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Metro Denver's youth violence: Teen gun deaths 'normalized' amid persistent shootings

Gazette - 3/27/2023

Mar. 26—Trouble arrived on a cold Sunday morning in early February, a Snapchat text on the boy's phone — "WTM?"

What's the moves? A summons to the streets from his crew.

Elias Armstrong found his stepmom in the laundry room separating loads of T-shirts and jeans, gave her a hug and in the slam of a door he was gone.

Hours later, the slightly built sixth grader took his last breath on a Denver sidewalk in the arms of a stranger out walking his dog. The irate owner of the shiny black Audi Elias and his friends had allegedly stolen caught up with them, shooting through the window of his own car.

The others spilled out and fled. Elias, 12 years old, at 74 pounds and barely tall enough to see over the dash, somehow backed away and drove another two blocks.

Four months prior, Torrence Lamar "Tiger" McCall's 16 years ended when he crashed a stolen white Hyundai into a median at West 92nd Avenue and Eaton Street during a police chase. Westminster police bodycam video showed an officer approaching the vehicle and opening the driver's door.

Torrence fell out limply, an angry red wound on the back of his head. "Hey, hey bro. Bro, wake up!" the officer called, tapping the dying boy's shoulder. Then, over his radio, he said, "I think he shot himself in the head."

Elias Armstrong and Torrence McCall were stepbrothers, members of the same household.

"We're so shook up over the loss of our sons," said Turquisha Moore Armstrong, Torrence's mom, Elias' stepmom. "This world has turned so cruel and so crooked it makes you not want to be here every day. We lost the boys we were raising to be men."

Families don't always win an uphill tug-of-war with gangs and other street groups, their allure, flash and money.


Youth violence persistent, deadly

While youth crime in general has declined in recent years in Colorado, according to state statistics, violence involving juveniles — as perpetrators, as victims and sometimes both — has stubbornly persisted, particularly in parts of metro Denver, including most acutely in Adams County.

Arrests for juveniles statewide for nonviolent offenses plunged over the past decade. The rate of property crime arrests of juveniles in Colorado is less than half what it was a decade ago, when roughly 50 juveniles in 100,000 residents in the state faced arrests for such crimes.

In contrast, violent crime arrests of juveniles rose to a new 14-year high during the third quarter of 2021, when roughly 15 juveniles in 100,000 Coloradans were arrested for crimes of violence. Though that spike subsided and reversed last year, the rate of juvenile arrests for crimes of violence statewide remained higher than a decade ago.

Of counties in Colorado with more than 100,000 residents, Denver had the second-highest rate of juvenile violent crime arrests in 2021, trailing only Adams County.

The ongoing persistent rates of violent juvenile crimes in Colorado are producing clashes at the Legislature over the best way to handle juveniles engaged in criminal activity.

Just last week, lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill, which has drawn opposition from the Colorado Association for the Chiefs of Police and the Colorado Sheriffs of Colorado, to raise the age at which juveniles could be charged with criminal offenses in Colorado.

Under House Bill 23-1249, anyone up to 13 years old couldn't be charged with any crime except murder. Police could take children ages 10-12 into custody, but only temporarily, then refer them to local treatment programs. Under current law, children under 10 can't be charged with crimes.

Gunfire with young people pulling the trigger has been so constant that at times it has seemed omnipresent in parts of metro Denver. A sampling of cases:

— Wednesday, a 17-year-old student with a history of gun violence shot two deans at East High School as they were patting him down before class, police alleged. Austin Lyle fled in a red Volvo, which was found abandoned around 50 miles from Denver near Bailey in Park County. After a four-hour search, SWAT teams found his body not far away. The two school administrators were expected to recover, but the shooting was the latest for East in a what has been a traumatic year of violent incidents for students, parents and teachers.

— The day before Valentine's Day, 16-year-old Luis Garcia, a popular East High School soccer player, was shot after class and rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Garcia's family said he was planning a birthday party while sitting in his car along Esplanade, not far from East High's front door. His family took him off life support March 1.

