Champagne, Diamonds and Gunshots in the Dark
There was a young millionaire in Denver whose white limousine came under gunfire on a snow-lined boulevard in the dark of a winter morning. When the shooting began he had about one minute to live, and he spent that minute surrounded by the tangible signs of his newfound wealth. The black leather seats held nine women in short dresses and fur-trimmed jackets, as well as four rappers from Texas whose T-shirts advertised their collective name: BILLION DOLLA SCHOLARS. But the most dazzling sight in the Hummer limousine was the young millionaire's gold chain. Dangling from it was a medallion about the size of a compact disc with a white crust of diamonds that spelled the name of his record label, RYNO ENTERTAINMENT; and his nickname, D WILL, short for Darrent Williams, starting right cornerback for the Broncos. The chain was worth about $50,000, and those who had worn it said it felt heavy around the neck. In the last 10 minutes the chain had been lost, then found, and the reasons for that brief disappearance would make the difference between life and death.
Many theories have surfaced in the four years since the shooting, many prisms through which to view the events of New Year's Eve 2006. Most have some basis in fact. You would not be wrong to blame new money, unaccustomed celebrity, old-fashioned jealousy, Napoleonic insecurity or an airborne mist of champagne. You could even surmise, as a judge did, that the bullets were probably meant for a different Bronco in a different limousine. But Darrent Williams was no mere bystander in the sequence of events that led to his death. He chose to help a friend in distress—chose to take off the heavy gold chain to do so—and that choice cost him his life. You would not be wrong to say he died from the .40-caliber bullet that tore two jugular veins and opened his right carotid artery. Nor would you be wrong to say Darrent Williams died of loyalty.
You could even call it predestination. Williams came from Carter Park, a battleground in Fort Worth, Texas, where loyalty is a means of survival. He wasn't close to his father, and his mother's fiancé was shot to death in a Burger King parking lot when Darrent was 10, but it would be too simple to call Rosalind Williams a single mother. She was one of seven children, and they all raised their own children together, side by side. Thus, when Darrent's name appeared in police reports, it usually had something to do with familial defense. At age 15 he confronted Hispanic gang members about speeding in front of the house of his grandmother, Easter Williams; they later came back and shot up the house with a high-powered rifle. When a man came to Granny's door asking for money, Darrent chased him away with a dog that bit a hole in the man's forearm. When Darrent signed with the Broncos, he bought his mother a new house and Granny a new Lincoln Town Car. When he shopped for himself he took friends along, and when he bought Air Jordans, he bought them for everyone. Williams was not the only man in the white limousine wearing a diamond chain. He'd bought smaller ones for each of the Billion Dolla Scholars.
The only man in the limousine with more money and fame than Williams was Javon Walker, a teammate on the Broncos, and one of the last things Williams heard before the gunfire was a lecture from Walker on how a rich man should guard his possessions.
"Don't hang your chain with somebody who can't cover it," he said, referring to the diamond chain that Williams had recently lost and found. Those within earshot understood what Walker meant: Don't let anyone hold the chain unless he has the cash to pay for it. Walker had played five years in the NFL, three more than Williams, and he led the Broncos in receiving yards in 2006. Walker looked across the limousine at the Billion Dolla Scholars, old friends of Williams's from Fort Worth, who were much less wealthy than their name implied. "Not to be disrespectful to y'all," he said, "but I can cover it."
A minute or two later, as the limousine rolled northwest on Speer Boulevard, a white Chevy Tahoe pulled up in the lane to its left. Bullets sprayed from the Tahoe's open window. At least 15 struck the limousine. Miraculously, only three of the 17 passengers were hit, and each was hit just once. One Scholar took a round to the buttocks, and a young woman suffered a shallow head wound that might have been fatal had she not leaned forward an instant earlier to answer her ringing cellphone. Darrent Williams got no such phone call, although for weeks thereafter his high school sweetheart regularly dialed his number just to hear the recorded sound of his voice. At the funeral their seven-year-old son asked if Daddy had his cellphone in the coffin.
