It was one of the strangest crimes of a strange era in San Jose. In August 1982, a man dressed as a woman pulled a gun on a 26-year-old father and his 2-year-old son, forcing them into their own van in what police believe was an attempted sexual assault.
The young father, Frank Montanez Jr., fought back, grabbing his abductor's .22-caliber handgun and fatally shooting him in the knee and abdomen. Before he died, the assailant stabbed Montanez to death and sliced the throat of his toddler, Frankie.
Propped against his father's shoulder, Frankie somehow survived. Aside from his gaping throat wound, his neck had been broken in a way that left him a virtual quadriplegic, deprived of movement except for a floppy right arm.
His doctors thought at first that Frankie wouldn't survive beyond 3. Then it was 7, and then 10. At 16, with a catheter permanently installed, he was in and out of the hospital. He still managed to graduate from high school, a young man with an outgoing personality.
Frankie died in Grass Valley on March 16 at age 32, a victim of complications from a kidney infection. The coda in his short and tumultuous life was written last Friday, when he was buried before 130 relatives and friends at Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose.
His family had contacted the Mercury News because money is tight and they sought contributions for his burial. If you're interested in helping, you can reach Frankie's mother, Molly Pau-Uribe, at 13397 McCarter Way, Grass Valley, CA 95949.
A double life
What sets the case apart is the crime: The assailant, Wayne Zacher, was a co-owner of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Pittsburg. Operating under the name of John Sharkey, he had a secret life that led him to wear a blond wig and intersect the path of a father and son in an Alpha Beta grocery store parking lot at Quimby and White roads.
What gives the story resonance, however, is Frankie's survival against the odds. The toddler grew up to be a young man with a taste for loud music and good food. "He tried to be as normal as possible,'' said his uncle, Richard Pau. "He didn't want to be handicapped.''
That wish defied physics. Because of the attack, Frankie had a permanent hole in his throat. His body couldn't control its temperature. He had to wear a "turtle vest'' that kept him upright. His torso was big. His legs were tiny.
Yet he manipulated the knuckle on his right hand to type at a credible speed. He used his tongue to send text messages to friends. His friends say he took every ride at Great America but Vortex.
"It was just amazing what he did,'' Pau said. "With that flopping motion, he fed himself. He would put food on a fork and then flop it toward his mouth quickly.''
Frankie had a big personality. Maybe he needed one to survive the down moments that haunted him now and then. At his burial, his family played one of his favorite songs, "Forever Young,''
"Forever young, I want to be forever young,'' the lyrics went. —Do you really want to live forever, forever forever?''