Their jerseys said “Shotwell” in bold letters and they posed making “S” shapes with their hands. They were the kids growing up on the 1000 block of Shotwell Street in the ’80s, and it wasn’t “Shotty Block,” like kids call it now. It was the “Shotwell family”—and according to them it wasn’t a gang.
“It was a street with a bunch of really tight families,” said Tony Lucero, who grew up on the block with eight siblings.
When Lucero first met Frank Peña—the new 11-year-old on the block who was a whiz at sports and spoke English with an accent—low-rider culture and the “cholo scene” were big in the neighborhood. Only Lucero’s spit-shine charm could coax Peña’s protective mother, Olga, into letting him out to play. She was from Nicaragua, but she knew that what happened on 24th Street—the guys with headbands, the cars cruising, the girls, the drugs and alcohol—could swallow a boy up, according to family friend Ricardo “Junior” Martinez.
Thirty years later, Peña was still living with her when he was shot at Papa Potrero’s restaurant on 24th Street alongside 26-year-old Francisco “Cisco” Cornejo in September. Police believe the brawl, which started with fists not guns, was Norteño-on-Norteño gang violence.
But Peña wasn’t active in a gang, neighbors and some close to him insist. He’d beaten his demons, they said, such as selling and using crack, which led to scattered county jail stints from 1991 to 2000. He’d created a new life with a full-time job, a newborn son and a girlfriend studying to be a nurse. Kids looked up to him, and neighbors saw him as a gregarious, magnetic family man who had learned to navigate the Mission’s many worlds.
But another close friend—and police reports—indicate that Peña’s involvement with gangs, at least through the 90s, was more significant than neighbors or friends knew or let on.
In recent years, however, friends say Peña’s message to kids was to stay off the street.
“Me and Frank were the ones who stayed on the corner. We were the ones who showed the younger kids how to come up,” said Tony Echevarria, one of Peña’s best friends from childhood, of being a 30-something on the block. “[We] saw it as a special responsibility to keep our way of doing things, our legacy.”
Their way of doing things meant not looking for trouble, and definitely not letting a small argument or fight escalate.
According to Sergeant Mario Molina, the San Francisco Police Department’s foremost expert on Latino gangs who arrested Peña several times over the years, these kinds of shootings often start over a “personal matter”—minor insults, arguments over girls.
“If there was a turf war, we’d see more bodies,” he said of the murders.
Unraveling exactly why Peña ended up a victim of alleged gang violence may not be clear until the 19-year-old charged with this murder stands trial, but the life and death of Peña, the 41-year-old 49ers fan, offers a glimpse of how difficult escaping one’s past can be.
The Center of Their Universe
Peña moved to the Mission in 1979, when he was in sixth grade. Photographs show him with Adidas stripes racing down his gangly sleeves, huge eyes and big teeth. He was the youngest of the kids in “Shotwell” football jerseys, the only one with his white collar popping out from below. In more recent photos, he’d filled out and traded his baseball cap for a trim-cut goatee and mustache, tattoos on his forearms and gold earrings in both ears.
It was only a year after Peña first moved to the neighborhood that gang activity took root in the Mission said Sergeant Molina. “It wasn’t about colors at first,” he said, referring to the red versus blue rivalry between the two major gangs active in the Mission, the Norteños and the Sureños. That didn’t come about until the mid-80s. Back then, “It was about neighborhoods.”
That was true for Peña and his peers. He and his three best friends—Corey Edgerly, Tony Echevarria and Tony Lucero, all born the same year—were inseparable, “like brothers,” Peña’s mother said. They called Peña “Turtle.” And Shotwell Street was the center of their universe.
Its energy had centripetal force.
“You could walk from Mission to Potrero on 24th Street and you were probably shaking hands like you were running for president,” said Edgerly. “You knew everyone.”
During the summer of seventh grade— “that summer,” they call it—the four friends spent their days cruising on bikes down to Pier 39 to play arcade games, “strutting and breaking” to hip hop, practicing the robot and—more than anything—playing sports.
“Any sport that had to do with legs, Frank excelled at,” baseball and football especially, said Echevarria, who at 6’8” went on to play professional basketball in Puerto Rico and Mexico. “[Frank] could run like a gazelle.”
“Sports were an escape. It kind of felt like bliss when you were playing,” said Edgerly.
The older brothers organized baseball and basketball teams, which were a great way to keep out of trouble and blow off steam.
“It was a less violent time,” Edgerly remembers, “a time when friends weren’t dying.”
Tattoos, Parties and Drugs
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that people started carrying guns, said Echevarria, and “the whole culture changed.”