— Last Aug. 8, two days before his 15th birthday, Jozias "Jojo" Aragon was found shot in the back, stabbed and stomped on in one of the most vicious murders that even seasoned homicide detectives had seen. His body was found by a mother pushing her baby's stroller near a baseball diamond behind Southwest Denver Recreation Center. A 17-year-old was arrested and is being charged as an adult in Aragon's death.

— Less than 18 months ago, 16 youth were shot in four separate Aurora incidents within 20 days. Two died. Among those wounded, six were shot near Aurora Central High School and three more were shot near Hinkley High School just as a community rally for calm was about to start.

Last year, Denver police arrested 12 juveniles for murder, when they logged only one such arrest in 2012. They reported that 14 juveniles were murdered last year, up from the one juvenile murdered in 2012.

Statewide, the percentage of aggravated assaults in the state involving juveniles armed with a firearm has risen steadily. In 2017, 27% of those aggravated assault arrests of juveniles involved a firearm. By 2021, that percentage had increased to 44%.

That's particularly so in Denver, where 74% of the 246 juvenile aggravated assault arrests logged in 2021 involved the use of a firearm. In Douglas County, that rate was far lower, with just 13% of the 46 arrests for such a crime in the county involving a firearm.

Child advocates contend that generations of trauma combined with poverty, abuse, being witnesses to abuse, addictions issues and migration trauma can all contribute to problems thrown on kids who are often not equipped to handle them.

Nicole Duncan, youth policy counsel for the ACLU and also a practicing youth defense attorney, is not deaf to the plight of victims. But she insists that if kids' needs were met, they'd be much less likely to commit crimes.


"I am not saying that victims don't matter. I'm not saying that harm is not being done. What I'm saying is we have to look at the bigger picture because kids don't get these ideas on their own. There are kids who have been roped into the system who are not getting their mental health needs met," said Duncan.


"Mostly they are dealing with things completely out of their control, and don't have the supports in place to deal with it," said Duncan.

She points to numbers from Colorado judicial that show overall youth arrests are down 25%-30% since 2012. "There is no crime wave," insists Duncan.

Tell that to the victims, said Jessica Dotter, the sexual assault resource prosecutor with the Colorado District Attorneys' Council.


"Victims already feel like the system is not built for them," she said.


"It shocked me that the youth population has been committing violent crimes and sexual crimes steadily over the last ten years. You see decreases in certain areas in certain years when some areas drop ... but we're not at a low," said Dotter. "These juvenile violent offenders are not simple shoplifters."

She said more lenient sentences on youth who commit crimes of violence sends a systemic message to victims that their pain is of less value than the rehabilitation of the offender who hurt them.

Additionally, older gang leaders have figured out that state laws protect young offenders from adult-length sentences, Dotter said. They recruit them to do their dirty work.

"Gangs are much more sophisticated than they're given credit for. DAs are concerned about how gang members change their strategies as the law changes."

Under Colorado law, teenage killers and robbers who are convicted in juvenile court spend at the most five to seven years locked up, depending on their age and the crime. Teens who are tried in adult court could start in youth services and then be transferred to adult prison to serve a longer sentence.

Turquisha Moore Armstrong compares gangs to a religious cult, one that successfully recruited her sons.

"Grown men in these gangs are picking out our young kids because they know they're juveniles," the 39-year-old mother of eight said.


"They had a hold on my boys. Was it the money? The clothes? The shoes? I was raised to save money. I ask you, what else could they give them besides a jail cell?"



'Little dolls all dressed up'

The Pipkin Braswell Funeral Home on East Colfax Avenue with its columned entrance and manicured lawn has been a solemn sanctuary for Denver's Black community for generations.

When a family makes that difficult final request, the staff refers to it as the "death call."

Pipkin family service manager, Tori Watts, is often the person who picks up the phone.

"When I got the first death call on Torrence last October, I saw that his mother had a unique first name," Watts said. "When the second one came in four months later, I thought, 'This can't be her again.'"

The day Moore Armstrong arrived to go over arrangements for 12-year-old Elias, Watts felt her stomach turn. "I said to her, 'Not again,'" said Watts. "She shook her head. She just shook her head."

