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‘We’re in some real trouble’: A new kind of street gang is only part of a wave of gun violence in Aurora

Mark Hildebrand with APD said as many as 5,000-6,000 people considered by police to be gang members may call Aurora home, but quantifying the problem is a challenge.

AURORA, Colo — Aurora police say that a lunchtime gunfight next to a high school this fall was only supposed to be a fistfight among a group of bickering teenagers. 

The Nov. 15 episode of teen angst-turned-gunfire in Nome Park is a prime, and increasingly common, example of what many community leaders and experts fear is the new normal in urban areas like Aurora. 

Police suspect that an unrelated shooting just days later in the parking lot of Hinkley High School started as a dispute between one group of friends and another group calling themselves “Boner Boys.”

In both cases, gang-like politics and guns raised the stakes of teen skirmishes that likely would have never made the news. Instead, the incidents left nine wounded, and several teens face charges as adults for crimes as serious as attempted first-degree murder.

> This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of nearly 170 newsrooms across Colorado working together to better serve the public. Learn more at https://colabnews.co

Aurora is grappling with the twin threats of gangs, which have evolved from how they looked a few decades ago, and youth violence — specifically shootings, police and experts say. The two problems are related, complicated but different.

Last year, 33 people were shot to death in Aurora, including two juveniles. Among 157 non-fatal shootings, 39 of the victims were juveniles, and a total of 16 non-fatal shootings were said to have been gang-related, according to police data.

> The video above aired in November: New community group to address Aurora's crime issue

Mark Hildebrand, metro division chief for the Aurora Police Department, said as many as 5,000-6,000 people considered by police to be gang members may call Aurora home, but quantifying the gang problem is its own challenge. He said police are struggling to keep up with a proliferation of “hybrid” youth groups that are difficult to track and classify.

“What we now have are these youth-based hybrid gangs and groups that we can’t even attach the label of ‘gang’ to,” Hildebrand said. “It’s very difficult from a law enforcement aspect to figure out what we’re dealing with.”

Council members have debated the overlap between the problems of youth violence and gang violence at length in recent council meetings. While progressive members have pushed for Aurora to expand its social safety net, members of the conservative majority have said it’s time for the city to step up enforcement to stem violence.

“If there’s a group of individuals that are armed and shooting at another group, I don’t care if you call them a gang or a community activity, it’s the same problem,” Mayor Mike Coffman said Jan. 18.

Hildebrand said a “significant percentage” of violent crime is gang-related — anywhere from 20% up to potentially 50%, depending on how agencies define gang ties.

Local activists and education professionals say that social media, the growing mental health crisis among youth, and behavioral issues spurred by the pandemic all play a part, too, combining to form what some worry could be an escalating problem.

“This is going to be a year that will go down in the history books if we don’t get involved right now,” said longtime anti-gang activist Jason McBride. “I think we’re in some real trouble.”

RELATED: Outreach workers respond to teen violence in Aurora

New gangs. Same problems.

Newly-minted hybrid groups buck many of the trends observed in traditional street gangs, Hildebrand said. 

There’s the matter of territory. Historically, gangs such as the Bloods and Crips have laid claims to geographic areas where they exert influence and control certain criminal activities, such as drug dealing. Hildebrand said sets of those gangs were often established by people living in close proximity with one another, who would then organize crimes to make money.

Hildebrand said new Aurora gangs haven’t claimed large swathes of territory like other gangs — namely the Crenshaw Mafia Gangster Bloods of Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood — have. 

“Aurora’s really been transient in the way gang members operate,” he said.

Gentrification shuffling people around the metro area could have a hand in that, Hildebrand said. But the “fracturing” of gangs and gang territory is a nationwide trend that he attributes in part to the rise of social media.

Where youths might have formed a gang with others in their apartment complex or neighborhood before, now, young people can use social media platforms to align and discuss criminal activity.

“I equate it to how businesses are working today with COVID,” Hildebrand said. “You don’t have to be standing right next to one another to talk about what your gang is going to do.”

