Montbello residents mourn recent gun deaths and fight perceptions of their neighborhood

Byron Ware’s friends and family release balloons with notes written to him where he was murdered just days prior. Feb. 6, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

At dusk on Tuesday, Montbello community members gathered on a residential block to mourn 17-year-old Byron Ware’s death.

The teen, along with 18-year-old Abisai Ponce Gutierrez, was killed by gunfire last Saturday night. Denver police have arrested two men, Octavio Morales and Kylvito Garrette, on first degree murder charges.

With candles in hand, friends and family wrote messages to Ware on balloons and then released them into the darkening sky.

A few hours earlier, before the family arrived, faith leaders, police officers and city council members held a march at Melvin F. Silverman Park calling for an end to violence in the community. They also called for new understanding. While Montbello has a reputation for violence, the speakers said, gun and gang issues affect the city and nation as a whole.

“That is not who we are,” District 11 Councilwoman and longtime Montbello resident Stacie Gilmore said to the crowd. “I ask those other communities around Denver to come and support us. Don’t point a finger at us. Don’t talk about us. Be part of the solution with us.”

Byron’s siblings huddle together crying. One could hear, “My brother is gone!” (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Ware’s and Gutierrez’s deaths were followed by more violence in Gilmore’s district. The following night, another person was shot at a King Soopers in Green Valley Ranch. The shooting that killed Ware and Gutierrez, Westword reported, was the third fatal event on that block in 18 months.

Gayland Allen, a football and track coach at nearby Montbello High School, said his students have been disturbed by recent incidents.

“Some are shocked and some are just fed up,” he said. “There’s a lot of senseless violence going on.”

But these recent episodes aren’t typical for the area, Allen said.  Most teens, he said, “are doing well. But all it takes is two bad episodes and it makes us all look like there’s hell to pay.”

Montbello High School Coach Gayland Allen stumbled upon this rally by accident. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Police Commander Ron Thomas, whose District 5 encompasses both Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, echoed Allen’s sentiment.

“Tragedies strike all over the city,” he said. “It’s unusual for so many to happen in this specific area.” These recent incidents, he continued, were all unrelated.

8-year-old Dae’Aunna (left to right), Kiera Jackson and District 5 Commander Ron Thomas after the march. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Police Department data shows that Montbello isn’t the Denver neighborhood with the most crime. Counting all reported crimes between 2014 and autumn of 2017, it ranks fifth. But, relative to the rest of the city, the neighborhood has high rates of violent crime. There were more murders reported in Montbello — 18 — during that time than any other neighborhood and it ranked second in aggravated assaults.

Still, for neighborhood advocates like Rev. James Fouther of the United Church of Montbello, outsiders’ perceptions of violence in the community outpace reality.

“We know the story of violence continues to touch this community,” he said at the rally. “But that story seems to get out more readily than the stories of peace in this community, the stories of hardworking people… the stories of those who just want to raise their families.”

For Coach Allen, the perception of violence is all a matter of perspective. He grew up in Detroit and said he knows what truly high crime rates look like. Of Montbello, he said, “It’s still paradise.”

A vigil for Byron Ware at the spot where was shot and killed just days prior. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Paradise, at least, on most days. For now, that’s not the case for Byron Ware’s family. Surrounded by their community, they’ve only begun to put their son and brother to rest.

If you’d like to help Byron’s family raise money for funeral expenses, you can donate to their gofundme campaign.