The limousine veered off the road into a snow-covered patch of grass. As women screamed and men dove for cover, Javon Walker found his teammate. Walker stood 6'3" and weighed 215 pounds; he was six inches taller and at least 30 pounds heavier than Williams. He picked Williams up and held him like a baby, covering the wound with his hand, begging him not to die.
In the video of Javon Walker's first interview with Denver police, just under two hours later, it's all Walker can do to stop crying, raise his head from the desk and look at the officer.
SGT. MATT MURRAY: Javon, is there anything else you can think of that might help us to sort this out?
WALKER: I couldn't tell you, because I'm the most non-controversy-conflict person whatsoever, and I don't deal with everything. Like ... I walk away from conflict. And if I'm dealing with someone who's my friend, and—when I was dealing with Darrent Williams, he gave me all his jewelry. Which is right here....
Walker reaches into the left front pocket of his blood-stained jeans and pulls out the $50,000 diamond chain. The gold rattles softly in his fingers.
MURRAY: Why would he do that?
WALKER: Because I'm a trustworthy person. So you can't trust too many people. So I say, 'Gimme your jewelry.' I put it in my pocket, just like this....
MURRAY: I don't understand.
WALKER: Well, you know what? He lost his jewelry, because he didn't know where it was. And whenever they found it, when they found it, his mutual friends found it, we found it, and I said, 'O.K., I'm taking it... .' [The sergeant never asks why the chain was lost.] You never understand it, if you're an athlete. Because a lot of people get jealous. And we can't stop doing what we're doing because somebody else is upset about it. And that's what's hard about it... .
MURRAY: I know.
WALKER: It's like you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. But you're doing something you love. But all of a sudden you get cursed by doing what you love.
This curse goes back to the first page of history. It comes of getting what you want, having more than your neighbor and feeling the compulsion to show it off. The curse is an epidemic in modern American sports, which turn poor young men into millionaires overnight and leave them overwhelmed with the complications. There may be quiet satisfaction in watching your personal accounts fill with cash. But for some of the overnight millionaires, the simple condition of being rich is not enough. They have to show everyone. Then comes the curse. You heard Javon Walker: People get jealous.
At least six Broncos and two Nuggets celebrated New Year's Eve 2006 at the Safari nightclub in downtown Denver, and Williams did not win the contest for most expensive piece of jewelry. A rookie wide receiver named Brandon Marshall later told police he was wearing a chain worth $57,000 that night. And although his chain didn't play an important role in the events that led to the shooting, Marshall did. He told a detective he didn't feel safe after the shooting, said he couldn't go to nightclubs anymore, asked about the legal procedures for carrying his gun. "We were outside that limo, so that's probably why they shot at that limo," he said. "If I didn't act rowdy outside the club? It probably wouldn't have happened."
Marshall declined interview requests for this story, but he was obviously shaken by the incident. Ten months later Denver police stopped him for allegedly driving drunk and going the wrong way on a one-way street. On the way to the drunk tank, according to an officer's report, Marshall said, "Why ain't you guys out looking for Williams's killer? I hate Denver. I hope I get traded. I hate this f------ city." Last year Marshall finally got his wish, escaping Denver to play for the Dolphins nearly 2,000 miles away.
Almost two years passed without an indictment in the Williams murder case. Not long before that, Javon Walker made the news again. He'd been found lying on the ground near the Las Vegas Strip, beaten and unconscious.
On June 15, 2008, Walker went out drinking in Vegas. He wore jeans, black sneakers, a stylish black T-shirt, a black ball cap and enough precious stones and metals to buy a small house. He had a platinum earring with a two-carat diamond in each ear, a Jacob & Co watch with a wall of diamonds on the face and a platinum chain that was also studded with diamonds. His pockets were full of cash.
Flanked by an old buddy from his hometown in Louisiana and two women he described as friends, Walker left the Bellagio and headed for a nightclub called Body English at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Walker paid for everyone. He'd made many sacrifices to become a professional athlete and took pleasure in sharing the rewards. When he wanted a haircut, he flew in his old barber from out of state. When the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver needed funds to complete the Darrent Williams Memorial Teen Center, Walker cut a check for $30,000. He was known around Las Vegas as an exceptional tipper.