McBride, who has been working at the Denver-based nonprofit Struggle of Love as a violence prevention specialist for 16 years, said that over the years he has seen the amount of violence increase and younger and younger kids get involved in fights. A major factor is social media, which often helps to fan the flames of what could otherwise be a minor disagreement that blows over.

Credit: PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado
Jason McBride is a secondary violence prevention specialist with the Struggle of Love foundation.

“Kids are doing a lot of things for likes,” McBride said. “If you embarrass a kid on social media, and you have 1,000 people telling you that you aren’t worth anything, what do you think is going to happen?”

The anonymous nature of social media makes it easy to spread threats, whether or not they are sincere. Over the past several months both Aurora Public Schools and the neighboring Cherry Creek School District have implored families not to share threats of violence online, and instead report anything they see to the district or directly to police.

APS Superintendent Rico Munn told The Sentinel that speed of communication over social media is what makes it such a challenge.

“Things can blow up a lot quicker than they might have when I was in high school,” he said. “And it can also bring in a larger group of people who are paying attention and participating in whatever is happening.”

Gun access is another aspect of the problem that offers no easy answers.

“It’s really disappointing and so discouraging that so many kids have access to guns,” said state Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora. “I was talking to some teenagers and they told me ‘oh yeah, we know who has guns.’”

Buckner is one of the prime sponsors of Senate Bill 1, a bill under consideration in the state legislature that contains a raft of crime prevention policies.

Teen gun ownership can have tragic consequences. A 17-year-old Vista PEAK student was shot and killed in December after getting into a traffic dispute with a former Greenwood Village police officer, who is now facing murder charges.

RELATED: Former officer was legally drunk at time of fatal shooting, affidavit says

According to police, the teen had a “ghost gun,” a firearm created with untraceable parts, and his parents did not know he owned it.

McBride said that minors often get guns illegally by stealing them, mostly from parents or other relatives, or by getting friends who are over 18 to purchase guns on their behalf.

An affidavit for the Nome Park shooting said that some of the guns were stolen in advance of the shooting from a parents’ safe.

McBride particularly points the finger at gun shows, which he said are an easy place for minors to get others to buy guns for them. Gun shows have been a frequent target of criticism from gun control groups because they usually do not require background checks or waiting periods. (Colorado law is slightly stricter, and requires gun shows to conduct background checks and conduct sales through a licensed firearms dealer.)

According to the Giffords Law Center, guns purchased at gun shows are disproportionately used in criminal activity.

“We have these gun shows, and as soon as they’re over, there are shootings,” he said. “Maybe we shouldn’t be having gun shows in neighborhoods that are having issues with gun violence.”

Gun purchases have spiked nationwide since the beginning of the pandemic, including in Colorado. The Colorado Bureau of Investigations approved 443,060 gun sales in 2021, over 100,000 more from 2019.

In response to the spate of shootings, the Aurora and Denver city councils partnered to host a series of gun buybacks scheduled for this spring and summer. Aurora Councilmember Curtis Gardner said the events will be an opportunity for people to return guns “no questions asked.”

But with so many firearms already on the streets, it’s unclear how much any voluntary program can do to stem the tide. The first city-sponsored buyback is scheduled to take place at Mile High Stadium in Denver the weekend of March 19. Two local churches also held a buyback in January in partnership with RAWtools, a faith-based nonprofit that turns guns into gardening tools.

RELATED: Colorado father and son transform guns into garden tools

Gang territory goes digital

Another difference between today’s hybrid groups and traditional gangs lies in their organization. Whereas traditional street gangs often included senior members who directed the activities of younger initiates, hybrid groups may lack a hierarchical structure.

“You may not have someone who’s directing and is in charge,” Hildebrand said, adding that police have also seen members of established groups working in tandem to commit carjackings and other crimes.

McBride concurred with much of Hildebrand’s assessment, saying that while organized gangs still have a presence, much of the current activity isn’t based on geography or affiliations with large groups.

“Gangs have evolved, they’ve changed from when they first started to affect us in Colorado,” he said. “You had Bloods and Crips coming in from L.A. … now you may have six or seven kids that identify with each other and they start their own thing regardless of what neighborhood they’re in.”

