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.

From an affidavit in support of the arrest warrant for Frank Lontine on the charges of armed robbery and attempted murder, authored by Lakewood Police Department Robbery/Homicide Detective Stan Connally, August 16, 2001: "On Friday, August 10, agents of the Lakewood Police Department responded to Molla's Texaco with regard to a 9-1-1 hang-up. Upon arrival, agents found the business owner lying on the floor with blood on his face, on his shirt and on his pants. There was quite a bit of blood on the floor. Although he was in considerable pain, Ayenalem was able to say that shortly after he opened, a teenager tried to rob him. The male shot him and then fled. Ayenalem was struck in the face and in the chest, sustaining a fractured clavicle and a collapsed lung."

While he was in the store, Detective Connally observed two surveillance cameras pointed at the front counter. He located a ring of keys that got him into the store's office, where he found a videocassette recorder, still running. The tape inside it had captured the shooting. Lontine's face was clearly visible. So was the "NS" (North Side) tattoo on the back of his neck that Lontine always concealed with a draped towel when he walked to his bedroom after taking a shower at his grandmother's house. By midday, Connally had distributed copies of the tape to the media.

Frank was always careful to hide his tattoos from his grandmother.
John Johnston
Frank was always careful to hide his tattoos from his grandmother.
The surveillance video that police recovered from the Texaco station.
The surveillance video that police recovered from the Texaco station.

Lontine spent the afternoon smoking weed with five fellow gang members. They were jarred from their reverie a few minutes after the evening newscasts began when their cell phones and pagers all went off, one after the other, in a jagged chorus of buzzes, trills and beeps. The first one to answer his cell said, "Yeah," listened for a couple of seconds, then bolted upright and flicked on the TV. Lontine's face popped on screen, above a police hotline number. "We all went, 'Oh, shit!'" Lontine says.

A second channel aired a loop of flickering black-and-white surveillance footage showing Lontine walking into the gas station and pulling his gun, over and over again. Viewers were directed to the channel's Web page to view the surveillance tape and see photos of the "unidentified suspect."

"I go to sleep, next thing I know I'm all over the TV and the computers, being flaunted all over Colorado," Lontine says. "I was nervous, I was anxious, I was scared, I was sad. It sucked. It's not something you ever want to feel, knowing that you're being hunted like that."

The only good news for Lontine was that the man he shot was alive. While Lontine had been getting high, Ayenalem had been recovering from emergency surgery. Doctors said he would pull through. "I was definitely happy he wasn't dead," Lontine says. "I just wanted to be able to do something to make everything better, you know, but I couldn't think of anything I could do." He considered turning himself in. "I had some thoughts of going to the police, but I had even more thoughts of getting away."

Instead, he went to a house party that night at First Avenue and Grove Street. Everyone there had seen him on TV. "All these people came running up to me, all drunk, saying how they were going to miss me," Lontine says. "Some of them were sort of congratulating me. They all wanted me to tell about the robbery. It made me feel all weird."

The next morning, Lontine's face was in the Rocky Mountain News on the front page of the local news section, under the headline "Shooting Caught on Tape." Lontine decided to flee Denver after saying a few goodbyes and getting a little money together. He kept the gun he'd used to shoot Ayenalem on him. "I needed it for protection," he says. "The north side had become a dangerous place for me this summer. I was hanging around with these guys from the North Side Mafia a lot, and they were real party wreckers. It seemed like we always wound up getting in some big fight or shooting it up. My reputation was building really fast, but I was making enemies as fast as I was getting fame."

He'd purchased the gun for $120 at a house party three weeks before the Texaco shooting, and it was snug in his coat pocket at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 12. Lontine was with three other members of Brown and Proud at a bus stop near the intersection of First and Federal, having just left yet another party, when a white Ford Taurus drove past. A voice inside the car yelled out, "Eighteenth Street!"

The northsiders knew that meant Eighteenth Street in West Los Angeles, not Denver. A massive L.A. gang, the Eighteenth Street Sedanos, regularly exports members to Denver, frequently to escape probation problems. Though they congregate in cheap apartment housing in south Aurora, the Sedanos claim no turf in Denver, preferring to maraud throughout the metro area. Calling out "Eighteenth Street!" to a cluster of northsiders was the gangbanger's equivalent of slapping a duelist across the face with a leather glove. Yet Lontine maintains he turned the other cheek. He didn't yell back "North Side!," didn't flash a gang sign, didn't even point to the big letter "N" on his University of Nebraska baseball cap. "I did nothing to provoke them," he says. So he can't explain what happened next.

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