DENVER — On Sunday, the 45th Annual Denver Film Festival came to a close. A documentary at the festival dates back nearly a decade in Denver, and raises questions about city leaders when it comes to anti-gang efforts in the city. The film has also received criticism from some community members about the claims it contains.
The documentary is titled "The Holly," and was preceded by a book written by Julian Rubinstein called "The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood."
Rubinstein was living in New York in 2013 when he read a news report about a shooting in Denver. He could not get it out of his mind, and eventually went back to the city where he grew up to investigate.
“I was confounded, like lots of other people were, about why someone who was working and doing anti-gang and anti-violence work would shoot someone at his own peace rally," Rubinstein recalled. “The public reporting on the case did not match the reporting that I was doing about the case.”
The shooting happened in September 2013. Terrance Roberts was arranging a peace rally outside the Boys & Girls Club in Holly Square, which is in Northeast Park Hill.
“In order for someone to be the subject of a book or documentary, they probably went through a lot of either really good things or really bad things," Roberts said. “I didn't ask for this. But now we're here.”
Understanding how Roberts got here involves understanding his past, and the complex, world of gangs in Denver.
Roberts was well known in Denver in 2013. He started the Prodigal Son Initiative youth program as a way to combat the influence of gangs on the community. His anti-gang efforts began in his mid-20's, after prison changed the way he wanted to live his life.
Roberts said he grew up in Park Hill, and said most of the youth in the area became members of the Park Hill Bloods by default, whether they wanted to be or not.
“As crack cocaine came into the community, as some of our parents experienced certain things being young parents, single parents, as more violence and homicides started happening, we ended up getting more violent. We ended up getting more cliqued up into being more of a gang structure," explained Roberts. “There were people who never even officially joined the gang, but if they were from the community, they were considered to be part of the gang.”
Roberts said he joined the Park Hill Bloods in his early teens.
“I see 14-year-olds now and they look like little bitty babies to me. I can't believe it. But at that age, we were carrying guns and fighting and gangbanging," said Roberts. “I stayed involved a good solid 10, 11 years.”
Roberts said he was incarcerated a total of three times. While in prison for what would be his final time, Roberts began researching activism and business, and studying what he would like to do once free.
“What I have been doing for the last decade is getting Bloods and Crips together, getting youth together, whatever we could do to squash the violence," Roberts said. “We were setting up for, it was called the 'One Love Black Unity Rally' because gang violence started filling up again.”
Roberts said while arranging the rally, he was threatened by members of the Park Hill Bloods, including Hasan Jones.
“Just him threatening me. I asked him like, why are you doing this? And he said, you call me a snitch? You're a snitch. I'll be over there in a minute to eff you up," Roberts explained. “When he said that I clarified with him. He said, yes, that's what's going to happen. He left, and I went to retrieve my weapon. On my way back to stand with my crowd, yes, they did try to attack me.”
Roberts said he was surrounded by Park Hill Bloods that day, and feared for his life.
“No, he [Jones] did not have a weapon. But there was a group of people where if they would have gotten a hold of me, they could have beaten me to death, stabbed me, anything could have happened," Roberts said. "I don't know if you've ever been jumped by a group of people, but if I wouldn't have shot my gun when I did, they could have easily even grabbed my arm or grabbed my weapon. Who knows?”
Roberts shot Jones several times that day. Jones survived, but was paralyzed. Roberts was facing charges including first-degree attempted murder and first-degree aggravated assault. He was being tried as a habitual offender, meaning he faced more than 100 years in prison.
Roberts has always maintained he shot Jones in self-defense. A plea deal was never an option he considered.
“It really hurt because I was attacked, and I'm not a gang member anymore. And I had made that clear to the community for an entire decade," said Roberts. “I wasn't doing anything wrong. I was doing what people say African American leaders, young African American men, should be doing. I'm hosting a peace rally to stop the violence.”
A jury agreed with Roberts, and found him not guilty.
“It was a vindication for me, for my family, for my supporters," Roberts said. “They did not find me guilty because there is evidence I was attacked. ... I defended myself, like my jury saw, but it ruined my life. It hurts to have your mother call you with tears in her eyes and say, have you read the newspaper today?"
As a result of a completely separate court case, Jones is currently in prison after pleading guilty to killing a 2-year-old girl who was in his care in Aurora. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Roberts' verdict is far from where this story ends.
Rubinstein met Roberts when he was out on bond, and still facing the lengthy prison sentence.
“At the beginning, I only knew the basic details, which even Terrance admitted, that he shot this guy. The question was why?” Rubinstein said. “A lot of people seemed to understand or believe that Terrance had been attacked that day, which is also what he had said, but I didn't know if it was true. The media sort of didn't seem to believe that that was true. And it turned out that was true.”
What Roberts told Rubinstein would be the basis of his investigative work over the next few years.
