Longform

Sixteen-year-old Tara Perry followed her man into crime and madness

They know how to make an entrance, these bad boys. They strut into the King Soopers on Smoky Hill Road on a Friday evening in May like it's fight night in Vegas and they've got ringside seats, their every move radiating heat and menace.

There are four of them, all wearing ski masks and gloves and toting big handguns and semi-auto carbines. The message is clear: Attention, shoppers. Don't fuck with us.

They have an Explorer outside that they jacked in Cherry Creek, the driver now a duct-taped hostage in the cargo area. They have enough ammo to take out the dairy section and enough adrenaline to jump-start a whale. Before anybody can think about being a hero, they light the place up, firing shots in the air and shouting, "Get down!"

Some do as they're told. Others run, frightened by the gunfire and the masks. And that's when the shoppers notice the fifth member of the crew, rushing to her assigned station at the store entrance. She's a mere wisp of a girl, sixteen years old and five-two, maybe a hundred pounds, awkwardly clutching a .22 semi-auto with a 72-round clip, the muzzle pointed straight in the air.

Tara Perry is late to the robbery. While the others piled out of the Explorer, she was left in the back, fumbling with the door lock; she finally had to climb over the front seat to get out. She stands just inside the store, tugging at the nylon stocking over her head, which is sticking to her long eyelashes and making it hard to see.

The air is thick with gunsmoke. Squinting, Tara can catch a glimpse of Randy Miller, her boyfriend, shooting at the locked door of an office where the cash is kept. Ateba Bailey cradles a mini-14 and stands very still. The other two men — kids, really, not much older than her — are bouncing around. One clubs a sacker with his pistol. She doesn't even know their names, these two; Ateba brought them, and she just met them a few minutes ago. They're rushing around to no purpose, and time seems to have stopped.

The trigger on her .22 is softer than she expected. Before she knows it, she has sprayed the ceiling with bullets. She freaks and drops the rifle. Everybody is staring at her, and it's as if she's staring, too. She's out of her body somewhere, watching all this happen to someone else, watching it unfold like a movie.

For Perry, the entire three-day crime spree was like a movie — a detached, grim import, maybe, the most joyless "spree" imaginable. A movie with a bad ending, directed by a man whose one goal in this world was to find a suitably violent exit from it.

Three months before it all started, she'd been a shy sophomore at Aurora Central High School, a member of the soccer and speech teams. Then Randy Miller had come out of prison and back into her world. A 22-year-old former child prostitute and drug dealer, Miller had promised to take her away from a tumultuous and painful home life. But the journey he had in mind led downward, into a terrifying series of home invasions and armed robberies and, finally, a few hours after the King Soopers stickup, to a standoff with state troopers in a small Kansas town.

That was where the movie ended for Miller, who killed himself rather than surrender. But not for Perry. The robberies had gone down just weeks after the 1999 Columbine shootings, in a state besieged with demands to crack down on teen violence. Charged as an adult, Perry was sentenced to 66 years in prison for attempted murder, robbery, assault and other crimes. (The "attempted murder" rap stemmed from the gunfire inside the King Soopers.) The total was later reduced to forty years, but her sentence is still the longest of any juvenile in the state who didn't actually kill or maim anyone.

Forty years is more time than people receive for second-degree murder or, in many cases, for rape or for beating their own children to death. Perry has already done more hard time than Lisl Auman, sentenced to life for felony murder in 1998 after a burglary cohort killed a Denver police officer — but moved to community corrections seven years later, after her cause was taken up by Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp. That Perry has been buried in the adult system for thirteen years now, with no end in sight, incenses many of her longtime friends and supporters.

"She's been there so long," says Mary Michaud, who was Perry's English teacher at Aurora Central. "It's sort of like sending a kid to their room forever. At what point does this stop being anything good and just become cruelty?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast