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.

He joined Brown and Proud when he was fifteen. He started going by his street name, "Race." His aunt kicked him out of her house. He went to live with his grandmother in 1998. In June that year, police said he held a knife on a nine-year-old kid while another gang member stole a jar of money from the kid's house. Frank says the police have it all wrong. He served nine months for aggravated robbery in Lookout Mountain juvenile detention center. He saw a shrink while he was inside. The shrink diagnosed depression and prescribed drugs. Frank got out. The drugs made his stomach hurt when he drank. He stopped taking them and started violating probation all over the place. He got in a high-speed chase with police in downtown Denver and crashed a stolen car into the federal courthouse. This time he served a year. He got his G.E.D. He got out again. He got a job at a pizza place. He cleaned up his act.

Then he got dirty again. He does a Mafia-movie impression: "Just when I was getting out, they sucked me back in." He smiles down at his dead foot. He looks shy. He looks, of all things, innocent.

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.

The first time Augusta Vigil saw Frank Lontine was in September 1998, when her daughter asked her for a ride to a friend's court appearance. The friend was Frank, whom Vigil's daughter had known since they were both eight years old and attending Brown Elementary. Vigil and her daughter entered the courtroom as Frank's grandmother was pleading with the judge to give Frank another chance. "I saw Frank, and something inside me just felt so sorry for him," says Vigil, who is 33. "He stole my heart that minute."

After that day, Vigil had Frank over for dinner at her house dozens of times and came to know him well. "All Frank wanted was to be part of a real family, and he became a part of ours," she says. "Too bad his blood family gave up on him when was still a little boy. The only one who did anything for him is his grandmother, and she was just too late. You have to understand, I know both sides of Frank. There's Frank, who is this sweet, respectful boy I loved having in my home, and then there is Race, who does all these terrible things to become really somethin' on the streets. That kid is known all over the streets of north Denver in graffiti and stories, but more people know him by his gang name than his real name. I always said to him, 'What does that tell you, Frank?'"

Vigil ran with a gang herself when she was younger. She says she had as much ice in her veins as any man in the South Side Crew, another Denver gang. "I can't count how many friends I've buried. I held my boyfriend's brains in my hands, still warm." She left the gang life behind when she was 25. "I know what Frank's lifestyle was all about," she says. "It's about getting noticed when you feel like you don't really matter. It's about wanting the whole world to know -- 'Hey, Frank was here.'"

There are an estimated 1,700 Chicano gang members in Denver who are living Lontine's lifestyle. They are divided among twenty gangs, more than half of them based in the northern part of the city. Francisco Gallardo knows them well. The outreach coordinator for the Metro Denver Gang Coalition, he is a former North Side Mafia member.

Gallardo says the Denver Police Department's gang unit has told him that while violence among Chicano gangs is down, membership is way up -- by roughly 55 percent in the last few years. "That matches with what we know from our work on the streets," he adds. "And it's not older guys like me deciding to get back into it. It's peewees -- you know, teenagers. And they're coming younger and younger. A lot of it is the glamour of it all that's drawing them in. They just want to be down with something that's being romanticized more and more in movies and music.

"We've gotten to where now, in Denver's gang neighborhoods, it's all feeding on itself, because as there are more and more gang members, gang culture takes over youth culture in that neighborhood, until the only way to get respect with your peers is through fear and intimidation. If everyone thinks you're some crazy gang member, that translates into being down, and you get respect. Otherwise you're known as a punk."

And Gallardo fears that the downward trend in Denver gang violence is about to reverse. "We know from the past that gang violence follows the economy," he says. "I mean, you can practically draw a chart. Our economy has been pretty good the last few years, and not as many kids have been killing or dying. But if our economy keeps getting worse and you think about all these young guys who started kickin' it with gangs in the last five years, well, you can see how it could get real ugly. That's why I tell every new gang member I talk to, 'Get out of it now, homey, while you still can.'"

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