Walker strolled into Body English just after midnight ahead of a long line of ordinary people and met a large man named Joel Abbott, who would serve as his bodyguard at the club. Management had reserved him a table by the dance floor, next to Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s table. Walker ordered a bottle of Patrón tequila, at least two magnums of Grey Goose vodka and at least two bottles of rose-colored Dom Pérignon champagne. He did not like champagne.
In Las Vegas and everywhere else, the rich play by other rules. Not just anyone can skirt the line outside a club, get a VIP table by the dance floor or stand on said table raining foamy beverages upon other patrons with the tacit approval of management. Walker spent nearly $18,000 on drinks that night, and this bought him many rights. The club activated its special champagne-spraying protocol.
"A lot of times," Abbott, the bodyguard, testified in a later court proceeding, "the management can get their arm turned to say, 'O.K., let's let this guy order five bottles of this very expensive champagne, and if he wants to spray them or shake them up, that's fine, as long as we have advance notice.' Now, if a regular person might just grab and start spraying without any notification, there might be an issue. But never with him... . And as we kinda back up the crowd, saying, 'Hey, there's gonna be some champagne sprayed,' some, usually females, that's just how it is, will say, 'Oh, I'm fine with that' and wanna actually get closer."
After sharing his wealth with the women of Body English, Walker stopped at the blackjack tables and then went to the penthouse for some drunken bowling. He paid the deejay something like $500 to play a particular song. He fell down when he tried to throw the ball. His friend and the bodyguard tried to escort him outside, but it took forever because Walker kept stopping to talk to strangers. He wanted to thank the waitresses and the busboys, to give autographs and pose for pictures. People tell stories all the time about meeting their sports heroes and being terribly disappointed. If you had met Javon Walker that night, you probably would have loved him.
But Walker left his friends that night, and that's where it all went wrong. He took offense at something his buddy said on the way back to the hotel, and he jumped into the street before the Cadillac Escalade came to a stop. A few minutes later, after he'd returned to the Bellagio, he was standing outside the hotel when a stranger called his name: "Javon!" Walker saw two men in a black Range Rover. They promised to give him a ride to meet up with his friends again at an after-hours club. He got in. Walker is a big man, sharp with muscle, but his blood-alcohol level—estimated at 0.39—could have killed him all by itself. The hustlers took his money and jewelry. One of them hit him so hard in the right cheekbone that his eye socket fractured.
Walker was recently asked when he began wearing diamonds, and his answer was simple: when he could afford them. His mother, Bernita Goldsmith, was a sharecropper's daughter who grew up picking cotton in the humid fields of Louisiana, and after Javon was born, she worked two jobs to keep him fed. At night she served champagne to the oil barons at The Petroleum Club in Lafayette, and then she picked up Javon from his grandmother's and they went home to their one-room efficiency apartment and fell asleep in the same bed.
So Javon Walker wanted diamonds. And he never stopped paying for them. He paid at Florida State, when he gave up the life of a normal fun-loving student for an existence that involved little more than sleep, classes, workouts and football practice. He paid during the NFL season, when he abstained from alcohol, went to bed at 9 p.m., added or dropped eight pounds in a given week to maximize his competitive advantage against the cornerback he would face that Sunday. He paid in relationships, in the loss of common ground with some of the people he'd known the longest. He paid at restaurants, because others assumed he would, and if he could help out with the mortgage and electric bill, too, that would be much appreciated. He paid at home, when contractors charged him double the normal rate, and at work, where fans and sportswriters tore into him for every mistake. And of course he paid in Las Vegas, where he asked the hustlers not to tear his earlobes when they took the diamonds from his ears. Then he paid again, in public shame.
Today some people see Walker's misadventure in Las Vegas as a direct consequence of the terrible night in Denver—as a symbol of everything that went wrong for him after Darrent Williams bled to death in his arms. True, his promising football career disintegrated soon after the shooting: He caught 30 touchdown passes before that night and only one thereafter. But he says this is a coincidence. His right knee failed early in the 2007 season, as knees often do in the NFL, and his window of opportunity closed.
Walker's mother believes he went drinking that night to drown his sorrow. But Walker insists he just went out to have a good time. Even now he sees no mistake in walking around in public with a heavy load of diamonds. If this proves anything, it's the insidious nature of the curse. It seems no loss will be great enough to keep Walker from the lifestyle he has earned with his sweat and blood.
