Ma Kaing and her family worked late on July 15, spending hours after their new restaurant closed for the night to make desserts for a catering order that needed to be filled the next day.
They got back to their home in the Hidden Brook Apartments at 1313 Xenia St. on the eastern edge of Denver just before 11:30 p.m. They’d begun carrying pans of the dessert inside when a stray bullet from a gunfight across the street ripped through the night, hitting Kaing.
Her 22-year-old son, Kyaw Oo, held his mom while his 17-year-old sister called 911. Oo’s mother would die on the sidewalk while he held her in his arms.
Now, the family and the community that knew Kaing, a beloved member of the East Colfax neighborhood, are grieving and asking tough questions about the crime in their neighborhood that they say no one seems to care about.
They’re also questioning the 911 response after multiple calls first went to Aurora’s communications center rather than Denver’s — and wondering whether that caused a delay in police and paramedics getting to the scene.
City officials will meet Wednesday with residents at Hidden Brook to discuss the 911 response and other issues, said Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who represents the neighborhood.
“The city has never done anything,” Oo said of the neighborhood. “They make these false promises. They don’t care.”
“A remarkable spirit”
Kaing immigrated to the United States in 2007 from Myanmar, also known as Burma, with her husband and her oldest son and daughter. They arrived in Denver with dreams for their family.
Since coming to Denver, the family had two more sons. They set goals to open a restaurant that served Burmese and Thai food and to own a home. They opened Taw Win this year at 1120 Yosemite St.
“We were going to buy that house,” Oo said. “We were going to run that restaurant. We were going to have the American dream.”
As the family worked and saved money, Kaing became an admired member of the East Colfax neighborhood.
Hidden Brook is an affordable housing community that is home to refugees and immigrants from around the world, said Sharon Knight, president and chief executive officer of Hope Communities, which owns the apartments.
“The building itself is wonderful and a tight-knit group of people live there,” Knight said. “People really support each other.”
Kaing knew almost everyone and was especially helpful to other Burmese refugees. She was a great mother, who also found time to make sure neighbors had enough food and clothes, family and friends said. She grew vegetables in the community garden — a plot now filled with flowers, candles and a pair of black rubber sandals in her honor.
“She is amazing,” said Knight, who organized a GoFundMe campaign to help the family. “She did everything right to make a better life for her family.”
When the East Colfax Neighborhood Association opened a community food bank in 2019, Kaing showed up and quickly became a crucial volunteer, said Tim Roberts, former president of the association. Pretty soon, she was helping organize the distribution lines and giving others directions on how to be more efficient. She also recruited other volunteers.
On Fridays, when the food bank closed, Roberts would load the leftover food into his car and ride with Kaing to Hidden Brook to give it away. He’d put the food on the sidewalk and Kaing would begin calling people to come get it.
“Every time, every week, the food would disappear into the apartments at Hidden Brook,” Roberts said. “She knew who needed it. She would say, ‘Oh, that’s what I do,’ and then disappear into her apartment.”
She brought other refugees to block parties and other events, introducing them to neighbors.
“Because of her connections and her consistent volunteering we ended up making the connections between communities along East Colfax,” Roberts said.
Kaing was elected to the neighborhood association’s board of directors.
“She was just a remarkable spirit,” Roberts said.
A call for help
The Hidden Brook Apartments on Xenia Street are just a block from the Denver/Aurora line.
It’s a neighborhood that is home to immigrants and many people living on the edge of poverty, including those who reside in motels along East Colfax Avenue. Kaing’s block is filled with brick and cinder block apartments. New Freedom Park — with a playground and a small, artificial turf sports field — and a Denver Urban Gardens space are across the street.
No arrests have been made in connection with Kaing’s death. Metro Denver Crime Stoppers is offering a $2,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.
Knight said she and other community leaders for years have complained about criminal activity at the park. The city installed more lighting at their request, but the violence has continued, she said.
“We really need more policing in that neighborhood and we’ve been pleading for that,” she said. “This summer, you can tell, the whole city is heating up with crime.”
Kaing’s homicide was the fourth shooting death in the neighborhood in 2022, and the second on North Xenia Street, according to crime data maintained by The Denver Post. Aggravated assaults involving guns happen regularly with at least three since July 10, the data shows.
The city knows the East Colfax neighborhood needs help and has been working on it, Sawyer said.
In 2021, East Colfax was identified as one of five hot-spot areas for crime by the Denver Police Department, police spokesman Doug Schepman said in an email. The police department increased patrols and partnered with other city agencies to provide outreach and services to residents, he said.
There were reports of shots fired in the area of East 13th Avenue and North Xenia Street the night before Kaing was killed and Denver police increased patrols because of it, Schepman said. And officers have reached out to the community in the wake of her death.
