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Greeley grapples with gang violence

Published June 7, 2007 at midnight

GREELEY — They might look like blue jeans and a white T-shirt to anyone else. But for Adolfo "Li’l Grim" Rodriguez, they are an essential part of his daily uniform.

His expletive-laced speech, defiant attitude and the blue bandana that usually hangs from his back pocket define who he is and what he says he represents.

The 19-year-old says he has been a member of a Latino street gang for the past eight years.

In that time, Rodriguez has survived a bullet and spent months in juvenile detention and the county jail. He proudly admits he’s a gang member in Greeley.

He was "jumped" in, he says, by other gang members and began "flying a rag" from his back pocket while he was still in elementary school. Suddenly, the codes of the street were as important, or more, than spelling and long division.

Talk gang violence, and many people think of larger cities, such as Denver and Aurora.

But authorities say violence and the lure of street gangs don’t just happen in urban centers. Rural communities, like Greeley, are grappling with them, as well. And in turn, so are the small towns that border them.

Along Greeley’s southern boundary, the town of Evans, population 19,000, worries about the effects of gangs spilling over.

"They don’t know the difference between Evans and Greeley," Evans police Lt. Gary Kessler said. "Gang members don’t care about jurisdictions."

The problems in Evans are still pretty limited. Sgt. Tracy Moore estimated there were fewer than 50 gang incidents last year. Fewer than a dozen constituted major crimes.

Nonetheless, there are concerns — and the need, police say, for continual communication.

"The same people we deal with are the same people (Greeley) deals with," Moore said. "We don’t want to be redundant."

Three years after a particularly troubling rash of violent gang-related crimes, Greeley officials are optimistic they’ve got their problems under control.

"We would admit that we have a gang presence that most cities do," said Police Chief Jerry Garner. "That’s just kind of a fact of life today."

Garner and Greeley Mayor Tom Selders insist their community is safe. Violent crime statistics for 2006 show a marked downward trend. Murders, armed robberies, burglaries, and thefts were all down, in percentages ranging from 17 to 44 percent. Rape was the only crime that went up.

Gang-related violence, including homicides, aggravated assaults and burglaries, decreased by more than half, from an all-time high of 44 in 2004 to 17 in 2006, police say.

Nonetheless, some officers and community leaders say there is little room to celebrate.

"I don’t think we are on a downward trend," said Ed Clark, a recently retired gang unit detective. "I think we are managing a problem right now. The only reason we are making those strides is because we are putting more resources into the gang unit."

Since 2004, nine of Greeley’s 11 homicides have been linked to gangs, according to police.

The city’s gang unit has tracked more than 500 gang members within the city limits. To make the list, a member has to be associated with a known street gang and linked to a specific crime.

Greeley has roughly one gang member for every 175 people, while Denver’s ratio — with 8,811 gang members — is one for every 63 people.

The two biggest gangs in Greeley are Hispanic. Police say most of the members are U.S. citizens.

In December, Greeley turned to the feds for help.

The police gang unit painted a violent, but what they say was realistic, picture of the city’s problem in a federal grant application.

The request for more than $127,000 would have been used to hire a full-time investigator. The grant was later denied because of rules against funding for full-time employees.

According to the application, Greeley experienced a "tremendous surge" in gang violence in 2004, when each of the city’s six homicides were gang related and 26 people were shot.

Gang violence declined slightly in 2005. But in early December last year, as Lt. Brad Goldschmidt was preparing the grant request, his officers found themselves in the line of fire of a known gang member.

Officers exchanged bullets with the man, who was wanted in an attempted homicide. Police killed him after he ran, broke into an apartment in Evans and briefly held a woman hostage.

"We are not going to stop this phenomenon," cop-turned-activist Clark said. "We are managing the problem, but we don’t have the resources to win."

Flashing blue and red lights dance on the walls of the buildings near Ninth Street and 16th Avenue where Sgt. Mike Pfeiler pulls over a carload of teens.

It’s 9:40 p.m. on a recent Friday and the four people in the car — including Adolfo Rodriguez — are heading out for the night.

The light used to illuminate the back license plate isn’t working. The violation is enough for a stop.

Sgt. Keith Olson smells marijuana on one of the teen’s breath and asks him to step out of the car.

The bald teen, with a cigarette tucked behind one ear, fails to produce an ID card.

Police ask him to lift his shirt. Officers look at the intricate tattoos that cover his back and chest and realize they know who he is. They tell him to take a seat on the curb.

One by one, the remaining three step out, hands on their heads, to be frisked.

As soon as Rodriguez is pulled from the back seat, he begins flashing gang signs.

Rodriguez watches as his 14-year-old friend, the last one to leave the car, is patted down. Officers find marijuana rolled up in a plastic bag inside his shoe.

"I was younger than him when I got in," Rodriguez says.

Last summer, Rodriguez was shot with a .22-caliber gun during a drive-by while standing in a parking lot, just blocks from where he sits on the curb this night.

Proudly, he lifts his T-shirt to show the dime-sized dark brown scars where the bullet entered his abdomen and exited his back.

"It didn’t scare me," boasts Rodriguez. "I’m in this s--- ‘til I die."

Unlike most of his gangster "homeboys," his arms, chest and back are free from tattoos.

"I’m saving that s--- for the ‘pen,' " Rodriguez says.

Jail is where he earned his high school diploma and contemplated going to college, but it’s too late now, he says.

His mother has begged him to quit gang life, but her warnings go unheeded.

"They tell me not to do it because it’s going to get me killed," Rodriguez says. "But it’s my choice."

Greeley officials say the solution lies in a combination of strategies.

After the violence of 2004, police, city officials and the Weld County District Attorney’s Office took a stand.

The police added five members to its then two-man gang unit, while the mayor pumped tax dollars into after-school and city recreation programs. Meanwhile, newly elected DA Ken Buck made it his goal to aggressively sentence violent and habitual criminals.

"Our No. 1 goal was concentrating our enforcement against career criminals. When they commit a crime, put them in jail. And when they get out and commit another crime, put them in jail," Garner said. "There’s no better crime prevention in the world than having your worst offenders behind bars."

Lt. Goldschmidt said adding members to his unit has been effective, as well.

"We are seeing significant headway in enforcement," he said.

As summer weather approaches, however, violence is inevitable, Clark said.

"You get more people out at night and there is more opportunity," Clark said.

He advocates stepped up community involvement, including programs like the Neighborhood Building Blocks, a grass roots organization he helped create.

"If we don’t help these families raise their children, one day I’m going to, or someone else is going to, pay a price," Clark said.

Greeley homicides

Year Total Gang-related Percent
2007 1 0 0
2006 2 1 50
2005 2 2 100
2004 6 6 100
2003 2 0 0
2002 1 1 100
2001 4 2 50
2000 1 0 0
1999 2 0 0

Source: Colorado Bureau of Investigation and Greeley Police Department

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