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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.

"I had a bad feeling, and I couldn't sleep, so I just lay down and watched TV until they all came back," Loubbie says. "It was a quarter to seven. They say that Texaco thing happened at 5:20. But when he came in, Frank was the same as always. He wasn't scared or excited. There was no sign of it." Frank told his grandmother Labor Ready didn't have any jobs that day. Then he kissed her on the cheek, and he and his friends went back to his room and closed the door. This time they were quiet. "They slept until about one, then they left again."

The last time Loubbie saw her grandson as a free and healthy young man was that night, less than an hour after his face hit the news. She and Frank's mother were serving hamburgers at the American Legion at 42nd Avenue and Pecos, same as she does the second Friday of every month. Frank stopped by just long enough to eat a burger and play Hula-Hoop with one of his little sisters. A little while after he left, one of Loubbie's other daughters called her at the American Legion to say the police were searching for an armed-robbery suspect who looked a lot like Frank. "I said, 'Well, it can't be him. He was just here,'" Loubbie says.

The next night, Loubbie was woken by the phone again in the wee hours. On the line was a doctor from the Critical Care Tower at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, asking if she was the grandmother of Frank Lontine. "When I got there, he looked so awful," Loubbie says. "He was all ripped up and he was in a coma, and he had a tube down his throat. I thought about how I had watched him being born, and I said, 'Oh, what did they do to my little hijito?'"

She had no idea then what her little hijito had done.

By that Sunday morning, the Texaco-robbery hotline had logged more than a hundred callers identifying Lontine as the shooter in the surveillance tape. But Lontine's whereabouts were unknown to investigators. Because Denver police suspected the attack on Lontine was gang-related -- whether justifiable self-defense or not -- he was admitted to the hospital under an assumed name, a standard precaution. (The doctor knew to call Loubbie only because one of Lontine's friends had given police her name at the scene.) But his anonymity didn't last long. One of his aunts ratted him out.

From Detective Connally's affidavit: "On Sunday, August 12, I talked with Leona Apolinar who called the Lakewood Police Department tip line. Apolinar identified herself as the aunt of Frank Lontine. She had seen the published surveillance video and was certain that the pictured person was her nephew. Apolinar told me that Lontine was in University Hospital. He had been 'on the run' and had been run over by a car the previous evening when he got involved in some sort of confrontation."

The next day, Connally contacted the Denver police, who confirmed the identity of the run-over victim. Connally learned that a .22-caliber revolver had been recovered at the scene. The detective then drove to the hospital to eyeball his suspect. "Although Lontine was in a cervical collar, he appeared to be the same person in the surveillance video," Connally wrote. He then put together a six-subject photo lineup, picked up the Smith & Wesson from the Denver cops, and paid Molla Ayenalem a visit at St. Anthony's Hospital. Ayenalem looked over the photos, pointed to Lontine and said, "This is the one that shot me." Connally showed him the gun. Ayenalem said, "That's it. That's exactly it." Ayenalem didn't want to talk to Westword about the case.

Three days later, when Lontine regained consciousness, he was placed under arrest in his hospital bed and transferred to Ward 18, the lockdown unit at Denver Health Medical Center.

"They told me, 'He's not a victim anymore; he's the suspect,'" Loubbie says. She lights up a menthol and exhales blue smoke in a sigh. "I tried to do everything I could for Frank. Now I don't know what to do. I wish I could afford to hire him a good lawyer, but I don't have enough money. All of his friends, you know, they had a lot of big talk about getting a lot of money together, everyone saying this or that, but when it came right down to it, no one came around."

Loubbie's living room is decorated with Denver Broncos merchandise, a slot-machine cup from the Las Vegas casino New York, New York, votive candles, a large Virgin Mary, and dozens of family photographs, including a large daguerreotype of her parents -- Frank's great-grandparents -- taken when they were in their twenties in Gladstone, New Mexico. Loubbie points to a baby picture of Frank. "Look at that smile," she says. "He was a happy, happy baby. Then he had to become the little man of the house."

Frank's mom had five kids; Frank was the oldest. She started drinking with a vengeance after her husband left, when Frank was six. She started to beat Frank. The state took her children away. Three went to foster homes; Frank went to live with the same aunt who years later would turn him in to the police. He broke curfew, ditched school, sprayed graffiti, got in fights. He was enamored with the mob. He started calling himself Frankie Fantiano. He wanted to do "big, organized crime," as he called it. Asked to name his role model when he was growing up, he says Joe Pesci in GoodFellas, "a little rowdy, crazy guy nobody wanted to mess with."

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