Walker made a full recovery in time to testify against one of the hustlers. During the trial he faced cross-examination by defense attorney Betsy Allen. "There was an incident in Denver," she said, "where you had sprayed champagne at a nightclub."
"No," Walker said. "No. No incident in Denver. That was nothing to do with me."
The prosecutor objected, and the judge intervened. "The incident in Denver is irrelevant," he told Allen, "and you'll move on, please."
The incident in Denver remained mysterious to the public for more than three years. In October 2008 a grand jury indicted a local gangster named "Little" Willie Clark for the murder of Darrent Williams. The indictment said Clark fired the bullet that killed Williams, but it didn't fully explain why. And the full explanation didn't come until February and March 2010, over the 14 days of Little Willie's trial.
By then it was possible to see New Year's Eve 2006 as a turning point in many lives. In almost every case, the change was for the worse. Nicole Reindl, the young woman saved by her ringing cellphone, still had part of a bullet lodged next to her skull. Brandon Flowers of the Billion Dolla Scholars still had his bullet, too; he could feel it in his leg whenever he climbed the stairs. Rosalind Williams could no longer enjoy New Year's Eve, or Mother's Day, because without Darrent she had no children. When the trial began, Darrent's eight-year-old daughter, a competitive runner named Jaelyn, had only recently recovered from her fear of the starter's pistol. Her 10-year-old brother, Darius, wouldn't stop playing an old copy of a football video game that let him use the avatar of his father.
And then there was Brandon Marshall, the Broncos' receiver, whose fortune turned the other way. On the night of the shooting he was a fourth-round draft pick who had just finished an uneventful rookie season. Over the next three years he made 307 catches. Defenders called him the Beast because his chiseled 6'4", 230-pound frame was so hard to bring down. Now, taking the stand as a crucial prosecution witness in Little Willie's trial, he'd become one of the best players in the NFL. He raised his large right hand and swore to tell the truth.
PROSECUTOR TIMOTHY TWINING: New Year's Eve, December 31, 2006, in the early morning hours of January 1, '07. Do you remember that night?
MARSHALL: I think about it every night.
Marshall went on to describe the Third Annual Safari New Year's Eve party, which offered regular people a chance to meet professional athletes for a $20 cover charge. The advertised hosts included Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith of the Nuggets as well as Darrent Williams and Brandon Marshall of the Broncos. It was 18¬∫ outside around 11:30 p.m. when Marshall and his crew arrived in a Town Car limousine to find a crowd waiting in the cold.
Remember how Javon Walker the exceptional tipper was treated at the club in Vegas: Security quietly escorted him past the line to meet with his personal bodyguard, and hardly anyone noticed. Brandon Marshall the rookie fourth-rounder got no such treatment in Denver. In fact, when he waved to the bouncer, the bouncer put up a hand as if to hold him back. And Marshall lost his patience.
"Damn," he said. "I put my name on the flyer and make them money off my name, and y'all going to, you know, leave me out here?" By the time the bouncer recognized him and escorted him to the entrance, Marshall and his friends had drawn the attention of at least two people waiting to get in the club. One was Little Willie.
Entire books could be written about Little Willie and the Tre Tre Crips, the cocaine-dealing gang from eastern Denver; the 11 unsolved murders that authorities suspected them of committing; the killing of a witness less than a month earlier; and the gang's eventual crippling in an April 2007 raid that was called the largest combined law-enforcement operation in Colorado history. Suffice it to say that Little Willie was raised by his grandmother; when he was 12 street thugs beat him with a gun and stuffed him in the trunk of a car; and now, standing 5'7" at age 23, he took immense pride in a set of possessions that included a $1,000 pair of jeans and about 25 pairs of expensive sneakers. He called himself Boss Money.
So Little Willie saw Brandon Marshall cutting through the crowd. And, according to trial transcripts, Little Willie said something like this: "We street n------, we got money too." And Marshall, trying to defuse the situation, jokingly threw it back: "Well, if I ain't the only one with money, then drinks on y'all tonight."
