COLORADO SPRINGS — Gunfire erupted without warning – a burst of rifle shots from a vehicle just 10 or 15 feet away that left two people crumpled on the sidewalk, bleeding and dying.
It was 10:51 p.m. on a Friday in June 2008, and the first sound the emergency operator heard was a scream, followed by the distraught, wrenching words of Nataly Cervantes, who’d dialed 911 seconds after the shooting.
“Please, hurry up,” she sobbed into the phone, haltingly. “Somebody shot my sister and my boyfriend. Please, hurry up.”
The woman’s sister and boyfriend had stopped on a street corner to tape up a homemade yard sale sign when they were cut down by an Iraq war veteran who derived a perverse thrill from shooting total strangers. The case would grab headlines for months, one of a series of violent crimes tied to soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Carson.
The night would add to the toll of tragedy in Colorado’s deadliest neighborhood, a southeastern Colorado Springs area of 1960s tract houses, apartment complexes and four public schools – where postcard-perfect views of Pikes Peak frame the skyline to the northwest, and where gunfire and death are an intractable reality of life.
The area is known to the federal government as Census Tract 54.00, one of 1,249 geographically distinct districts in the state. And over the 12 years bookended by the mass shooting tragedies of Columbine and Aurora, 24 of its residents died of gunshot wounds, an I-News analysis of health and census data found.
That’s more gun death victims during that span than in any other census district in Colorado.
Denver had two census tract neighborhoods, both in Montbello, with an equal number of gun homicides and Grand Junction had three tracts with more gun suicides.
In Colorado, as elsewhere, the debate roils over gun laws, fueled by mass shootings so indiscriminate they have come to define random violence in America, so ubiquitous they have come to be known by a single name. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Newtown. But the truth is the horrific events of Columbine and Aurora represent a tiny fraction of what is, week-in and week-out in Colorado, an unremitting loss of life involving guns: 6,258 deaths during the 12 years from 2000 through 2011, more than three-quarters of them suicides, about one in five homicides.
That’s 10 gun deaths a week – every week – during that span.
In Census Tract 54.00, it was 12 homicides, 12 suicides. All of the victims residents of the census tract that makes up part of a neighborhood known as Pikes Peak Park – a place where 5,615 people live, where the median household income was a $29,313 in 2010, where nearly 44 percent of children live in poverty, where nearly one-third of the single-family homes are rentals. It’s a reality that is no surprise to the men and women who live in the neighborhood, to the teachers who see children touched by violence, to the police officers who patrol the streets or the prosecutors who take the cases to juries.
“We all knew when you got called to a murder, generally you started to that area of town unless you were told otherwise,” said former prosecutor Diana K. May, who spent 17 years in the District Attorney’s Office, the last six supervising the homicide team, and who took the case against the Fort Carson soldier to a jury.
The loss of life here is a mosaic that emerges from thousands of pages police and court and coroner’s documents, from property records and census reports, from the recollections of those who have heard the unmistakable pop of gunfire.
A father who shot his teen-age son in the head while trying to show him how to safely handle a gun. A gangland shooting. A jealous former boyfriend who fired blindly through a door, killing a woman he had dated. Four headline-grabbing domestic violence murder-suicides. The suicide of a man with a long history of depression, and another of man whose death stunned his family. And that utterly random shooting carried out by the U.S. Army soldier.
“It is a public health issue,” said state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and the mother of a son taken by gunfire. “We pay for it in the end. Society – we pay for the medical treatment, the loss of productivity. It’s a ripple effect. When someone gets murdered or harmed by gun violence, it affects the family, it affects the community, it affects the neighborhood – not just that one person.”
It was heralded as the perfectly-planned neighborhood, an oasis of affordable homes – every yard sodded with Kentucky bluegrass, every loan closed for $99.