“What happened to Frank… it was unheard of when we were growing up,” he said. “We weren’t about running into somebody’s pizza shop in broad daylight and doing something like that.”
But it wasn’t all sunny during the years Peña and his friends went from being adolescents to young men. Echevarria said of the older boys they idolized, “They taught us how to drink, how to smoke, the correct way of doing a negative thing.”
As teenagers, Peña and his crew traded in bikes for cars. Then came tattoos, parties and eventually drugs.
“We got high a lot. We experimented with cocaine, we smoked weed,” Echevarria said. “But we weren’t drug addicts.”
That would come later for several of the kids growing up on Shotwell, including Peña and Edgerly.
“Tony Lucero is the only person I knew growing up who has never drank or done any pot,” said Ricardo “Junior” Martinez, one of the slightly older guys who remained friends with Peña throughout his life and who also struggled with addiction from a young age.
In 1986 at the age of 18, Peña’s father gave him a brand new Ford Mustang, which he loved to race through the city with friends, and there was no looking back. School was secondary to having a good time, and Peña never graduated from Mission High School.
Through their early 20s, Peña and his friends loved to go clubbing, not just in the Mission but all over the city. “We would love to boogie and get down,” said Edgerly.
But at some point around this time, Peña’s experimentation with drugs crossed a line, and by 1991, landed him in jail for the first time.
That Drug Makes You Do Things You’d Never Dreamed You’d Be Doing
Peña wasn’t alone. Drugs in the Mission were a “rampage” through the nineties, according to Sergeant Molina.
“You couldn’t walk down 24th Street without getting offered dope,” said Molina of the early part of the decade. Dealers sold drugs out of their mouths and hid their stashes in the chaos of Asian-owned dollar stores on Mission Street, he said.
It was then that Peña started asking friends for money, and stealing.
“That drug makes you do things you’d never dream you’d be doing,” said Martinez, who was also addicted at the time.
“He used to carry a gas can to get money to support his habit,” said Louis Lucero, a close friend of Peña’s and Tony Lucero’s older brother.
Peña’s behavior nearly ruined his friendship with Louis Lucero at one point when Peña let himself into Lucero’s mother’s house unannounced. She came from the back of the house to find him standing in her kitchen. She told him never to come back, and he ran out.
Later that day, Louis found him hanging out at 25th and Treat streets.
“I grabbed him and threw up against the wall. I told him don’t even come on the block anymore,” he said. “That kind of shook him up. Right after that, he went to jail.”
Peña was 23 years old when he was sentenced to a month in jail for possession of PCP in 1991, according to court documents. It was the first of several drug-related arrests over the next decade, all with a similar outcome: county jail for six months or less, probation, work swap or drug treatment.
Friends and family lost track of him soon after he served his time in 1991.
“He left and we do not know where he is,” his brother, Lucas Monge, wrote in a letter to the court. Monge’s death eight years later would have a major impact on Peña turning his life around, friends say. But at that time, he wasn’t reporting to his probation officer, and a judge issued a bench warrant.
Friends mention him moving to Daly City to live with his father and then to Philadelphia before returning to live with his mom in the house where he grew up on Shotwell Street.
“It was probably pretty lonely for him when he came out,” said Louis Lucero, referring to jail. “I guess from all those years of him just running around and burning people, he had to get their trust back.”
Peña began making amends.
“After he got out, he made it a point to come up to me. He thanked me for [shaking him in the alley that day]. Actually for saving his life, he said,” said Louis, the memory choking him with tears.
But Peña’s troubles with drugs continued, according to court documents.
In 1994 he was sentenced to six months in country jail—his longest sentence for any crime—for being caught driving a stolen car a block from his house on Shotwell Street. In 1998 he picked up a felony for selling cocaine. And in 1999 he was arrested first for selling crack to an undercover officer on Mission and 24th streets and later for stashing 14 crack rocks in his sock and 40 more in his trunk.
The police report from Peña’s arrest in 1999 describes him as an “active Norteño gang member,” though the extent of his involvement remains unclear. He likely had some affiliation with the gang if he was selling drugs at a prime selling location like 24th and Mission streets. According to Sergeant Molina, drug dealers selling in Norteño territory had to either gain gang membership or “pay rent” for permission to sell.
Peña was not listed on the 2007 Norteño gang injunction and many friends insist that he was unfairly labeled a gang member because he was Latino and wore red 49ers gear.
Tony Echevarria is the only of his close childhood friends to acknowledge that Peña had any relationship with the Norteños whatsoever.
“We’re all from the Northside, and we’re red and we have love for all our Northside people,” Echevarria said of he and Peña, referring to Norteños. But they weren’t out to fight Sureños, he said.