Little Willie didn't laugh, although his friend did, and Marshall told them to meet him at the bar. "Make sure those two guys get in," Marshall told the bouncer. Then he and his buddies went inside.
Upstairs in the VIP section they saw Darrent Williams, wearing that big diamond chain, and his five friends from Texas, wearing smaller ones.
Say what you will about the modern pro athlete and his entourage. But it serves an actual purpose. If Williams had gone wild in Vegas, there is virtually no chance he would have been kidnapped or robbed. His friends wouldn't have let it happen. Williams survived his childhood in Carter Park because friends and relatives shielded him from its ever-present dangers. And if he found some trouble now and then—like the time he allegedly shoved his high school sweetheart while they were fighting about their one-year-old son—most people were more surprised by the amount of trouble he avoided.
Given neighborhood conditions and his business acumen, Williams probably could have made a lot of money selling drugs. In other words, he could have become Little Willie Clark. Instead he got a job in the kitchen of a Southern restaurant called Grandy's, where he scrubbed chicken-fried steak crust off dinner plates for $4.75 an hour. He knew he'd make his money later, the right way, because he could return punts and interceptions as if fired from a gun. And after the Broncos drafted him in the second round out of Oklahoma State in 2005, he rode around Carter Park in an old Mitsubishi Montero, standing up, head poking through the sunroof, like a king surveying his kingdom. Carter Park rejoiced. His mother doused him with champagne.
That summer he signed a four-year contract worth about $2.2 million, including a signing bonus of about $1.3 million, and he did all he could to spread the wealth. That was the unwritten law of Carter Park. You always took care of your friends. Once, when a guy broke into a friend's car, Williams tracked him down and beat him up.
It worked the other way, too. One day in February 2006, after his first season in the NFL, Fort Worth police pulled Williams over in the Chevy Impala he was driving and found a glass jar of marijuana in the center armrest. Another young man was riding in the front seat, but the police let him go. The young man asked an officer if he thought Williams would be arrested. "Yes," the officer replied. The young man walked away and returned a moment later. "The weed's mine," he said, surrendering to the officers, and Williams was not arrested.
For Christmas 2006 Williams's high school sweetheart, Tierria Leonard, brought their two children to visit him in Denver. Darrent loved the children, but he and Tierria had been off and on for nearly a decade. Now, near the end of his second season with the Broncos, he'd become one of the best young cornerbacks in the league. He and Tierria sat together on the couch in his condo with snow lying in fresh drifts outside and Darius lying across their laps, pretending to sleep. Darrent gave Tierria diamond earrings, a three-carat diamond tennis bracelet and a gold ring with a swirl of diamonds. "That's your engagement ring," he said, and when she and the kids flew back to Texas, she had to borrow his suitcase to hold all the gifts.
On Dec. 29 the four Billion Dolla Scholars and their manager arrived from Fort Worth, bringing the matching diamond chains that Williams had bought them. As chief executive of their record label, he wanted to introduce their music to Denver. On the evening of Dec. 31 they put on their jewelry and their custom-painted graffiti T-shirts. At 10 p.m. they got into a rented white Hummer limousine and rode downtown.
In the story Brandon Marshall told under oath at the trial, he tried to make peace in the VIP room. He was minding his own business when two guys started trouble. They were the same two guys who had hassled him outside, only now they were antagonizing Darrent Williams and the crew from Fort Worth. They were throwing gang signs and spoiling for a fight. So Marshall and another teammate, Elvis Dumervil, ran over to break it up.
"Man," Marshall told the troublemakers, "we got all these bottles of champagne up here, all these women, it's New Year's, man, everybody chill out. It's not that serious, and just party with us." And the guys chilled out, and the party went on.
When Marshall finished telling this story at the trial, the prosecutor asked him to clarify the following point.
TWINING: Brandon Marshall, did you see any champagne being sprayed?
But in a previous videotaped interview, a detective had asked him virtually the same question, and Marshall had given a different answer: "I remember D-Will was spraying champagne. I made a comment like, 'Man, pop the bottles, New Year's or whatever, lemme show you how to do it,' and when he sprayed it, we in our own section, there was nobody else around. Just us and our section, that's it."
