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!)
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 Patches of his buzz-cut black hair have been replaced by scabs, and surgical staples seal the lacerations crisscrossing his chest.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."
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.
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.
"All of a sudden, for no reason, the car just busted a U-turn, and all these guys jumped out and started running at me," he says. Lontine says he fired six shots in the air to try to scare them off, but they kept coming. Then, with no time to reload, he sprinted across a parking lot and into an alley behind Joe's Cave, a bar. He says the Sedanos caught him in the alley and beat him senseless. Two of the BAP members who were with Lontine at the bus stop were nowhere to be seen. The third stuck by him and took a beating as well.
The Sedanos got back in their car. Lontine was on all fours, struggling to get to his feet when he saw the headlights coming at him. He thought it was a police cruiser at first and felt a surge of relief -- forgetting in his panic he was a wanted man -- until he realized the lights weren't going to stop.
The Denver Police Department tells a different tale. According to police reports, Officer Anthony Tak was parked in his cruiser across Federal from the bus stop when he heard gunfire. He looked across the bar parking lot and saw Lontine running down the alley, firing shots in the air. Then, according to Tak's report, Lontine leveled his gun at the occupants of a white sedan idling in the parking lot.
What happened next is not in dispute.
"They ran me over just like I was a dog," Lontine says. The wheels crushed Lontine's left femur. He started screaming. Then the driver of the sedan switched gears and ran over Lontine again, this time in reverse. (The driver told police a few minutes later he was simply trying to get away and had no idea Lontine was in the path of his vehicle.) Lontine was caught beneath the chassis and dragged 100 feet down the alley. His left arm twisted behind him and snapped. His head dribbled on the pavement. He could feel the skin being grated from his torso. "There were sparks flying, and I was just howling and crying. I was waiting to die," he says. Officer Tak arrived on the scene seconds later. He stopped the Taurus from leaving, then called for an ambulance and backup.
Police reports show officers interviewed two occupants of the car that ran over Lontine. Joseph Gorrocino and Valencia Vasquez told police they had parked their car at Joe's Cave and got out to take a 3:30 a.m. stroll along Federal Boulevard when, for reasons unknown to them, Lontine "tried to start trouble and brandished a gun." They told police they ran back to their car and Lontine chased them, firing in the air. They said he then jumped in front of the car and pointed the gun at them through the windshield, forcing Gorrocino to floor it and run Lontine over. After taking their statements, police let them go. No charges have since been filed against them. Lontine was eventually charged with felony menacing.
He lost consciousness as a paramedic was cutting away the remnants of his shredded, blood-soaked clothes.
"The last thing I remember," he says, " is red and blue everywhere."
Loubbie Lontine is 75, but she remembers in fine detail the night her beloved grandson shot a man in the face. "It was three o'clock in the morning, and the phone rang; it was Frank calling," she says. "He said he had two buddies with him, and he wanted to know if it was all right if they came over. I told them as long as there were no girls."
Then she got up, made a pot of coffee and waited. "They didn't come in until about 4:30, and they went right back to Frank's room and started making a lot of racket."
Frank's room is a sparse white chamber with a single bed in the back of his grandmother's brick duplex situated across Federal Boulevard from Mile High Stadium. The walls of his room are a checkerboard of magazine ads for Bacardi Limón, photographs of Tupac Shakur and posters of Jennifer Lopez. Loubbie says one whole wall used to be covered with shots of Frank and his friends striking poses, but the police came into her house and took them all away a few days after the shooting, which she refers to only as "that Texaco thing." Scrawled over Frank's bed is gang graffiti: "Brown and Proud/North Siders/XIVXIVXIV." (The Roman numeral 14 stands for "N," the fourteenth letter of the alphabet.)
"They were in there talking loud and playing music," Loubbie says. "I went back and opened the door and told them to be quiet, because I was afraid they would wake up the neighbors on the other side of the wall. I saw they had a bottle of rum, and I told Frank he's not old enough to be drinking." A few minutes after she scolded him, Frank came out with his friends and started to leave the house. Loubbie asked where they were going at five in the morning. Frank told her they were walking to Labor Ready, a day-labor service two blocks away, to see if they could find work. After they left, Loubbie scoured Frank's room for the bottle of rum, but it was gone.
"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."
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.
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.'"
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.
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"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."
"I joined the gang because I wanted a crew," Lontine says just before heading back to his bed in the infirmary at Denver County Jail. "But where's my crew now? They don't come to see me, they don't put money on my books. I try to call them, and they won't accept the charges. So now I know."
He shuffles out of the room and down a long hallway, stepping with his right leg, then dragging his left. He turns a corner and vanishes as a heavy metal door slams shut.