“People drift in and drift out [of gangs],” said Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s chief public defender. “People who aren’t involved in gang activities consider themselves Norteños. Then there are hardcore gang members,” he said, citing a 1997 study that assessed gang violence in San Francisco.
“Do we know these people? Yes,” said Echevarria said of hardcore gang members in the Mission. “I know the gang members and the people in prison and the people who are doing the selling and killing. But when they were going to kill somebody, we weren’t the people who they called to jump in the car.”
Echevarria was one of last of their original friend group from childhood to leave the Mission when he moved to Florida in 2003. He hasn’t visited since 2005, suggesting that he cannot visit without getting caught back up.
Back in the Flow
Even as Peña was still caught up with drugs and the law as late as 2000, friends report that he began piecing together a different kind of life starting in the late nineties. In or around 1998, Peña’s old friend Junior Martinez was trying to get him a job working on the Golden Gate Bridge. He had already trained for and passed the driving exam, but he got sent back to jail just before his interview.
Recognizing Peña’s strides towards change, a judge commented on the seeming senselessness of him still being caught up in the law.
“I can’t understand why a guy with this background here is doing this stuff again,” the judge said in court in 1999, referring Peña’s job at Goodwill, where he was working as a donation truck driver, friends say.
This was soon after Peña’s brother Lucas Monge died, which deeply affected him. Peña was in custody at the time, though court records show he was granted permission for leave to attend the funeral.
“That was real tough on his mom. And real tough on him because he wasn’t there when it happened,” said Louis Lucero. “It was a big changing point in his life. He didn’t want to have anything to do with the fast life after that.”
“When he came back, he was on fire,” said Edgerly of Peña’s return from fast living and jail time. “He was eager, just positive. He got away from whatever demons [he had.]”
From the late-’90s through his death in 2009, Peña became a neighborhood fixture on Shotwell Street. Always hanging out on his stoop after work, neighbors came to know him for his routine. He started a full-time job at City Electric Supply, which he held until his murder and friends said he loved. On the weekends, he spent hours washing his beloved white ’80s Mustang convertible and silver Lexus with fancy rims as salsa music played on the boom box, neighbors said.
“Frank was not out there talking crap to people…[he] had a purpose in life,” said Tammy, a neighbor of nearly 25 years who only wanted to use her first name. “He was trying to do the best he could given the fact that he lived in the Mission. His big thing was to take care of his mom and his girlfriend.”
Even those new to the neighborhood saw more than the tattoos down his forearms and tough-guy appearance.
Alli Warren was one of them. She describes herself as the “girl in her financial district clothes… playing the role of a gentrifier.” She and her boyfriend moved into the unit right next to Peña in 2005, where they stayed for three years.
“Frank could have easily felt we were impeding on his space. But he was consistently friendly with us,” she said. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons I had so much affection for Frank. He kind of welcomed us in. It was his stoop, his block. If he liked us, everyone had to…it’s hard to reconcile [what police saying about] Frank being in a gang actively with everything I saw of his daily life.”
Warren recalls walking by a large group of kids hanging out drinking and smoking in front of the house. They didn’t harass her; they offered a cigarette.
“He was a down-to-earth person…. just really easy to talk to,” said Tony Lucero of why kids in the neighborhood looked up to Peña so much.
“He’d tell people to stay off the street, but still in a cool way. You have to have that kind of toughness when you’re from the concrete jungle,” said Louis Lucero.
At the time of their deaths, Peña was letting Cornejo stay at his house, according to friends. Cornejo’s mother died a few years ago, and he would have been homeless were it not for Peña, said Louis Lucero.
The 26-year-old Cornejo’s most recent entanglements with the law were in 2006, according to court records, though it appears the only crime he was convicted for was harassment by telephone. Like Peña, he was not listed on the Norteño gang injunction.
“He saw something in Cisco he was trying to preserve,” said Martinez. “Every time you saw Frank, you saw Cisco.”
Other than Cornejo, Peña left time for his son, “Little Frank,” who is a few months shy of a year old, and his girlfriend Marjorie Reyes, the mother of his son, who could not be reached for comment.
Peña talked of moving away from the Mission to create a better life for his son, several friends mentioned.
“’I don’t really want little Frank raised in the same environment I was raised in,’” neighbor Allie Warren recalled him saying.
And indeed, moving away from the neighborhood was what it took many of his friends to escape the demons that chased them, be it gang affiliation or drugs. Peña was the only one of his close childhood friends who still lived on the block.
“I heard he tried to move away a couple of months ago, but it didn’t work out for him,” said Edgerly. “That’s the block. I can’t really fault that because it’s everything to us, he said.”
“Our whole identity in a way.”