Watts, an East High School graduate, grew up with a dad who knew how to unite a community. Big Al Richardson was a force behind starting the Juneteenth celebration in the metro area in 1966.

Watts has said not even Denver's notorious "Summer of Violence" in 1993 compares to the youth death she is seeing now.

"Back in the day, seeing young people die and end up here was a shock but now we frequently see 12 — to 18-year-olds. It's become normalized," Watts told The Denver Gazette. Her most recent young client was an 18-year-old whose girlfriend shot him in the neck.

Dressed this day in black, with close-cropped hair and a Daffy Duck tattoo on her shoulder, Watts can serve as Pipkin's enforcer.

Though she considers it an honor to take families through their final hours with a loved one, it's getting to the point where she often calls Denver police to watch the mortuary during funerals where people, including the young, often bring guns and drink in the parking lot with emotions running high.


"It's not just gangs, it's youth violence, period. I ask them, 'Where are you getting guns at 11 and 12 years old? Who's giving these guns to you?'" she said.


Watts measures the increasing number of youths who have been killed by violence by the number of small coffins she orders.

"They look like little dolls all dressed up," she said.

Elias Armstrong's coffin was 4 feet long.


The Rev

The Rev. Leon Kelly, a few months shy of a hard-worn 70, has seen too many weary mothers lose their children to gangs.

He is a huge but gentle presence at 6 foot, 7 inches and 215 pounds with shoulder-length braids who still heads up the nonprofit "Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives" he started in the mid-1980s. It is the state's oldest anti-gang program.

"Back in the day in the '80s and '90s, the average age of kids who were caught up in the gang influence and were dying as a result were 17 to 24 years old. I started to see a trend change around the year 2000. Now it's 10-, 12-, 14- and 16-year-olds," said Kelly.

Second grade is not too young to plant better ideas.

A child in camouflage pants and matching shoes seems to be buying Kelly's spiel about dignity and respect in a classroom at Wyatt Academy, a DPS charter school in the heart of Five Points. A second boy sits back with his arms crossed like a kid CEO.

Here, twice a week, Kelly lectures about the consequences of bad behavior.

"I tell these kids they're sitting in the same chairs where their parents sat," he said. In 41 years, he's reached some, but he's lost more. "I feel like Moses in the latter years steering these kids from the wilderness across the bridge into the promised land."

On good days, Kelly fishes dollars out of his pocket for a small anxious palm and there are always snacks served classroom-style on a tiny desk. Magic-markered words on a dry board say "self-control," "manners," and "focus."

Neither Torrence nor Elias was in Open Door, but their stories are a recurring blueprint. "The parents feel they are at their wit's end," said Kelly.


"With Elias, what happened was all of these older guys flash a $20 bill. Maybe give him $50. And there he is the smallest one. That money is half of his mother's entire shift at the 7-Eleven."



The devil's playground

His nickname was Tiger, but his mother called him "hermit crab" because Torrence McCall preferred to stay in the comfort of his shell. But something changed in his 15th year, said Turquisha Moore Armstrong. It started with smoking and hanging out at Fuller Park just north of Manual High School, a place she called "the devil's playground." He was caught as a passenger in a stolen car, then there was an assault charge fending for Elias in a street fight.

"He saw me struggle to pay my bills," said Moore Armstrong, who was working overnight shifts at a 7-Eleven. She had her son filling out applications at Safeway and at another market up the street.

One day, after two of his friends died, she told him she feared he could be headed to an early death if he didn't change his ways and wanted to know how he wanted her to memorialize him.

"He said, 'Mom, I want to be cremated,'" she recalled. "I'm like breathing. 'Like do you understand what you're saying?' And he's like, 'I want to be cremated. I want you guys to take me and put me places. I want you guys to have a piece of me wherever.'"

In the months before he died, Torrence looked like he might make it. He was active in a group called Seeing Our Adolescents Rise, or S.O.A.R., a nonprofit which introduces at-risk youth to new experiences. Family photos show him riding a horse, tapping on bongos, learning to play the piano. "I'm fixin' to scat," he said in a video, and he blasts a dented trumpet Moore Armstrong managed to scrounge from someone.

