2830 N. High Street in Denver. (Google Maps Screenshot)

Rash of neighborhood burglaries preceded fatal shooting in Denver backyard with marijuana plants

To some of Keith David Hammock’s neighbors, the kids who had repeatedly hopped his fence to steal marijuana plants were merely doing what teenagers do.

Swiping marijuana plants by the root was a dumb and reckless crime, but not a serious one — and it certainly didn’t justify shooting two boys, said a neighbor who identified himself only as Kevin for fear of retaliation.

But to others living on the 2800 block of High Street and the surrounding neighborhood where Hammock, 48, is accused of fatally shooting 15-year-old Keylin Mosley and seriously wounding his 14-year-old friend, the shooting was the inevitable conclusion to an escalating series of crimes including graffiti tagging, car thefts and burglaries that made people worry about their safety. Denver crime statistics verify that property crimes were on the rise in the Whittier neighborhood.

“That wasn’t the first time they were stealing his pot. This ain’t the first incident. The area was heating up,” said Thomas Materese, 34, who works as a cabinet maker out of a garage across the alley from Hammock’s decaying brick home.

Hammock, who had attended community meetings protesting police brutality, is being held in the Denver jail without bail for investigation of attempted first-degree homicide, attempted first-degree homicide and felony marijuana cultivation. He allegedly shot the teens from a second-story window with a .22-caliber rifle at 2 a.m. on Oct. 9.

“There have been a lot of garage break-ins,” said Jane Newton, 42, who lives across the back alley from Hammock’s property. She said the Whittier neighborhood association recently sent out alerts warning of an uptick in burglaries, break-ins and car thefts.

Denver city police records verify the increase in property crime in Whittier, bounded by Downing and York streets on the east and west and by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 23rd Avenue on the north and south.

Burglaries are already up 36 percent from 2015 to 2016, with 2½ months to go in 2016. Likewise, car thefts are up 38 percent and bike thefts 100 percent in 2016 compared with 2015, police reports show.

“That neighborhood is explosive,” said the Rev. Leon Kelly, who runs Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, which Mosley attended. “People are spooked. There are a lot of people on edge.”

In testament to Hammock’s brewing frustrations, police found a trail of marijuana leaves leading from Hammock’s backyard to a vacant house two homes away. Again and again, thieves had entered his backyard by jumping his chain-link fence, which had a blue tarp draped over it apparently to conceal what Hammock was growing, Materese said.

In the months leading up to the shooting, Hammock and a neighbor who also grew pot were so incensed about people breaking into Hammock’s backyard and stealing pot that they started talking about protecting their property with guns, Materese said.

One of Hammock’s neighbors built a wooden perch on the roof of his back porch, which overlooks Hammock’s backyard. In a recent conversation with Materese and Hammock, the man said he was planning to sit in a lawn chair on his perch with a gun so he could shoot anyone who trespassed, Materese said. Hammock made similar comments about arming up, he said.

“Both of them were talking about it,” he said.

If the men believed it was their right to shoot trespassers, they were wrong, legal experts say.

Colorado’s so-called “make-my-day” law doesn’t allow homeowners to use deadly force to guard their backyards, said Dan Recht, a former public defender who is now in private practice. In order for someone to legally use deadly force, they must fear for their lives or an intruder must cross the threshold of their home, Recht said.

“The make-my-day law will clearly not be available to Hammock,” Recht said. “The boys did not use or appear to be using physical force against Hammock in any way, and secondly they made no attempt to enter his home.”

Neighbors alternately described Hammock as a recluse, a friendly neighbor and an odd person with a hair-trigger temper who sometimes got embroiled in problems linked to the the alley behind his house.

Over the years, Hammock’s neighbor Kevin said, Hammock would become enraged because Kevin placed garbage in more than one Dumpster, when a man dug weeds out of the alley too early in the morning and when youths painted a blue line down the paved alley to delineate the border as recently as 1960 between white and black sections of town.

Newton said she would see Hammock in the alley occasionally and he was always polite and pleasant to her. But she said a property theft doesn’t justify a shooting.

“I think it’s bad judgment,” she said. “It’s better to call the cops than shoot someone randomly in the back.”

Hammock had never reported the forays into his backyard to police, according to the police reports that give locations of burglaries and thefts in the neighborhood.

Kelly doesn’t excuse anyone for jumping fences and stealing property, but he added that guns are not the solution.

“Hitting two kids like that,” Kelly said. “Who would do that?”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com