities say there is no hurry.

Meanwhile, Welton said there's no measuring how much crime isn't happening because the people charged in the takedown are behind bars, though he estimates it's thousands of crimes each year.

"These people are in the business of committing crime every day," Welton said. "When they go away, people don't get hurt."

INFOBOX

Taking down a growing threat

Authorities say these men are part of a group of gang members who joined together in 2002, calling themselves the "Elite Eight." The group has since grown, and police now say its members, along with other members of their gang, may be connected to up to 11 unsolved killings. Two of the men have been named as suspects in the killing of Darrent Williams, and most are named in the federal drug indictment.

BRIAN HICKS, 28 AKA SOLO Described by Metro Gang Task Force investigator Robert Fuller as the leader of the Elite Eight. Hicks was in Denver jail on drug charges when an SUV registered to him was used in Williams' drive-by shooting. His attorney has said Hicks does not know who was using his SUV or who killed Williams.

VERNON EDWARDS, 29 AKA LIL' 30 OUNCE According to Fuller, he was "the muscle with weapons . . . the guy that liked the guns." His attorney has denied the allegations.

DANIEL HARRIS, 36 AKA P.T.

He was in Mexico when he was indicted on federal drug charges, and he has since returned to the U.S., where he was picked up by U.S. marshals. Has been connected to Williams' shooting. He is being held separately from other defendants, who he says have threatened him.

WILLIE CLARK, 25 AKA LITTLE LETT Started with the Elite Eight in summer 2006 as a "runner," moving drugs and money for the others, and worked his way up to selling his own drugs, Fuller said. His attorney has said he is one of three suspects in connection with Williams' murder.

BENJAMIN THOMAS, 29 AKA E-LOW

A "shooter" and "poor businessman" who didn't have much of a customer base, Fuller said.

HAVEN BREWER, 32 AKA NO LOVE Described by Fuller as "very close to Hicks" and a multi-kilogram dealer of cocaine.

MALCOLM WATSON, 32 AKA P.M. OR PRETTY MALCOLM

Close to Hicks and known to carry a gun, according to Fuller.

KAMAU MARSHALL, 33 AKA CORN

"He was an enforcer," Fuller said. "He would be financially taken care of for that." Not named in the federal indictment.

ERNEST DANIELS, 36

AKA Q-BERT OR Q-BABY

Known as being "pretty crazy," Fuller said. "He'd shoot up places." Not named in the federal indictment.

MICHAEL WADE AKA GUMBY

A kilogram dealer of cocaine and crack cocaine, Fuller said. Not named in the federal indictment.

A vast effort

The April roundup was the largest in the history of the Rocky Mountain region, authorities say.

* Months of investigation leading to indictments : 18

* Number of people, roughly, charged in federal or state court: 100

* Number or wiretaps, roughly, conducted during investigation: 100

* Secretly recorded phone calls: 160,000

* Pages of reports summarizing those calls: 100,000

* Cash seized during the investigation: $1.6 million

* Kilograms of cocaine seized: 88

* Firearms seized, including assault rifles, handguns, revolvers and hundreds of rounds of ammunition: 74

* Search warrants executed the day of the raid: 39

Source: U.S. Attorney'S Office, Court Documents

Shaking the trees

Everyone suspected in the drive-by shooting of Denver Broncos player Darrent Williams is behind bars on federal drug charges, authorities have said. So when will someone be charged with the killing? It could be awhile, as the federal drug case winds its way through court. It's a process one source called "shaking the trees":

1. Authorities said they identified three suspects in the Darrent Williams killing. But their case wasn't strong enough to file charges. Instead, the suspects - and dozens of other people - were picked up on federal drug charges. The arrests got the suspects off the streets and, prosecutors hope, put pressure on them to cooperate.

2. Each of the 73 defendants in the federal drug case was appointed a defense attorney, who will file motions challenging the government's case. Hearings must be held on everything from whether wiretaps were legal to the validity of the indictments - a process that could take many months.

3. Once defendants and their attorneys know the strength of the government's case, they could begin talking to prosecutors about a plea deal or giving information on other defendants in exchange for a lesser sentence.

4. If the information the defendant gives checks out, it could be used to get an indictment for murder. It's also possible murder charges never would be filed.  
    
Copyright 2007 Denver Publishing Company

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