Hildebrand also said police have seen members of established gangs like the Crips, Bloods and Gangster Disciples working together in “crews” to perpetrate carjackings and other crimes.

“We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before,” he said.

Hildebrand said the differences between hybrid and traditional gangs don’t make it any easier for police to crack down on the newer groups.

Gang members coordinating electronically may leave digital traces of their behavior, but police still have to obtain a warrant to conduct electronic surveillance. Police also have to be mindful of the bar set by organized crime statutes such as the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and Colorado’s Organized Crime Control Act that weren’t written with the new groups in mind.

Hildebrand said the department defines a gang in part as “three or more people who come together under a sign or symbol, and one of their main purpose is to commit crime for … the benefit of the group.”

Those benefits could include money, with members kicking up the proceeds of a crime to other members, or enhanced reputation, for example when a member attacks someone for wearing the colors of a rival gang.

He said police are cautious when labeling youth groups as gangs, not only because it could increase the group’s standing, which could have the added consequence of making it a target for established gangs, but also because they need to defend their designations in court.

Dedicated police units such as the Gang and Robbery Investigative Team focus on gang crime specifically, and APD coordinates with other agencies through investigative partnerships such as the Regional Anti-Violence Enforcement Network.

Since April 2021, through its Youth Violence Prevention Program, the city has also reached out to at-risk youth through community events, distributing recreation center passes and more.

In January, the City Council indicated it wanted to relaunch Aurora’s Gang Reduction Impact Program, which dissolved in 2018 due to the end of the red-light enforcement cameras that had provided funding.

Council members said they wanted to fold the Youth Violence Prevention Program into Aurora’s Gang Reduction Impact Program, focusing more on the problem of gang violence and directing more of a proposed funding increase to gun-violence intervention efforts rather than prevention.

Youth Violence Prevention Program manager Christina Amparan declined to be interviewed for this story, City spokesman Michael Brannen said the city wanted to wait until a presentation for the YVPP scheduled for Feb. 28.

Hildebrand said he doesn’t believe existing restorative justice programs go far enough to curb violence and that limits on how juveniles can be detained and charged in connection with violent could be contributing to a perception of impunity.

“There’s a limit to what the accountability will be,” Hildebrand said. “And that’s understandable. And I’ll be the first to tell you that incarceration is not the answer for our youth population. But we need to find something that works, because what we have right now is not working.”

The school connection

One area where the city may be able to expand their presence and preempt bloodshed is in schools, Hildebrand said. 

He said “many” of Aurora’s young gang members are in school, where tensions that simmered remotely during the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic are erupting since the return to in-person learning.

“There is a reluctance to come to law enforcement,” Hildebrand said. “I think we can do better with that (so) we can see the warning signs early on, getting something in place to get them off that trajectory.”

A dozen officers are assigned to Aurora high schools already as part of the department’s School Resource Officer program. According to the department’s website, the officers “perform normal law enforcement functions in and around the school, along with providing education and counseling to the students in their school.”

“Schools can help turn us on to, ‘There’s this group over here that calls themselves this, and they’re talking about guns, and now there’s this rival group that they have a disagreement with.’ And that’s a situation where we could intervene,” Hildebrand said.

“We’re not getting there right now. And the only other option is a heavy presence in the community, and then we’re accused of overpolicing.”

Credit: PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado
Police Chief Vanessa Wilson again asked for help from the community and the parents in curbing the rise in gun violence among school aged children during a forum hosted by Sen. Rhonda Fields, Nov. 22, 2021 at the Dayton Opportunity Center.

Community members have mixed views of the efficacy of policing to stem youth violence. APD Chief Vanessa Wilson herself acknowledged that the city can’t police its way out of the problem.

“The pipeline to prison is real, and I don’t want to be a part of it,” Wilson said at a meeting at the Dayton Street Opportunity Center following the two November shootings. “We need to find community solutions so we can save our youth.” 