It was the mid-1960s, and Pikes Peak Park, a series of developments in the then-growing southern edge of Colorado Springs, was taking root. A March 31, 1966, story in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph fawned over the vision for the future espoused by developers: “The new neighborhoods were developed as part of Pikes Peak Park’s planned growth pattern, which is designed to avoid the pitfalls of haphazard expansion, a problem frequently encountered by home developments that are allowed to grow without a careful plan for the future.”
Nearly a half-century after the first shovel went into the ground, the heart of Pikes Peak Park – Census Tract 54.00 – is a place where those grand visions have crashed into a hard reality.
Drive south on Chelton Road and turn right onto Verde Drive. Climb the hill along the northwest edge of Census Tract 54.00, and Pikes Peak comes into view, snow-dusted against a crystalline blue sky. But up on the hill beyond Van Diest Park, along Kodiak Drive, a struggle is playing out among some of the first homes built in Pikes Peak Park. Many are well-kept, their paint fresh, their lawns mowed and weed-free. But in other yards, the Kentucky bluegrass is long gone, and junk piles – and in some cases broken down autos – litter side yards. On one home along Whitewood Drive, an old layer of red paint shows through the splotchy purple top coat, and weeds have overtaken the yard. Along Carmel Drive, old appliances sit rusting in a front yard.
Those changes, visible to longtime residents and obvious to anyone who drives through the neighborhood, can be similarly traced in five decades of census data.
Take family income. In 1970, average family income in that area was the equivalent of $66,237 today. In 1980, the U.S. Census Bureau began measuring median family income, a statistic that some economists believe is a better gauge of the standard of living. That year, it stood at $40,010, and it has tumbled every decade since then – to $29,313 in 2010.
The overall percentage of families living in poverty has ballooned, from 4.7 percent in 1970 to 20.6 percent in 2010. And the percentage of children living in poverty, measured at 8.6 percent in 1970, stood at 43.6 percent in 2010.
The I-News investigation of Colorado’s shooting deaths found a strong relationship between poverty and firearms homicides – and no discernible link between being poor and gun suicides.
For example, the average poverty rate in 656 census tracts that had no gun homicides stood at 10 percent. But it jumped to nearly 16 percent in the neighborhoods with at least one gun homicide, to almost 22 percent in neighborhoods with at least three, and to 24 percent in areas with at least four.
But when it came to suicides, the picture was vastly different.
The average poverty rate was 12.7 percent in neighborhoods with no gun suicides, and up to and including those with four or more.
By those two measures, Census Tract 54.00 is an anomaly – the number of gun homicides paralleled the state trend while the number of gun suicides bucked it.
On a Saturday in February 2002, a man named Pablo Santiago, a 34-year-old father of three, stopped at a Colorado Springs pawn shop, where he bought a .357-caliber magnum revolver. Later in the day, he went to a gun shop in the southeast part of the city and purchased a box of ammunition.
That evening, inside the family’s rental home in Census Tract 54.00, Santiago took his three children – ages 10, 12 and 13 – into a bedroom and showed them the revolver. He later told a police investigator that he was trying to teach the youngsters how to safely handle a gun, allowing each of them to hold and dry fire the weapon.
Then, after one of his sons asked him if he had any bullets, Santiago opened a box of ammunition and loaded the gun.
Later, he told an investigator, he took the gun, which he believed he had emptied, and pointed it at his son Jeremiah, 13, who stood about three feet away. The gun went off, hitting Jeremiah in the face and killing him.
In the eyes of the law, the shooting was a homicide – defined as the taking of a human life, whether intentional or not, by another person. In Colorado, county coroners are charged with determining the “cause” and “manner” of each death they investigate. Cause can be open ended – in this case, the cause was a gunshot wound to the head. But when it comes to manner, coroners have only five options: Homicide, suicide, natural causes, accident, or undetermined.
The data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to I-News detailed the manner of death for each of the more than 6,200 people who died of gunshot wounds from 2000 through 2011 and it included the census tract where each victim lived.