“You had him running a federally funded anti-gang effort on the ground, and he was also in significant disagreement with the police over how that should work. They wanted him to give them information about people and to help them basically make arrests, which he was absolutely unwilling to do. He felt it would ruin the trust that he had built with the community," Rubinstein said. "At the same time, he started sort of beefing, in the terms of the neighborhood, with Blood gang members over all kinds of things they were accusing him of, including working for the police, which he was actually adamantly trying not to do. On the day of this peace rally he was, and this is the shocking part, attacked by gang members, some of whom had significant ties to the police.”
The documentary dives into such claims, but they do not sit well with some of the people mentioned in the movie. One of them is Reverend Leon Kelly, who works as the executive director for the Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives program. According to Kelly, he has worked with anti-gang efforts in Denver for 40 years.
“Kids back in the days, you know, they had a sense of reverence, a sense of respect to the hood," said Kelly. “The kids today, you know, they have little to no knowledge of the history, they have little to no respect of the foundation or the makeup of the community, the streets, the hood, the family.”
Kelly said his work was focused more on the Crips, but he supported Roberts' efforts with the Bloods in Park Hill.
“He really went forth, gave it 110% to try to make a difference," Kelly said about Roberts. "There's certain ones that didn't like that. They didn't believe that what Terrance was doing was true, you know, they sort of felt like he started turning on the hood.”
According to Kelly, he knows several people who were present at the peace rally when Jones was shot.
“Terrance said it, you know, he felt that it was self-defense. Talk to others who were there? They said it wasn't," Kelly said.
Kelly is shown in the documentary, but has not seen it at this point.
“We did a lot of taping, because I was thinking that he was going to do a documentary about, you know, the change that Terrance had brought to the hood," said Kelly about the footage. “Did I know that it would come back in this light, showing a community that was full of promise, that has hopes and culture, has been tarnished in such a way?”
The motives behind the movie and the book are Kelly's biggest concerns.
"I use the term that I feel like this Julian and others are pimping, pimping Terrance out and pimping the hood out," Kelly said. “'Who's getting paid from this? And what is the purpose?' has been my question.”
Denver7 brought Kelly's question to Rubinstein and Roberts for a response.
“My motivation was journalism. If he wants to say it's not journalism I would question that, but I don't understand the question. That's my career," said Rubinstein.
Roberts responded by saying “the problem that me and Reverend Kelly have with each other is Reverend Kelly is too tied into the system and who pays him, which is that system, and the connections that he's made with law enforcement and elected officials.”
Kelly connected Denver7 with Pernell Hines, who was not present at the incident in September 2013, but says he spent the last eight years of his life having to explain the situation.
“This is a quiet community, as far as we keep our mouth shut. We didn't respond over all these years because we were hoping that this petty stuff will go away, but it didn't. It got bigger," said Hines. “They wrote a whole book about it. And if the truth was told, it wouldn't be a bit of story. They had to spice it up, it had to become a conspiracy theory."
Hines said he is associated with the Park Hill Bloods, but is not currently an active gang member.
“I don't gangbang. I don't run around here and throw my fingers up and disrespect Crips no more. I don't do that no more. What I do, do is I help the situation out," Hines said.
Hines works with the Impact Empowerment Group in Northeast Park Hill. The group's website says they serve the community through education, employment, and entrepreneurship.
“You can't bring nobody from Harvard to come over here and stop a situation he didn't create. So I figured since I was one of people who started this mess, I can help end it," said Hines.
According to Hines, funding for the Impact Empowerment Group suffered as a result of the book and movie about the 2013 shooting.
“We haven't been able to keep things going in over 90 days. Because like I said, whenever a conspiracy is thrown out there and you have people whose livelihoods are at stake, they pull away. So investors pull away," said Hines. “We've all been sidetracked by the story that Terrance has put out and Rubinstein put out, and the community has been lost in the process. I think we've been lost in the process.”
Hines is not shown in the documentary, but he claims Rubinstein labeled him a police informant through this process. He called it the "biggest lie" surrounding the book and movie.
A lawsuit was filed, and withdrawn, regarding the claim. Rubinstein insists he never called Hines an informant.
“We asked him repeatedly, can you show even one example of that. They failed to do so over a six month lawsuit, during which they admitted to never seeing the movie," said Rubinstein. “That's an attempt to slander me."
Kelly said he would like to bring both sides together to try and resolve the deep-rooted differences, if possible.
Denver7 asked Mayor Michael Hancock about the assertions made in the movie.
"I haven’t seen the documentary, I haven’t heard the allegations, and it’s absurd in my eyes and ears. I’ve never heard anything like that," Mayor Hancock said.
Roberts is currently running to be Denver's next mayor.
Those with the Denver Police Department declined to comment on the allegations related to the book and film.
Rubinstein said the documentary will be in theaters and streaming by early 2023.