DENVER — The 8-year-old attempted murder of a gang member isn't headline news, but when the shooter is a neighborhood hero known for steering Denver youth away from violence, it’s a story that sticks.
Terrance Roberts is the subject of Julian Rubinstein's book "The Holly: Five Shots, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood," published earlier this year.
“I never wanted to be a gangster," Roberts, 45, said from his Denver apartment. "My life just unfolded it that way."
In the 1980s, it wasn’t just crack cocaine that migrated east from South Central Los Angeles. The infamous gangs donning blue and red came, too.
“It landed here," Roberts said. "One of the first cities it landed was in Northeast Denver, first in the Five Points.”
In the 1990s, a corner in the Northeast Park Hill neighborhood known as The Holly, near 33rd Avenue and Holly Street, became the hub of the community and of Bloods activity.
“If you are not as good in basketball as Chauncey Billups, if you were not going to the NFL, you better be very, very intelligent kids, like going to Harvard, or are you gonna fall in line? You’re gonna have to fight,” Roberts said.
He spent ages 14 to 26 gangbanging, aka committing criminal activity, for the Bloods. He spent a total of 10 years in prison.
Roberts' father, Pastor George Roberts, described his son's past: “When Terrence was ‘Showbiz,’ Terrence was a for-real character. He was scandalous. He put in a whole lot of work."
“I haven’t been arrested 50 times, but quite a few," Terrence Roberts added. "For weapons cases, fighting, gang violence, shootings, whatever."
While serving time for a weapons charge in 2004, Roberts began reading the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and Jesus Christ.
“The same way I fell in love with gangster rap and wanting to be a Blood in '89 and '90, I started falling in love. I couldn’t wait to get locked in my cell so I could read the Bible,” he said with a smile.
When Roberts was released from prison, he had a passion to make a difference, said the Rev. Leon Kelly, an anti-gang activist and onetime-mentor of Roberts.
In 2005, Roberts became a full-blown anti-gang activist and established the nonprofit organization The Prodigal Son Initiative.
“It went from 11 kids to 14 kids to 30 kids, and the next thing you know, me, by myself, I have 60 kids stuffed into classrooms,” Roberts said.
He built basketball courts and fought for a Boys and Girls Club in Park Hill. His work with kids and his Heal the Hood rallies received praise from the mayor, the governor and quite a few fat-pocketed donors.
Roberts was on top of the world, but current gang members don’t always love the moves and message of the reformed.
Tension turned to bloodshed at Roberts' own peace rally in 2013.
Hasan Jones, a 23-year-old Blood, was among the crowd that started gathering for the rally that Friday evening in September.
“I had been beefing with Hassan all that day,” Roberts said.
“I asked him [Hasan] ‘Are you going to [expletive] me up?’ and he said ‘Yeah, we’ll be over there in a minute ‘on Bloods.’ So, when he said that, I have my gun in my truck, and we were standing there, I thought we were just gonna -- cause there were like, 30 or 40 people."
Terrance walked through the moments before the shooting.
“They tried to collapse on me, and that’s when I upped my pistol and shot in their direction to defend myself," he said.
Two of five bullets paralyzed Jones, and Roberts found himself facing a life sentence.
“My intentions were not to have to fire my gun. I didn't even have it on me. I had it in my truck, like 40 yards away. I didn’t think they were going to attack me at my peace rally," he said. "I was carrying my gun, though, because they were threatening me, and leaving notes, leaving knifes."
Ultimately, a jury believed that Roberts acted in self-defense. Despite his acquittal, eight years later, he’s still answering for those five shots.
“The downfall of what I found with Terrance is that you can’t play both sides of the streets, both sides of the fence,” Kelly said.
“I’ve never seen no Blood and no Crip do what Terrence has done far as marching, as far as bringing peace,” Robert's father, George Roberts, added.
Despite the new book bringing Roberts' name back into the limelight, Northeast Park Hill is still a neighborhood divided on what really went down that night and what really caused the rise and fall of the hood’s hero.
“I want to be a revolutionary. That’s what I care about,” Roberts said. “My intentions have been to just help my people the best I can.”
Roberts has found normalcy after his acquittal. He works as a home inspector and still uses his free time to fight injustice.
He founded the nonprofit group The Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action and has held protests on behalf of Elijah McClain and Alexis Mendez-Perez.
> Below, Julian Rubinstein, author of "The Holly," talks about his book.
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