Because death certificates are not public under Colorado law, the data did not identify any of the victims. I-News was able to identify many victims using criminal justice and coroner’s records, including data provided by the Colorado Springs Police Department, as well as news reports and interviews with people in the neighborhood. I-News relied on public records, such as property deeds and police and court documents, to determine the home address of victims.
And while it is true that several of those who lived inside the area died elsewhere, it is also true that multiple people who lived elsewhere died within the confines of Census Tract 54.00.
Jeremiah Santiago’s death was one of the 12 homicide deaths of residents of Census Tract 54.00 between 2000 and 2011. Pablo Santiago pleaded guilty to a charge of child abuse causing death and was sentenced to three years in the state prison system.
The boy’s death illustrated another reality in Census Tract 54.00 – and many other places: There is no single profile that explains a large percentage of the killings.
“Some of them, they are domestic related and they are very personal, to the very random or motivated through drugs or through property crimes or through any number of things,” said Colorado Springs police Cmdr. Kirk Wilson, who oversees the Sand Creek Division, which includes Census Tract 54.00.
Take the Feb. 28, 2004, murder of Leslie Brown, a young woman with a small child who was shot to death through the door of her apartment along Hancock Expressway.
According to court documents, she arrived home early that morning, meeting a friend in the parking lot. When the man arrived at her apartment, he later told police, Brown was on the phone with a former boyfriend, who was upset that she had company.
Later, she fell asleep, and her friend was watching television about 4:30 a.m. when there was a knock at the apartment door. Brown awakened and walked to the door, but before she could open it two men on the other side opened fire, according to court documents.
Brown’s visitor, who was standing in the nearby kitchen, watched as she stumbled backward and fell to the floor.
He heard someone on the other side of the door say, “Yeah.” And he heard laughing.
Alfonzo Scott, Brown’s former boyfriend, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. A second man accused of firing into the door, Samuel Phillips, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is serving a 20-year prison term. A teen-ager who accompanied the two of them to Brown’s apartment pleaded guilty to being an accessory to a murder and agreed to testify. He was sentenced to six years in the Youthful Offender System. And a woman who bought the bullets used in the shooting also pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder and was sentenced to six years in a community corrections program.
“The murder itself was shocking – to know that she was gone,” said Brown’s sister, Joy Kelly-Blackwell.
The sisters grew up on the south side of Colorado Springs in a chaotic household, the daughters of a drug-addicted mother and different fathers, separated by more than nine years. After their mother’s death – which occurred when Brown was 15 – Kelly-Blackwell took custody of her younger sister for a time.
Today, she has Brown’s ashes at her home in Connecticut – and she has a sober view of life in neighborhoods like Census Tract 54.00.
“Where there’s poverty, there’s drugs – drugs and alcohol,” she said. “Where there’s drugs and alcohol, there will be guns. Therefore there will be crime.”
One thing that tears at a neighborhood is the loss of a sense of “community” – the perception of belonging to a place that fuels pride in the surroundings among residents.
This section of Pikes Peak Park faces challenges across those fronts.
An I-News examination of property records found that of the 1,181 single-family homes in Census Tract 54.00, 29 percent are rentals. Add to that the 772 apartment units in the tract and another 131 townhome and condominium units – many of them rentals – and you have a huge swath of housing that, by its very nature, is marked by transience.
Katherine Giuffre, chair of the sociology department at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, knows first-hand about the affect of transience in a neighborhood – she lives next door to a rental home, where people come and go almost as often as the seasons. She seldom gets to know their names and said she would probably not notice if a burglar backed up a moving van and cleaned out the house.
“After 17 years of people sticking around for three months or four months,” Guiffre said, “I’m not baking a banana bread and going over there.”