The two of them even went hiking and she signed up to sled in the mountains, but he didn't live to see that day.

As his junior year in high school beckoned, a therapist, a probation officer, a Guardian ad Litem, Torrence and Moore Armstrong discussed his future on a Zoom call.

Moore Armstrong felt he was making the turn away from the gang lifestyle, but feared Elias was doing the opposite.

Hours before he took a fatal gamble to allegedly participate in a multicar heist, his mother said Torrence was sliding across the wood floor in his socks and boxer shorts, acting like Tom Cruise.


Decline of hope

Last fall was a tumultuous time for the household. In September, Elias was shot in the leg and his biological mother died of a fentanyl overdose. When Torrence died a month later, Moore Armstrong noticed Elias becoming increasingly angry. She told her husband, T.C. Armstrong, to rein him in. Perhaps a move to Florida where they have relatives would distract him.


"He needed a new environment. I was done. I told T.C., 'If you lose your son, I cannot help you grieve! I'm still grieving mine,'" she said.


By December, Elias was being featured on an Instagram account for a man whose profile name is "Zilla." Elias is shown with slicked-back hair flashing gang signs and happily showing off $20 bills splayed out like a fan in his hands. In another photo, he was hunched over a schoolroom desk, concentrating on classwork. A video showed him lighting up a blunt, the smoke flowing in a tendril from his mouth to his nose.

Elias Armstrong was living a double life.

In one, he was a romantic 12-year-old, buying a Valentine teddy bear shaped from blue roses for a girl he had a crush on. In the other, he was known as Lil'38, flown to Houston, where someone, Moore Armstrong believes it was Zilla, bought him a gold grill for a mouthful of teeth which were just this side of permanent.

Days after his death, two balloon releases in his honor bared his double existence. The first was held in the daytime and attended by his tearful and confused Daddy Bruce Randolph School classmates.

The other was held after dark in a random field. On footage from a home video on Zilla's Instagram, the crack of liquor bottles being broken and poured out can be heard in the background along with murmured goodbyes as purple and silver balloons drifted into the night sky.


Between hell and hallowed ground

Elias' two worlds collided at his funeral Feb. 24, which was held in the Pipkin Braswell chapel. Family prayed and cried in the same room with his friends they disapproved, and blamed for surrounding Elias with drugs, guns and easy money.

Pipkin's Tori Watts said emotions started boiling when people used their two-minute eulogies to start pointing fingers. Zilla was asked to leave as were dozens of kids who were making a commotion in the hall.

"They had guns in their pockets and ants in their pants," said Watts. "We had to finally tell them that if they weren't going to be respectful, they had to leave."

As a result, she said, the kids spilled into the parking lot and started drinking.

Pastor Frank Jones started his sermon with a roar. "STOP! STOP! STOP THE SENSELESS KILLING!" he yelled in hopes that his voice would reach the ones who needed it the most, but they were already "making a mass exodus" from the chapel. "They did not want to hear it," said Jones.

Some funerals are a celebration of life, he said, but "this one came with despair, disappointment and regret. You could cut the tension and the tears with a knife."

Elias' family owned the last word. Pallbearers escorted his casket through a side door to the waiting hearse.


A mother scorned

Torrence and Elias shared a tiny room in the apartment of a balconied, modern public housing building at the intersection of a dusty dog park and a shopping center where the homeless and emergency medical personnel are on a first name basis.

Moore Armstrong is not blind to the nasty comments being made about her on social media. She's been scolded by neighbors and family for the deaths of her two sons. She feels the scorn.

"I understand the outside looking in," she said. "But I was the one there for the court dates, the phone calls, the meetings. Don't come for me."

She vows to move her remaining family from the east Denver complex. "This is just four walls anymore. It's not my home."

Fumes from a spilled bleach bucket stung her already tear-swollen eyes as she cleaned out the boys' room, empty but for a keyboard, an old stool and a dresser.

A blue ribbon from a friend's memorial was still tacked to the wall. Torrence and 14-year-old Aerris Mayberry loved to tease each other. She was shot and killed last spring.

Christopher Osher contributed to this report.


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