The reason Marshall changed his story about the champagne might be the same reason he changed his story about who rode with him to the club that night: He was protecting someone. In his first interview with the police Marshall said three other people rode in his limousine. It was actually five. And one of the people he left out was his cousin Blair Clark, a man who played a pivotal role in the events that led to the shooting.
On the witness stand Marshall admitted that his cousin was at the club that night. But he maintained that Blair Clark was elsewhere in the club during the controversy with the locals. And even this story didn't quite match the story his cousin told the police. Asked where he was when the clock struck midnight, Blair Clark said, "I was upstairs. But no champagne got sprayed when I was up there."
The more you think about this claim, the less sense it makes. Even Marshall—in one of his stories—admitted that champagne was sprayed. And if champagne was sprayed at any time on New Year's Eve, it would have been at midnight. Which is exactly what the men from Fort Worth said. Champagne went everywhere at midnight. It splashed around. It spilled all over the floor.
All five friends from Texas named Blair Clark as the sprayer-in-chief. Another Bronco blamed one of the men from Texas. In one of his stories Marshall said it was Williams, and he even hinted that he'd done some spraying himself: Man, pop the bottles... . Lemme show you how to do it.
One thing is certain, though. Javon Walker had nothing to do with it. He was in his own limousine full of women at midnight, still on his way to the club. In fact, it might have been better if Walker had been there. He had more money and experience than everyone else there, and he knew the right way to spray champagne: You notify management ahead of time. You get security to create a perimeter. You make sure all men are out of the blast radius. Only then do you pop the cork.
It's not clear how the two Denver Crips got into the VIP section—perhaps Marshall's endorsement helped—but Little Willie and his friend did get in. By several accounts, they were sprayed with champagne. And they were furious. Willie fancied himself as a big-spending rapper: Lyrics found in his jail cell included the phrase, we pop bottlez n clubz cuz ya kno who it iz. And now these strangers had rolled in on one of the biggest party nights of the year and stolen the spotlight. Football players are less recognizable in public than other pro athletes because they usually wear helmets on television, so Little Willie may not have recognized Williams. All he knew was that Williams and his friends weren't from Denver, the city he loved so intensely that he had its area code, 303, tattooed on his chest. Willie loved the Broncos too, but Williams didn't wear Broncos clothing. He'd come out that night to represent Texas, with a white Texas Rangers hat and a tattoo that read CARTER PARK.
No wonder the Crips felt the need to announce themselves. Little Willie's friend started yelling things like "Eastside!" and "Denver!" and "Tre Tre!" referring to their point of origin, 33rd Avenue.
In the version of the story told at trial by one member of the Texas crew, Little Willie approaches Darrent Williams to ask him who sprayed the champagne. In this telling, of course, the sprayer is Marshall's cousin. "He's good," Williams says. "He's with us."
"Who are you?" Little Willie says.
"I'm Darrent Williams," he says, "27 for the Broncos." And Little Willie shakes his hand.
But the other Crip won't let it go. He keeps yelling about Eastside Denver. The commotion continues. Bouncers arrive. They take the side of the champagne-spraying strangers. And through little fault of his own, Little Willie gets thrown out of the VIP section of the club, on New Year's Eve, in his own city, and that guy in the Texas Rangers hat keeps dancing, and he's holding that big diamond chain.
Sometime later, in another part of the club, Little Willie punches a woman in the face. He has mistaken her for a man. The incident begins when someone drops a cellphone in a crowded hallway and, while helping to find it in the dark, a woman holds up the line. Little Willie says something offensive about it, and the woman's female companion gets in his face, and Willie slugs her in the jaw. He later comes back and apologizes. He says he never would have done it if he'd known she was a woman.
The lights come on and the club shuts down. The two women are walking out when a tall man in a Pepsi jacket comes up behind one of them and grabs her rear end. The tall man will later be identified as Blair Clark, Brandon Marshall's drunken cousin. The angry women pursue Blair Clark down the sidewalk. He loudly encourages them to offer him a certain personal service. And then an unlikely defender appears: Little Willie, who is not about to let some drunken out-of-towner speak to Denver women that way. He puts a hand inside his shirt, as if he were reaching for a gun.