In Census Tract 54.00, many of the single-family homes are separated by 6-foot cedar fences and often have little more than stoops out front. They were not designed for front porch socializing. The same is true of many of the apartments. Take the Whitney Young Manor apartments, a 200-unit complex along Delta Drive built in the early 1970s as housing for Fort Carson soldiers – and the scene of two double-murders in the past 12 years. No porches, just stoops. No balconies. No screen doors to invite interaction among neighbors.
As for other potential sites for neighborly mingling, much of the shopping is at large chain stores on the other side of Sand Creek. Walking there means using busy streets.
There are certainly walk-able sidewalks in most areas and there are nice parks in the tract – including the Leon Young Sports Complex, which includes 8 baseball fields. But even some of those who use the parks said they do so warily.
In a sign of the evolving understanding of the issues that drive things like the number of gun deaths in a particular neighborhood, the Colorado Springs Police Department has adopted some new strategies that don’t fit the traditional definition of “law enforcement” – but that are aimed, nonetheless, at attacking crime.
The north edge of Census Tract 54.00, along Fountain Boulevard near Chelton Road, is home to multiple apartment complexes. More are located to the north and west, in other census tracts.
“I think the biggest challenges are you have so many apartment complexes condensed into such a small area, that gives you a more transient population and, unfortunately, sometimes that attracts some more criminal activity than you might see in other areas where you don’t have such a high density of population,” said Cmdr. Wilson.
In response, he has assembled a team of officers whose emphasis is in those apartment complexes and who are working to build an alliance among owners and managers in an effort to help rebuild a sense of community among residents. Officers who respond to a complaint, for example, sometimes decide that a talking-to is the best course of action, rather than a ticket, for something like a noise complaint. They are also detailing each situation with the apartment manager, in hopes that the manager might influence tenants to stop engaging in behaviors that lead to conflicts.
At the same time, they’re trying to build a partnership among apartment owners and managers that will lead to changes around the complexes – that trash will be cleaned up, that broken lights will be fixed, that residents will be held to a standard.
“I don’t want to put a bad rap on all multi-housing, because it’s not all the same,” Wilson said. “But the bottom line is that you put a dense population in a small geographic area that’s all diverse, you’re going to have problems. I don’t think Colorado Springs or any city’s immune to that kind of issue.”
Four of the shootings between 2000 and 2011 that took the lives of six residents of the census tract and three others who lived elsewhere were domestic murder-suicides.
On Oct. 30, 2002, Keith Warren, 24, left his apartment along Alvarado Drive and headed downtown. He confronted his former fiance, Karri Frazier, 20, with a .45-caliber handgun he’d recently purchased, killing her as she was on the phone with a 911 operator and then taking his own life.
Six weeks later, on Dec. 11, 2002, Larry Francis Jr., 41, stepped out of the Ember Drive home where he lived with his parents and headed next door. He carried a .38-caliber handgun he’d stolen from a friend earlier that day as he entered the home of his former girlfriend, Roberta Arenas, 48, and her new boyfriend, Don Pharr, 42.
Francis shot Arenas and Pharr in a bedroom and wounded another woman in the home before walking outside and killing himself. On July 30, 2005, Charles Banks, 42, shot and killed his estranged wife, Natalee Banks, 28, then ended his own life at his condominium on Lenoso Terrace.
And on May 16, 2011, Gammall Perez, 34, drove away from his home in Census Tract 54.00 and headed to Fountain, where he shot and killed his 2-year-old son and critically wounded his former girlfriend before turning a 9mm handgun on himself.
There were suicides that were never reported in the paper, like the 37-year-old man who walked away from his apartment along Hancock Expressway and shot himself in a field, or the 73-year-old man who killed himself in the garage of his family’s home on Ventura Drive. There was the murder of a 25-year-old man in what family members called a gang dispute.
But perhaps the most senseless of all the deaths of residents of Census Tract 54.00 was that murder, on a Friday night in June 2008, of the two people trying to hang the yard sale sign.
