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.

It was already too late for Lontine when he showed up at Vigil's house on the night that he'd eventually be run over. Vigil says she came home from work to find Lontine playing video games. He had used her bathroom to dye his hair blond in a weak attempt at a disguise.

Vigil had seen the surveillance tape. She was furious. She yelled: "Most people get fifteen seconds of fame, Frank. You got eight. How did it feel to shoot someone? Did it feel good, huh?" Frank said no. He looked like he might start to cry. Vigil calmed down. She asked him why he did it; he said to get his gang known. She gave him a little money and told him he had to leave. "I said to him, 'It's all over the news, Frank. They're saying you're armed and dangerous. I've got children here. The cops are going to shoot first, not ask questions. Now get out.' My daughter was pleading with me, but I told her no. I gave him a hug and kicked him out."

Seven hours later, Frank was in a coma. "Karma got him," Vigil says. "I just wish the court system would recognize the law of karma, because, yes, Frank did this bad thing, and he's a criminal, but Frank got his."

Sitting in a booth at Denny's on Federal, Vigil pulls a picture out of her purse of a billboard across the street, clearly visible from the windows looking out over Mile High Stadium. The picture was taken two years ago, when the billboard was blank. In the photo, the very top edge of the billboard is tagged with graffiti: "RACE-$-BAP-NS."

"Everyone saw that," Vigil says. "He was famous for that, for climbing all the way up there and putting up his name and the name of his crew. That was quite a job. But you've seen his foot. Frank's climbing days are over. Justice has already been done. Now I just wish I could save him, because he's not ready for what's ahead. I wish they would just release him to me so I could move him out of state and give him the life he deserved -- so he could grow up to be Frank and forget all about Race."

The week after the shooting, Vigil went to the Texaco station to give Molla Ayenalem's wife a sympathy card. "It was the only thing I could think of to do to try and make things right," she says.

The first time Frank was released from Lookout Mountain, Vigil offered to help him get a job loading freight at the local bottling plant where she works. He turned her down. The job went instead to Frank's oldest friend, Andrew Toledo, who is the same age as Frank, grew up with Frank, joined Brown and Proud with Frank, then quit the gang last year after his daughter was born. "It just started not to seem worth it to me," he said. "I decided it wasn't worth my freedom."

On a recent sunny October afternoon, Toledo spent his lunch break sitting on a park bench, reminiscing. "We started out breakdancing together when we both were just little kids living in the Avondale Apartments over there on Fourteenth and Federal, " he says. "That's how Frank first got the name Race, 'cause we used to say he looked like he was running real fast when he was dancing. As we got a little older, breakin' turned into taggin'. Man, we used to bomb walls all up and down Federal. Our favorite drink back then was Mad Dog 20/20."

Toledo munches a chip, looking wistful for a moment. "Anyway, breakin' turned into taggin', and then taggin' turned into gangbangin'. That was our evolution."

When Frank was looking for a gun this summer, he approached Toledo and asked to buy his 9mm. "I told him no way he was getting my gun, because I knew what he was about," Toledo says. "Frank always thought life was about who could pull the craziest shit. He used to get drunk sometimes and tell me, 'Let's go kill somebody.' And I'd say no way, and he'd call me weak. Whoever sold him that .22 is partly responsible for what happened, because once he got that gun, it was like he really didn't give a fuck. He was just out to shoot somebody. His shit was just getting more and more hectic."

Lunch break over, Toledo crumples his bag of chips and starts to walk back to the bottling plant. Then he turns, and the words come in a torrent: "You know, they're going to try Frank as an adult, but he's no adult," he says. "And Frank has every right to plead insanity, because he's crazy. The world made him crazy, because it was against him from the start. I'm just thankful I had a father around to beat my ass, or I'd probably be where he is.

"Frank was like my brother growing up, he was my best friend, and when he started disappearing into his world of darkness, I couldn't pull him out, and I hate that, because it seems like only yesterday we were just a couple of little kids, trying to be down, and now he's gone, and there's no happy ending."

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