"That's the wrong move," he tells Blair Clark, who is nine inches taller than he is. "You might not want to do that."
Throughout the evening, the actions of Marshall and his cousin have blurred together. They are both 6'4" African-Americans, born less than a year apart, with moderately dark complexions. They've often been in the same place, doing similar things. In the VIP section a witness thought he saw Marshall spraying champagne; he later changed his mind and said it was Blair Clark. The woman leaving the club initially identifies Marshall as the man who molested her, but Blair Clark later admits he did it. Outside the club the cousins confront Little Willie, the Denver Crip with the newfound sense of chivalry, and although one of the women says Willie points an imaginary gun at Blair—she knows this because he's the same guy who did the grabbing—both Blair and Marshall say Little Willie pointed the imaginary gun at Marshall. This distinction matters, because prosecutors have suggested that either Blair Clark or Marshall delivered the final insult to Little Willie—the assault on his fragile pride that turned him from angry to murderous.
In Marshall's account of his last encounter with Little Willie, he escalates the hostilities. "Man," he angrily tells Willie, "I done offered you guys drinks twice tonight." And when Willie points the imaginary gun, Marshall says, "Man, you ain't got no f-----' gun." Marshall tries to climb a snowbank to go after Willie and his friends, but he slips before he can reach anyone, and the other Denver Crip punches him in the face. But neither Marshall nor his cousin lays a hand on Little Willie.
Here's another version of the story. It comes from the woman who saw Little Willie point the imaginary gun at Blair Clark: "The dude that grabbed my girlfriend's butt, some dude ran up on him, and he, like, palmed him, and dropped him in the snow, he, like, pushed him in the snow, and was just holding him there." The palmer, of course, would be Blair Clark. And while the witness doesn't say who got palmed, prosecutors believe it was Little Willie.
Surveillance video time-stamped 2:10 a.m. shows Little Willie forcing his way through the crowd outside the club, apparently in a hurry. Marshall has seen situations like these before. When a guy runs away in the middle of a fight, it's called going to the trunk. He's pretty sure Willie's going to get a gun. Marshall and his cousin hustle to their Town Car.
You would not be wrong to call the murder of Darrent Williams a simple case of mistaken identity. The evidence suggests that Little Willie meant to open fire on Marshall's limousine—that he thought the white Hummer was Marshall's limousine. The trial judge found this a likely explanation, and so did Marshall when he talked to the police. While educated guesses can be made about how this knowledge affected Marshall (an ESPN report showed he had some 12 encounters with police in the 27 months after the shooting, most of them domestic disturbances), it didn't stop him from becoming a superstar. Darrent Williams's friends believed Williams was destined for the Pro Bowl. Brandon Marshall went instead, and last year he signed a five-year deal with the Dolphins worth more than $47 million.
But Marshall and Williams didn't trade places by chance. It happened because of a decision Williams made, in keeping with the unwritten law of Carter Park. When Javon Walker said, All of a sudden you get cursed by doing what you love, he could have been describing Williams and the fierce loyalty that may have saved Marshall's life.
This is how the chain disappears.
Six men from Fort Worth leave the club at 1:56 a.m. The surveillance camera catches them on the sidewalk, heading for the white Hummer limousine. Williams stops to sign autographs. They cross the snowbank and congregate by the limousine.
At 2:07 the second Denver Crip crosses the snowbank and heads for the street. He's going to pick a fight with the men from Fort Worth. The Crip yells epithets and goes on about Denver. The men from Fort Worth yell back. Williams waves the diamond medallion and says something about Texas. But the provocation fails. Nobody fights.
At 2:08 Marshall enters the frame, moving quickly along the snowbank toward the disturbance involving his cousin and Little Willie.
At 2:09 the second Crip pushes through the crowd. He appears to have given up on the men from Fort Worth. He is heading toward Marshall.
At 2:10 the street is nearly empty by the Hummer's right rear side. It seems the men from Fort Worth have gone inside their vehicle.