Cesar Ramirez-Ibanez, 21, headed out that evening with his girlfriend, Nataly Cervantes, 24, her young son, and her sister, Mayra Cervantes, 18. The two women planned a yard sale the next day at the home they shared with other family members along Carmel Drive. After taping up several signs in the neighborhood, they made one last stop, at the corner of Carmel and Monterey Drive.
As Nataly Cervantes waited in the car with her son, her sister and boyfriend got out to hang the advertisement on a stop sign pole. Just then, a Chevrolet Tahoe driven by a U.S. Army soldier, Jomar Falu-Vives, pulled up at the intersection.
Falu-Vives opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. Ramirez-Ibanez and Mayra Cervantes died almost instantly. Falu-Vives sped away, back to his apartment on a hill overlooking the area. According to court documents, he stood on his deck and watched as ambulances raced into the neighborhood.
“I love that sound,” he said.
A man who was with Falu-Vives later told investigators it was clear the help was not going to arrive in time.
Falu-Vives would ultimately be convicted of both murders – and of an earlier drive-by shooting that left another Army veteran critically injured. He was sentenced to consecutive life terms for the murders and another 112 years for the earlier drive-by. A fellow soldier in the vehicle with Falu-Vives was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to being an accessory in both cases.
Former prosecutor May uses the word “senseless” to describe the attack.
“I mean, two innocent people out trying to, you know, just live their normal lives.”
Rich Caruth noticed two things shortly after he took a job doing maintenance for one of the apartment complexes in Census Tract 54.00.
The first was that gunshots were common.
The second was that there were lots of kids hanging around with nothing to do, kids who had little supervision at home, who were hungry, who didn’t have to look far to find trouble.
So he launched a program he called “Fighting Back,” funded initially by a small grant from the city and later by funds from the federal government. It used martial arts as a way to get kids off the street, to teach them about discipline and build their self-esteem.
“These children were at war,” Caruth said. “They were at war with other factions. When they’d go outside their house, they had to worry about a drive-by shooting. They had to worry about being robbed and losing their tennis shoes. ”
The food pantry operated by the Christian House of Prayer, a church in a strip mall on the eastern edge of Census Tract 54.00, holds a monthly give-away where needy people can supplement their groceries. Last month, 280 people showed up.
“There’s definitely a great need in this community,” said Allison Tedder, the wife of pastor Charles Tedder. “It’s not just people that are out of work. We get people who need help getting by until the next payday.”
Those are the realities that face the teachers and administrators at the four public schools inside Census Tract 54.00 – Centennial, Monterey and Pikes Peak elementary schools and Carmel Middle School. The 1,657 students who attend those four schools reflect the realities of the census data.
Take the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch – ranging from 81.5 at Carmel to 90.6 at Pikes Peak. The vast majority of those students are eligible for free lunches, which means the family income was no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. In the 2011-’12 school year, that meant total income of $29,055 for a family of four.
Wendy Birhanzel, the principal at Centennial Elementary, said the goal of educators in the area is simple: Remove all the obstacles standing between students and success by making sure that when they arrive at school all they have to worry about is learning. That means making sure they have the essentials, like backpacks and jackets. Sometimes it means holding a conference with a parent at a Wendy’s. Sometimes it means taking up a collection to help a family pay its utility bill, or buying an alarm clock for a student who couldn’t get to school on time because the parents don’t have it together.
They are situated in a neighborhood that has changed dramatically over the decades – it’s more diverse, with Latinos making up the largest percentage of its population, and it’s less educated, with only about 9 percent of its residents holding college degrees, compared to 23 percent in 1970.
And they feel the transience of the neighborhood – at Monterey, for example, only about 42 percent of the students make it through the school year without transferring. Of 100 kids who start kindergarten at Centennial, Birhanzel said three or four would still be at that school by the end of fifth grade.
And though they work hard to make sure the schools are safe – all of the buildings are always locked – they cannot avoid the reality of the neighborhood around them. Earlier this year, the father of a student was shot to death.
