Early one morning last November, Emilio Franco and his wife awoke to the noise of men breaking into their Downey home.
When the two intruders burst into the couple's bedroom, Franco was prepared.
Years earlier, someone had threatened to kidnap his son, and ever since he'd kept a loaded .45-caliber pistol by his bed, his attorney says. According to family members, Franco scuffled briefly with the strangers before gunfire erupted.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 21, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Showman's killing: An article in the July 20 Section A about the killing of nightclub owner Emilio Franco said that Franco was a native of the Mexican state of Sinaloa. He was born in Mezcala, in the state of Jalisco.
Police arrived to find one of the intruders critically injured and Franco dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. Franco's wife survived. The second attacker escaped and has not been found.
The slaying generated little notice in English-language media. But Franco's death stunned many in the Mexican immigrant community in Los Angeles and across the border in Mexico.
Franco was a nightclub owner and showman who helped promote the wildly popular narco-corrido music scene that took root in Southern California. Singers launched careers at Franco's clubs, belting out corridos -- ballads with a polka beat -- about drug smugglers.
The barrel-chested 53-year-old with the jet-black mustache and heavy eyebrows was also a successful actor, appearing in more than 40 Mexican pulp films, often playing drug lords or avenging ranchers.
Prosecutors have charged Larry Trujillo, 30, with murder and burglary in Franco's death. Authorities say the reason for the crime remains a mystery and they know of no prior connection between the two men.
Trujillo, who remains hospitalized, has previous convictions for receiving stolen property and being a felon in possession of a gun. In June, he was wheeled into court on a gurney for his arraignment and pleaded not guilty.
Among films typical of Franco's career was "Corrido of Juan Martha," the story of a poor boy who sees his father gunned down by a wealthy landowner for stealing some chickens. The boy avenges the killing as a man and is caught and executed by firing squad. Franco played both father and son in the 2001 film, which he also produced.
"It's amazing that he portrayed those roles in movies and then had to die this way," said Hector Gonzalez, his attorney and friend.
Franco, a native of the state of Sinaloa, entered the U.S. illegally at age 13, stowing away atop railroad boxcars.
He worked as a dishwasher, then moved to a fertilizer company and later held jobs as a construction worker and security guard at the same time, routinely clocking 18-hour days, said his son, Emilio Franco Jr. When the owner of the security firm grew old, he sold the business to Franco, his son said.
Among Franco's clients was Peter McDonnell, a British immigrant who operated two clubs: The Irish Pub and later Tiberius, a remodeled bowling alley that served the large Mexican immigrant population in the Pico-Union district.
Franco learned to manage clubs by watching McDonnell and thought he'd try his hand in the nightclub business. With his earnings from construction and security, Franco bought several small bars in the Florence area.
Around this time, thousands of immigrants from the ranching states of northwest Mexico were moving from areas near downtown Los Angeles to the cities of southeast L.A. County.
"He saw the opportunity there," said McDonnell, who remained his bookkeeper and friend.
In 1991, Franco bought a small club in a Lynwood shopping center and renamed it El Farallon, Spanish for "the cliff by the sea." It became one of the southeast county's first Mexican nightclubs, serving food, alcohol and music.
Hilda Portillo, a friend and fellow bar owner, said she urged Franco to hire groups from Sinaloa, a Mexican state known both for drug trafficking and for its deep musical tradition. Many Lynwood-area residents were from Sinaloa.
Franco welcomed amateur singers and those who'd privately recorded albums but were ignored by Mexican radio stations or record labels. They often sang of tragedias, the killings and family feuds common in the ranchos back home.
One of them was a thin, steely-eyed Sinaloan ranchero named Chalino Sanchez.
Sanchez wore a cowboy hat and a loaded gun onstage. His singing was famously bad. His songs amounted to an oral history of the beleaguered villages of northwest Mexico. He sold his cassettes at swap meets and at El Farallon and became popular in the underground Mexican music scene. His fame helped launch the club.
"When Chalino began to play, there is when the place really got packed. Chalino wasn't known then except by Sinaloans, and they filled the place," Portillo recalled.
Sanchez was murdered after a show in Sinaloa in 1992. His death ignited Chalino-mania and made him a Southern California legend. His valiente -- tough-guy -- image continues to appeal to U.S.-born youths who'd once scorned their immigrant parents' tuba- and accordion-based music.
Looking for the next Chalino, Franco opened his stage to untrained youths, mostly American-born.