If you go northeast from downtown Denver today, to the Boys & Girls Club on Crown Boulevard, you'll find an eight-foot bronze statue of Darrent Williams facing the Rocky Mountains. The inscriptions never mention a curse. But a kid who dreams of being rich like Williams could wind up like Little Willie, serving life plus 1,152 years with the Colorado Department of Corrections. And even if the kid catches a few touchdowns and a few breaks, he could become Javon Walker, broken on the asphalt in Vegas with the diamonds taken from his ears; or Brandon Marshall, haunted at night by misdirected bullets; or even Darrent Williams, gone at age 24. Williams was just a man, not a hero, and he turned to bronze through the alchemy of football and untimely death.
But let this be said about the king of Carter Park. The diamonds never changed his heart. He was always a true friend. This is why he lost the diamond chain, and why he lost his life.
At 2:10, with the white limousine full of people and almost ready to go, Williams looks through the rear window and sees his friend and teammate Marshall caught up in a fight on the snowbank. Little Willie is out there too, preoccupied, nowhere near his own vehicle, which means the white limousine is poised for a clean getaway.
Williams takes off his chain.
About five minutes from now, Walker will tell Williams how a rich man should guard his possessions. He'll say you should never hang your chain with anyone who can't cover it. He'll lay out the difference between himself—a trustworthy man with deep cash reserves—and the old friends Williams has brought along for the ride.
But Williams doesn't need friends who can cover the chain. He needs friends who will cover him, just as he covers them, just as he prepares to leave the white limousine and go cover Marshall.
And so, when he takes off the diamond chain, he hands it to his old friend John Sheppard for safekeeping. And when Sheppard takes the diamond chain and sees his friend get out of the white limousine, he throws the chain under the seat and follows him. The other friends go too. There are many accounts of what takes place on the snowbank, but this fact is certain: Walker is not there. When he tells the police he avoids conflict, he is telling the absolute truth.
Williams approaches the fighters. He tells them to break it up and go home. His friend hears him raise his voice and tell Marshall, "Come on, get in the limo," thus deepening the connection between Marshall and the white Hummer. But the fighters won't listen. Marshall's cousin slaps Williams's hands down and says, "Nobody touch me."
Finally Williams gives up. He tells his friends to get back in the limousine. They get back in. Little Willie heads down the sidewalk with good reason to believe that Marshall is riding in the white Hummer. As Little Willie goes to the trunk, Marshall goes to the Town Car and flees for the suburbs.
At 2:13 the white Hummer limousine begins to pull away from the curb.
A few seconds later it stops. The diamond chain is missing. They can't leave until it's found.
Around this time, a man fitting Little Willie's description is seen in a Chevy Tahoe idling on Broadway, in position to follow the white limousine.
The chain is found under the seat. Javon Walker puts it in his pocket and promises to keep it safe. The white limousine takes off. On the boulevard, a woman hears a sound like fireworks.
YOU WOULD NOT BE WRONG TO SAY DARRENT WILLIAMS DIED OF LOYALTY. YOU COULD EVEN CALL IT PREDESTINATION
WALKER WAS ASKED WHEN HE BEGAN WEARING DIAMONDS. HIS ANSWER: WHEN HE COULD AFFORD THEM
ASKED IN COURT IF HE REMEMBERED THE PARTY, MARSHALL SAID, "I THINK ABOUT IT EVERY NIGHT"
BY SEVERAL ACCOUNTS LITTLE WILLIE (ABOVE) WAS SPRAYED WITH CHAMPAGNE. AND HE WAS FURIOUS
Photograph by SHARON M. STEINMAN/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/MCT/ABACAUSA.COM
KING OF CARTER PARK Williams (inset, in 2005) stayed true to his roots in Fort Worth, where his funeral procession took place.
[See caption above]
KATHRYN OSLER/THE DENVER POST/AP
WRONG TARGET? At least 15 bullets struck the Hummer limousine, but it's still not clear whether any of them were intended for Williams.
TOM PENNINGTON/AP POOL
THE MOURNING AFTER The grieving throng at Williams's funeral included his longtime girlfriend, Leonard (above, in white), and their son, Darius.
PARTY HAZARD Walker (near left in 2008, and below left in '07) was not in the Denver club during the spraying, and Marshall (below right, in '08) denied participating.
[See caption above]
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
[See caption above]
DENVER DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE/AP