“That is reality,” Birhanzel said. “Homicides and shootings are not just happening to people we don’t know.”
Still, she and her counterparts at the other schools believe that part of keeping the schools safe is through a concerted effort to get the families into the buildings, to get them involved. Each month, each of the schools holds a family friendly event – food is almost always served – so that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles can see what’s happening in the classroom. It might be Bingo Night. Or Movie Night. Or Math Night.
Last month at Centennial, it was Science Night.
In a first-grade classroom, teacher Dawn Lindvall and her colleagues moved around a swarm of children who were showing off their work on plants. As they pushed seeds into dirt-filled cups, their families moved along with them.
When Lindvall was new to Colorado Springs, someone told her to avoid Centennial Elementary. She saw that as a challenge.
“I love it here,” Lindvall said, though there’s a lot more to teaching in this neighborhood than what goes on in the classroom. “I love the diversity, and I love the kiddos.”
Meet anyone who has spent any time in Census Tract 54.00 and tell them that over the 12 years between 2000 and 2011 its residents experienced more gun deaths than any other district in Colorado, and the reaction is shrugged acceptance.
So why should anyone else care?
In the view of Dr. Manish Sethi, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, who frequently tries to piece back together young bodies shattered by bullets, the answer is very simple. He has lectured in other parts of the country on gun violence.
“So maybe if it’s not affecting your neighborhood, it’s affecting a neighborhood 30 minutes away or 30 miles away. For the good of our country, I just think we’ve got to start talking about these things.
“Some of these children, once these things happen to them, their lives are over,” he said. “They’re done, and the world that they knew is gone. These kids are our future.”
Those and other factors make gun violence a public health issue of the highest order, he said.
So he and a colleague set about winning a small grant for a pilot program that would teach conflict resolution strategies in schools. The results were so encouraging that Sethi and his colleague, Dr. Alex Jahangir, are hoping to win a $1 million grant that would help them extend the program to 10 schools.
Sethi said he believes community efforts will have a bigger impact on gun violence than new legislation.
“We have all these laws and proposals and whatever to try and handle what’s happening … and I just feel like we need community solutions.”
Rep. Fields, who was elected to the legislature in 2010, applauded those kinds of efforts but also said new laws are needed. She sponsored a measure signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper that extends background checks to private gun sales.
She knows first-hand about the toll of gun violence. In 2005, her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancé, Vivian Wolfe, were murdered. Marshall-Fields had seen a friend killed at a party the year before and agreed to testify at the suspects’ upcoming trial.
He and his fiancé were gunned down just days before he was to take the stand.
“There’s not just one way to tackle this issue,” Fields said. “I would agree that legislation is not the sole avenue. I think it takes more than that, but I do think that legislation is one tool to help us address those that use guns when they’re committing crimes, and how they go about purchasing their guns, and how we regulate guns.”
Corey Krichbaum and his wife, Michelle, have their own answer: They are packing up their two daughters and leaving.
He grew up in Pikes Peak Park. He attended Pikes Peak Elementary School. And when he and Michelle bought their first home, it was a 1965 bi-level along Kodiak Drive.
Their home is actually a couple hundred feet outside the boundaries of Census Tract 54.00, and they’ve taken great pride in it and it shows – the paint is immaculate, the yard clean and neat. When the city turned off a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs three years ago to save money, they paid the $75 it took to keep the one in their yard burning bright at night.
But they hear the gunshots, like that night in June 2008 when Jomar Falu-Vives opened fire just down the hill. And they’ve decided they don’t want to raise their daughters, ages 6 and 12, in this neighborhood that he has called home, off and on, for more than 25 years.
“It was great to live in back then,” Krichbaum said. “Now, my kids are out front, I have to be out there with them. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.”
Then he ticked off the killings that have occurred within a few blocks of their home.
“It’s definitely time to go.”
I-News senior reporter Burt Hubbard contributed data analysis and additional reporting.