Denver shooter and victim reconcile two decades after shot was fired
Twenty-three years after Jonathan Nelson shot Matthew Roberts in the stomach at a party in East Park Hill, the two men sat down to brunch with their wives.
It was the first time the two men had ever spoken. They’d chosen drastically different lives since that night in 1998, and when they met on that day in October 2021, Nelson had just left prison. Roberts, by then, was working with the Denver Police Department’s victim assistance unit.
Roberts found Nelson thanks to a random Facebook post. But Roberts wanted more than just to reconnect.
If they could build a relationship, he thought, telling their story could help young people who are at risk of being drawn into gun violence to make a better decision — for reconciliation over vengeance. Nelson, for his part, wanted to show them it’s possible to leave gangs and live a productive life.
There are only two places people in gangs wind up, he said: the grave or the penitentiary.
“I want them to see that change is possible,” he said. “Everybody is scared of change, but you have to do it if you want to go forward in the world.”
On Monday, the two men will stand in front of a group of teenagers and, for the first time publicly, share their story. Their message comes as an increasing number of young people die in gun homicides every year. Fifteen teenagers were shot and killed in Denver in 2022 — nearly double the number of teens killed in 2019, when the mayor called youth gun violence an epidemic and convened city leaders to address the problem.
Roberts could have become a statistic like that. Or he could have sought out Nelson for revenge. Instead, he found his way to forgiveness.
“He’s like my brother now,” Roberts said.
Two lives collide in “chaos” of fighting at a party
Both men grew up in Denver in the 1990s, when a wave of gun violence bloodied the city’s streets. Roberts graduated from Overland High School in Aurora, and Nelson, three years younger, attended Denver’s East and South high schools. They didn’t know each other.
On Sept. 11, 1998, their lives intersected.
Nelson, 16 at the time, was invited to a party in Northeast Park Hill. He and his friends were looking for another teen they’d been having problems with — and he was on edge wondering if he’d see him there.
He brought a gun.
When someone at the party played a song about gang life, everyone started throwing their gang signs, Nelson said. Fights broke out and spilled outside.
“It was chaos — period,” Nelson said.
Roberts, then 19, arrived outside shortly before the violence erupted. He was dropping off a friend’s brother at the party. Immediately, he felt like they shouldn’t be there.
He got out of his car to say hi to a few people he recognized when he saw someone he knew, a basketball teammate at East High, about to get into a fight.
Roberts made his way through the crowd to break up the fighting.
As he weaved through the fights, someone hit him and he fell to the ground. He looked up and saw someone walking away. Assuming it was the person who hit him, he stood up, grabbed the man and took him to the ground.
The man Roberts tackled was Nelson, who thought he was about to get jumped.
Nelson fired two shots.
Roberts didn’t realize he’d been hit until he looked at his abdomen. He saw his shirt smoking. He felt the wound with his hand, stuck a finger inside.
“It felt like everything slowed down — time stopped — and then it was complete chaos again,” he recalled.
He asked a friend to help him over to some bushes. If he was going to die, he didn’t want to die in the street.
Instead, police and paramedics arrived and scooped him into an ambulance. He woke up the next morning in the hospital, his mom sitting by his bed. The bullet had pierced his colon.
Despite detectives’ insistence, Roberts couldn’t identify who shot him. He’d never seen Nelson before.
Roberts didn’t even recognize Nelson the next time they saw each other — in the downtown Denver courthouse, when Nelson was to be sentenced for shooting him. Before the hearing, they crossed paths in the bathroom.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder what he did?’ ” Roberts said.
It wasn’t until his case was called that Roberts realized the man in the bathroom was the same person who’d shot him. The judge sentenced Nelson to a boot camp program for teens and gave him a six-year suspended prison sentence.
But Nelson struggled to escape the gang life that surrounded him growing up. He spent most of the next two decades in and out of prison, with convictions that included burglary and attempting to escape. All told, 15 years locked up.
He said he realized during his most recent stint in prison that he was just spinning his wheels.
“I got tired of just living my life revolving around what other people think and other people believe,” he said. “I just woke up one day, and that was it. I gave everything up. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Nelson was paroled and released from prison on Sept. 21, 2021.
“Tired of being angry,” Roberts forgives Nelson
Recovery from the shooting wasn’t easy for Roberts. For three months after Nelson shot him, he walked with a cane. He lost significant weight because the injury to his colon made it difficult for him to eat.
But by January 1999, he was returning to normal.
He stayed in Denver, working in human services roles in Denver Public Schools and for nonprofits. He got married and became a father. And in 2019, he joined the Denver Police Department’s Victim Assistance Unit.
As victim assistance coordinator, Roberts’ job is to build relationships with residents in the East Colfax neighborhood — one of Denver’s neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence.
Occasionally, Roberts thought about Nelson. Once, he saw him in passing at Denver’s Juneteenth celebration. But he didn’t approach.
“I always wondered what his upbringing was, where he came from,” Roberts said. “I wanted to know what he was going through in prison.”
Roberts forgave Nelson years ago, he said.
“I was tired of being angry,” Roberts said. “I had nightmares and PTSD,” or post-traumatic stress disorder. “I was tired of wondering what would happen if we did run into each other.”
Shortly after Nelson was released from prison, Roberts saw Nelson’s name tagged in a Facebook post. He reached out to their mutual connection and asked for Nelson’s phone number.
He thought that if they worked together to tell their story, they could help young people see the possibilities of forgiveness, redemption and change.
When he called, Nelson was eager to help.
“I was like, ‘Whatever you want to do, I’m on board,’ ” Nelson said.
They met for brunch with their wives. Then they kept meeting. They became friends.
Roberts, now 43, introduced Nelson to his family and told them Nelson was the person who shot him. Roberts’ daughter later came up to Nelson and told him she was proud they had become friends.
Everyone had tears in their eyes, said Nelson, 41.
One of Roberts’ friends introduced the pair to Halim Ali, the executive director of From the Heart Enterprises, a nonprofit group that provides case management and programming for Denver teens. Ali thought they would be perfect to speak to the young people he worked with.
“These stories of forgiveness are so profound,” Ali said. “It lets you know that change is possible. You don’t have to be stuck in a mire of hate.”
At a retreat he hosted last year, Ali asked the 20 teens gathered there how many of them had been affected by suicide or gun violence.
“Every hand went up,” he said. “Even the 13-year-olds.”
Both Nelson and Roberts exemplify uncommon strength, Ali said: Nelson turned his life around after years of street life. Roberts proved that choosing forgiveness instead of revenge can yield unexpected gifts.
On Monday, Ali is hosting another day of mental health and wellness workshops for young people, a program aimed at preventing suicide and gun violence.
Nelson and Roberts plan to be there. They’ll tell their story to the participants — the first time they’ve done so in such a setting.
“Never underestimate the power of forgiveness,” Ali said. “That’s what we want them to walk away with understanding.”
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