The potential witnesses, afraid of gang retaliation, kept their silence—until one brave soul emerged from the darkness to speak for our client.
A version of this article first appeared on Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes, a blog by Colleen Collins.
Our investigative team worked this case the old-fashioned way—on foot—as a key witness was afraid for her identity to be traced digitally (email, phone, etc.).
The results helped a defense lawyer obtain a dismissal for his client.
Late One Summer Night…
…a resident in a home near a park called 911 after hearing yelling and fighting (the caller couldn’t see the park itself, as the view was obstructed by other homes). When police arrived at the park, they found three local gang members with knife wounds lying on the ground. The gang members said two rival gang members from another city had stabbed them. One ran away, whereabouts unknown. The other had flagged down a car for a ride and gave the license plate and description of that car.
Police found no weapons on the three gang members—it was later learned that others in their gang had gathered all the weapons and left before the police arrived.
Charge: Felony 3, First-Degree Assault
Police found the described car parked at a home in the neighborhood. The driver admitted he’d given a ride to a young man (whom we’ll call “E”). E had flagged him down and asked for a lift to a friend’s home. The police went to that address and found E, who matched the description given by the stabbed gang members.
Although E claimed self-defense, saying the rival gang had harassed, punched, and threatened him with weaponry, the police charged him with the stabbings, a felony 3, first-degree assault.
Following the code of gang members, E refused to give any information about his fellow gang member who’d run away. (Later we learned this gang member had returned to his car and driven back to the neighboring city that night.)
Goal: Find a Witness
E hired a defense lawyer, for whom we worked as defense investigators at the time. The lawyer informed the court and opposing counsel that our client was claiming self-defense.
Because E refused to identify his fellow gang member, the case lacked an independent corroborating witness. Based on the 911 call, people in the neighborhood had obviously heard the fighting, but no one had yet come forward to say that E had fought in self-defense.
As investigators, we considered driving to the neighboring city and trying to root out this gang-member-witness—yeah, that would have been an easy, fruitful enterprise (not).
Bottom line: we had one weapon, the old “neighborhood canvas,” or knock and talk.
Fear of Gang Retaliation
Problem was, people didn’t want to talk. An elderly man confided that people were unwilling to provide any information because they were afraid of gang retaliation.
Next, we printed posters asking anyone who had seen an incident on [date] and [park name] to call [phone number], and the conversation would remain confidential. Whenever we’ve posted flyers like this, we use a dedicated, virtual phone number, meaning we set up a unique number that rings through to one of our office phones and cannot be traced.
Then we walked up and down the sidewalks of this east Denver gang-infested, lower middle-class neighborhood, sticking our posters on street light poles, the fence around the park, and other public spots.
We didn’t leave any on people’s doors, as we didn’t want any third parties later assuming so-and-so, who had had a flyer on their door, was probably the snitch.
The Clock Was Ticking
Days later, we began to panic. E had to decide on a 5- to 12-year prison-only plea offer in the coming week, and no one had called us.
One late afternoon, we got a call from a coffee shop phone number in a different part of the city. The caller identified herself as a mother who lived near the park, but refused to give her name or any digital means of contacting her (email address, cell phone number, etc.), as she was afraid of being traced. She said she’d seen local gang members threatening and taunting E, who at first had run from them, but after being cornered, fought back in self-defense. She wanted to do the right thing and “help that young man.”
A Secret Night Meeting
She agreed to meet us in the park, at night, and point out where the young men had fought. We arrived at the park one weekday night and waited. An older woman walked toward us from a corner of the park.
In the shadows, she pointed out where she’d seen E running from the others, and where E had ended up with his back to a fence. We gave her our lawyer’s card and asked her to call him, promising that the lawyer would protect her identity by sealing her statement in the court file.
D.A. Reviews Investigative Report
With a reliable, independent witness supporting E’s story, the defense lawyer took our interview and case report to the prosecution, who agreed to dismiss the charges against E.
About the author:
Colleen Collins is a private investigator, award-winning author, and co-writer of the blog Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes. She owns North Denver Investigations in Denver, Colorado. She and her sleuth-husband’s nonfiction book, How to Write a Dick: a Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths, is available here.