This Thug's Life

Frank Lontine thought being in a gang would be cool. Now he's got plenty of time to think about why it isn't.

The digital clock in the dashboard of the black Nissan Maxima read five minutes after five in the morning as Frank Lontine took a swig from the bottle of Bacardi Limón he'd been working on since midnight.

It was Friday, August 11. Lontine pushed six bullets into the cylinder of a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .22, then tucked the silver revolver into the waistband of his baggy jeans so that the cool metal pressed against the small of his back. "Gotta do this," he said to himself. "Gotta get hyped." He turned up the volume on the car stereo, booming the lyrics to gangsta rapper Project Pat's hyperviolent anthem "North, North":

On the north side of town (North, North!) Lurk the killers and the thugs (North, North!) Those who never show pity (North, North!) Come up short, feel the slugs (North, North!)

Frank Lontine lived with his grandmother, Loubbie, for three years.
John Johnston
Frank Lontine lived with his grandmother, Loubbie, for three years.
Frank in his Brown and Proud days.
Frank in his Brown and Proud days.

Originally a tribute to the thug life in North Memphis, Tennessee, "North, North" has been adopted as a theme song by the Chicano gangbangers who claim the neighborhoods of north Denver -- Highland, West Highland, Jefferson Park, Sunnyside. Lontine was rolling that morning with two members of the North Side Mafia, north Denver's most deeply entrenched and ill-famed band of thugs. Barely eighteen, he'd been involved with the smaller, less organized northside set Brown and Proud for nearly four years. Now he wanted to join NSM, and NSM wanted to test his mettle.

The car turned west off Federal Boulevard onto Alameda Avenue, then south on Sheridan Boulevard. Lontine stared out at the predawn streets of Lakewood and their supply of potential victims. "Our basic plan was just to go out drinking, riding around, and do some armed robberies," Lontine says. "We didn't really care who. We were checking out everybody who was walking, all the stores with lights on. It wasn't really about getting money. Money was just the prize for showing the guys in the car I wasn't a wimp or a punk or a pussy. If I could just go back to that Friday morning, I'd just be a punk. But I can't."

Lontine voices this wish with his skinny five-foot-five-inch, 130-pound frame slumped in a yellow plastic booth beneath the words "Jesus Loves You" scratched into the Plexiglas wall of an interview room inside the Denver County Jail. His left arm is in a sling. His left foot hangs dead of feeling and useless, its nerves destroyed. Patches of his buzz-cut black hair have been replaced by scabs, and surgical staples seal the lacerations crisscrossing his chest. The photo on the ID badge clipped to Lontine's dreary blue jail suit shows him wearing a hospital gown and a look of childish astonishment, like he turned the handle on a jack-in-the-box one too many times. Lontine is charged with attempted murder. He plans to plead guilty later this month. His public defender tells him he's looking at thirty to forty years in prison.

"I think a lot about suicide, you know, because I'm pretty little, and I'm afraid I'm not going to do too good in prison," he says. "But before anything happens to me, I just want to tell my story, because I know there's an army of little kids out there in Denver who are just like I was. They're looking up to the gangs in their neighborhoods, and all their dreams are only about money, respect and power, you know, about jacking people and getting a reputation for themselves. And I just want them to know what the real outcome of the thug life is and how the fantasy world can turn all cold and real."

Lontine's world turned cold and real when the older gang member behind the wheel pointed out a Texaco station and said, "That's ours." The Maxima wheeled into the parking lot, and Lontine got out. It was 5:21 a.m. In a little under twelve hours, his face would lead the evening news. In 24, he would be in a coma.

A bell chimed when Lontine entered the store. He was not wearing a mask. He approached the counter, pulled his gun and waved it at the cash register. The gas station's owner, an Ethiopian immigrant named Molla Ayenalem, tried to explain that because the store had just opened, there was no money to steal. Lontine thrust the gun at him. Ayenalem lunged over the counter and tried to grab the barrel. Lontine jumped back and shot him in the chest. "It was a reflex," he says. He started to run out of the store, but then, as he puts it, "I had another reflex." He stopped at the door, turned around, and shot Ayenalem in the face. Then he ran out and hopped in the car. The tires squealed as it sped away. Inside the store, gasping and bleeding, Ayenalem crawled toward a phone. Inside the Maxima, Project Pat was still rapping:

You can call who you want (North, North!) But the police ain't gonna come (North, North!) Till the gangsters leave the scene (North, North!) And the shit's already done (North, North!)

"I used to fantasize about homicide all the time, you know, shooting somebody, what it would feel like, what it would look like," Lontine says. "When it was for real, though, it didn't feel good. I wasn't in control. I wasn't enjoying it. It was all fast and confused and fucked-up, just one big rush. Mostly I remember the roaring in my head from all the adrenaline, and how even while it was happening, I wanted to apologize."

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