The number of SROs at APS has remained the same for the past several years, and APS Superintendent Rico Munn said that the district expects SROs “to do police work and not education work.”

Security issues are being handled on a school-by-school basis, he said, and the district is soliciting parent involvement in many cases. After the November shootings APS decided to prohibit high school students from leaving school grounds during school hours, including lunch. That remains in place district wide but is being assessed regularly, Munn said.

RELATED: APS superintendent talks about challenges with keeping all students on high school campuses after shootings

The racial justice protests of 2020 brought renewed scrutiny to the use of SROs in both APS and Cherry Creek, but neither district ultimately chose to do away with partnering with them.

Janiece Mackey, founder of Young Aspiring Americans for Political and Social Activism, said that youth councils at YAASPA are currently examining how SROs operate and what type of offenses, such as drug use on campus, they are required to discipline students for.

“It’s not necessarily a ‘get them out’ type of question. It’s more of thinking about what their role is in these contexts,” she said.

Similar to the ways in which cities including Aurora are starting to implement co-responder models where mental health professionals accompany police to certain calls, Mackey thinks a similar approach could be beneficial in schools. Instead of having an SRO respond first to every situation, a social worker or therapist could be the first point of contact. 

APS is currently keeping an eye on a bill that state Sen. Chris Kolker, D-Centennial, plans to introduce this legislative session, which would provide Colorado school districts with grant money to spend on security measures. It’s part of a rollout of public safety measures that Gov. Jared Polis is touting as the first step in a data-driven plan to lower Colorado’s crime rate.

McBride was also present at the November meeting, which he said he left early out of frustration of what he perceived as all talk and no action. But he and other community members all stress a need to address the root causes of the issue, which he says include poverty and a lack of opportunity.

Struggle of Love and YAASPA both work to give local youth access to paying jobs and career development opportunities.

“Many young people are sharing in the financial responsibilities of their households,” Mackey said. “It’s critical to provide a conduit for them.”

A desire for connection and a lack of other opportunities can both lead young people into gang life, McBride said. But when presented with more options, he said “most of the time they’ll choose the option that keeps them away from violence.”

The shooting at Hinkley High School

The events that led to, and through, the shooting at Hinkley High School illustrate the complexity and capriciousness of some current shootings among youth. Here are details of the investigation into the shooting.

After gunfire erupted Nov. 19 in the parking lot of Hinkley High School, witnesses painted a picture of chaos and confusion. Three boys expecting a schoolyard fight had drawn handguns and fired at scattering students, police allege, and one teen wounded in the melee told police she didn’t think she was the intended target.

The Sentinel reviewed Aurora Police Department affidavits to stitch together the story of how cops say the shooting unfolded.

Four boys have been arrested and charged with attempted murder and other charges in connection with the violence, in which three teenagers were wounded. All of the boys, although minors, were identified by name because district attorney officials charged them as adults. They are Alejandro Carillo Hernandez, 17, and Larry Renee Jefferson, Dalen Lenale Brewer and Diego Flores, all 16 years old.

Police later collected video surveillance and interviewed witnesses, including Flores and another boy involved in the shooting whom prosecutors have not charged or publicly named. Here’s how police think the shooting unfolded — and why.

Before the shooting

The boys charged in connection with the shooting were friends who knew each other from middle school, Flores told police. Aurora Public Schools won’t say whether the charged boys were students at Hinkley. Flores told police that he and Hernandez were not.

According to one probable cause affidavit, the unnamed boy told police he and his friends had “beef” with a rival clique of teenagers they called the Boner Boys. The boy said this clique had “shot up his house” several times in the past, and Flores said they’d gotten into fights before. Police didn’t say whether any victims belonged to this rival group.

On Nov. 19, police say Flores picked up Hernandez, Brewer and Jefferson and drove to Hinkley in his white Chevrolet pickup truck near 10:45 a.m. Flores said he ran into the rival clique, who called him a “bitch” and a “pussy.” Flores said he wanted to fight them, and they all agreed to fight at a Wendy’s restaurant, but the other crew never showed up, according to police. Flores then drove the group to pick up a friend, the unnamed boy, and they all went to a nearby Walgreens to smoke a blunt, according to an affidavit.

The unnamed boy went to “scout” at Hinkley for the rival group. When he returned to Walgreens, Hernandez, Jefferson and Brewer were showing off their handguns, police say. It’s not clear how the boys came to possess the firearms.

At this point, another unnamed boy called Flores and said the so-called Boner Boys were at Hinkley, police say. The boy said he was in danger of getting jumped and “he needed help,” the affidavit says, so Flores drove the boys to Hinkley and they arrived in the parking lot just before noon. Most of them got out of the truck. They talked to the unnamed boy who’d just called. At this point, one of the unnamed boys said he “knew they were going to fight.” A witness later told police she saw one  of the boys step out of the truck with a handgun and heard him say, “You all are gonna get it.”

Two boys got back in the truck, with Brewer now in the driver’s seat, police say.  Hernandez walked alone down the parking lot, appearing “animated.” He strode toward three people, pulled out a handgun and began firing at them, according to police.

During the shooting

People who “appear to be innocent bystanders” scattered across the lot “to run for their lives,” police say. The affidavits say Flores jumped into the bed of his truck when the shooting began. Inside the cab, Brewer piloted the car through the parking lot while firing shots with a handgun out of the window. Jefferson was in the back seat on the driver’s side and was also firing his handgun that includes an extended magazine, according to police. One of the shooting victims, an unnamed boy who was seriously wounded, was running toward Hinkley’s front doors. Surveillance footage reported by police shows the boy falling to the ground after apparently being shot.

Aurora Public School Officers Ronald Banks and Darius Walls told police they were sitting in their marked car by the front entrance when they heard gunshots. Banks told police they took cover behind the car and Walls began firing at the truck while he yelled at the schoolchildren to get inside or get down.

Another teenage victim, who wasn’t seriously wounded, told police she was hanging out in the parking lot when the shooting began. She ran to her cousin’s car, where they took cover as the white truck neared her. Brewer drove the car out of the parking lot and onto Chambers Road, and the shooting stopped, police say. She realized she was injured and went to the hospital.

After the shooting

At 12:04 p.m., two minutes after Hernandez began shooting, a police camera captured the white truck traveling north on Chambers Road before making a U-turn and traveling south, where it pulled into the parking lot of Vasa Fitness. Flores was still in the bed of the truck, according to police. The unnamed boy in the car told the boys he’d been shot. Flores got in the car and the truck rolled to the nearby Burger King at the intersection of Chambers Road and East Colfax Avenue, police say.

Jose Trejo later told police he was working at a food truck in the Vasa Fitness parking lot when he saw the white truck with six teenagers. He noticed a bullet hole through one of its windows. Two of the boys got out of the truck and told him “don’t take pictures of us, or call the police or we will shoot you,” according to the affidavit. The two boys then  “took off” on East Colfax Avenue, both holding guns.

The shooting victims began arriving at the Anschutz Medical Campus for treatment. One APD officer near UCHealth’s emergency room noticed a white pickup truck with a “broken spot” in a window and “a young looking Hispanic male driver.” It’s Flores, police say, and the unnamed boy, who has a bloody abdomen. The officer said he directed the unnamed boy to the hospital and later looked in the car, finding a bullet casing. Flores told him the car is his but in his mother’s name.

Police later said they interviewed the unnamed boy and Flores at length. They learned that the boy had thrown a spent magazine out of the car while driving to the hospital, which police said they later recovered.

Aurora police said their investigation included obtaining a search warrant for the white truck. Inside, they found a shell casing, two empty handgun boxes and a black backpack containing a temporary Colorado instruction permit with Hernandez’s name and photo.

Charges against each of the four boys include:

4 counts of attempted first-degree murder 

1 count of first-degree assault

1 count of second-degree assault

1 count of possession of a weapon on school grounds

2 crime-of-violence sentence enhancers

Jefferson was also charged with one count of using a prohibited large-capacity magazine during a crime.

— Grant Stringer, for Sentinel Colorado

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