The city worked with Xcel Energy to provide more lighting at the New Freedom Park, Sawyer said. She worked with the community and the police department to get a grant to add more policing to the neighborhood and that has been successful, she said. And the city’s motel task force is working with motel owners to improve conditions at those businesses along East Colfax Avenue.
Sawyer wishes the city could push more officers into the neighborhood, but the police department is struggling to fill open positions and is dealing with a staffing shortage.
“We’ve been able to get crime down, but it’s not enough and it’s especially not enough when you have a tragedy like what happened with Ma Kaing,” Sawyer said.
Kaing’s family also is criticizing the police and EMS response to her shooting death, saying responders took too long to arrive at the scene — somewhere between eight and 15 minutes, Oo said.
Oo’s sister was among the first people to call for help, but her phone call went to Aurora’s 911 center instead of Denver’s. The family says a 911 call-taker hung up on her after the first call and another call-taker was insulting to her, although Aurora and Denver dispute that allegation.
Aurora 911 received four calls about the shooting, Reagan Peña, the city’s public safety spokeswoman, said in an email. The first came at 11:27 p.m. from someone who said the victim was her mother. The caller was “highly elevated and screaming,” Pena wrote. The Aurora 911 operator stayed on the line until a Denver counterpart answered.
Then Aurora’s operator announced the call, provided the address and handed the call to Denver. The total time from when the call first came in to when it was transferred was three minutes and 50 seconds, Peña said.
Denver received its first 911 call at 11:29 p.m., according to an email from Andrea Webber, a Denver public safety spokeswoman. She did not say who made that call.
But less than 20 seconds before the first call was made, a ShotSpotter system in the neighborhood had detected gunshots and alerted the city’s communications center, Webber said.
Police officers were dispatched at 11:30 p.m. — 27 seconds after the first 911 call, Webber said. Denver Fire and EMS also were dispatched at 11:30 p.m., according to Broadcastify archives of emergency radio traffic.
The first officer arrived at the scene at 11:34 p.m. — five minutes and 16 seconds after the first dispatch call, Webber said in her email. Paramedics arrived at 11:35 p.m. — about eight minutes after Oo’s sister made her first 911 call.
Denver’s 911 system became so inundated with calls about the shooting that some callers had to wait for an answer, Webber said.
“No caller was hung up on at any point, by either agency. Due to the incident’s proximity to the boundary between Denver and Aurora, several of the callers were routed to Aurora 911 and had to be transferred to Denver,” Webber wrote. “Every caller was provided a warm transfer by Aurora, and told to stay on the line. In spite of that, it appears some of the callers chose to disconnect their calls.”
In 911 lingo, a warm transfer means one operator stayed on the line until another picked up so that a caller always had someone to talk to.
Because the Hidden Brook Apartments are so close to the cities’ border, some cellphone calls can get routed to the wrong agency, Peña said. It’s up to the mobile carriers to determine how calls are routed, she said.
Denver and Aurora use a radio to communicate with each other because of this, said Sawyer, who added that she asked for timelines from Denver’s responding agencies so she could piece together what happened. Aurora told Denver about the shooting before the first caller was transferred to a Denver operator, she said. And an ambulance was dispatched almost immediately, she said.
Knight suggested the two cities create a reciprocity agreement where they can dispatch each other’s emergency services during critical incidents along the border. It wastes precious time to pass phone calls between cities’ dispatch centers.
“This really has to happen,” she said.
Roberts, the former neighborhood association president, also said the city needs to do better by the neighborhood.
Roberts said he stopped hosting night events at Counterpath, the community arts center he owns, because the gun violence is too frequent. The pandemic and the economic fallout have hit the neighborhood hard.
“When you have that, you’re in a bit of a state of siege mentality and that’s pretty much the people at Hidden Brook and Hope Communities,” Roberts said. “They’re at the epicenter of that kind of activity. It’s really, really disappointing and too bad. These are some of the greatest people in the city of Denver who are dealing with all of this.”
Remembered for good
As for Kaing’s family, Oo said they are grieving and will follow Buddhist funeral traditions for his mother. On Saturday, Buddhist monks prayed for her soul to cross over during a ceremony at the family restaurant.
As the oldest son, Oo said he feels obligated to take over the restaurant, and he hopes his family can follow through on their goal to buy a house and get out of the violent neighborhood. He is struggling not to let hate overtake him, using swear words to describe the shooter while almost simultaneously talking about his mother’s example of how to love neighbors.
Kaing always was helping someone, leading her oldest son to sometimes ask why.
“My mother believed the more good stuff you did, the more you give back, when you pass away you’ll be treated well,” Oo said. “My mother was willing to help anybody. It didn’t matter the background or what skin color or what language you spoke. It didn’t matter at all.
“She said, ‘It’s good to help and give back. People remember you by this.’ People are remembering my mother this way because she was always helping.”
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