Gang confab: Crime ensnaring Utah's Polynesian youth

Published April 1, 2009 5:11 pm
'We're losing too many' » Gang conference targets solutions, prevention
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A Glendale Family Dollar store manager killed during a botched robbery.

A Kearns High School student shot blocks from a campus swarming with students.

A Salt Lake City teenager discovered riddled with bullets on a West Valley City golf course.

In all three recent murders, the accused killers are young Polynesians -- an alarming trend law enforcement, school, church and community leaders want to stop. They plan to strategize at the state's 19th Annual Gang Conference, which starts Thursday in Sandy.

Besides the need to curb the crime and violence that accompany gangs, Polynesian leaders offer another reason for a renewed urgency: gang activity too often is becoming a stereotype associated with Polynesians in Utah, creating a false portrait of islanders and overshadowing their positive strides in the state.

"Pacific Islander gangs in the last 18 to 24 months have made a lot of noise. They've been very, very active," said Fotu Katoa, director of Pacific Islander Affairs for the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs, who will speak at the gang conference.

"We're losing too many of our Pacific Islanders to the prison system, to the gang life and even to death," he said. "What happens if there's not a change?"

History of gang problem

Of the roughly 5,000 gang members documented by the Salt Lake Area Gang Project in 2008, about 8 percent are Polynesian. Half are Latino; most are male.

In an analysis by the Metro Gang Unit of the biggest active gangs in the Salt Lake area, a Tongan gang ranked third. Five other Polynesian gangs, with dozens of gang members, also made the list.

The numbers reflect the growth of Utah's Polynesian community, estimated at 20,000 -- and the nation's fourth largest -- in the 2000 Census. More than half live in Salt Lake County.

Samoan and Tongan immigrants started landing in the U.S. in the mid-1970s. Most arrived after joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hawaii; many were pursuing better education and jobs, West Valley City Police Detective Trudy Cropper told gang investigators in a recent training.

Police began noticing a disconnect as some Tongan and Samoan children, used to tightly knit communities in the islands, weren't meshing with the culture in their new homeland.

"Kids wanted to be part of something. They wanted to be Tongan, they wanted to be Samoan, because they didn't have ties to the culture they left behind," Cropper said. "So they joined a gang."

Awakening Utah

As Polynesian gangs blossomed in California in the 1980s and 1990s, their influence stretched to Utah. It was the brutal act of a Polynesian gang member that jolted the state into acknowledging its simmering gang problem.

On Sept. 1, 1993, Asi Mohi shot and killed 17-year-old Aaron Chapman after a concert at the Triad Amphitheater in Salt Lake City. Chapman was stuck in traffic when Mohi and seven to 10 fellow blue-clad gangsters kicked and beat him.

Mohi - who was 17 and a West High School football captain - threw the first punch at Chapman before shooting him once in the heart. Chapman apparently was targeted for his red shirt, seen as the "wrong" color by the gang.

The downtown murder spurred then-Gov. Mike Leavitt to call a special session of the Legislature to attack juvenile crime with stiffer penalties. Mohi recently was released from prison and relatives say he is rebuilding his life.

More recent crimes have again sparked outrage. Family Dollar store manager Wally Knapton was shot to death during a March 2008 robbery attempt by three Tongan gang members. The youngest assailant was just 13.

And the shooting at Kearns High School in January drew more than 800 residents to a community meeting.

"Gang activity is a roller coaster; some years it is up and some years it is down," said Hema Katoa, a social worker in the Jordan School District, who will speak at the gang conference Thursday.

"The problem is the roller coaster hasn't stopped."

A matter of faith

The tragedies have sparked rallying call to educate parents and connect families with resources. In a session at Thursday's conference, Fotu Katoa will argue the key to stopping gangs -- and especially Polynesian gangs -- will hinge on churches becoming involved.

While Latinos have institutions such as the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce or the Centro Civico Mexicano, Pacific Islanders have no such outlets, he said.

But they do attend churches, including three Tongan LDS wards in Salt Lake and Utah counties. Church leaders are considered mentors in the Polynesian community and encouraging them to help reel in wayward youth will go far, he said.

"Regardless of the ruckus they cause, they belong to an organized religion," Fotu Katoa said, referring to Polynesian gang members. "Pacific Islanders are very faith-based. It's rare to find an atheist."

Some churches are already experimenting with gang prevention. The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Salt Lake City started an after school program to keep kids off the street and to provide tutoring for homework, Fotu Katoa said.

Richard Kaufusi, who is president of the LDS Cannon Stake in Glendale, has organized gang awareness sessions for parents. He also has recruited former gang members to speak to at-risk youth in his congregation, Fotu Katoa said.

The LDS Church Foundation is one of the Utah Gang Conference's largest benefactors. It has provided $10,000 every year since 2002, said Scott Trotter, a church spokesman. While the church doesn't have a specific anti-gang curriculum, church leaders reach out when they see young people at risk, he said.

Grassroot efforts

Grass-roots groups also are taking up the cause of helping young Polynesians. Former Glendale gang member Kaisa Kinikini founded the Stand a Little Taller (S.A.L.T.) program, which helps connect former gang members to jobs, education and healthy fun, such as its semi-pro Warriorz football team.

The FACE Movement began mentoring youth at Kearns High after the shooting earlier this year, and aspires to start a charter school that focuses on activism, said Asaeli Matelau, 23, the group's community organizer.

Building relationships with Polynesian families will be key to battling gangs, said Hema Katoa. Rather than seeking counseling or advice from schools, many Polynesian families are more likely to call a family meeting, perhaps deciding to send a struggling youth to live with another relative, he explained.

"When issues come up, [Pacific Islanders] turn inward. In American culture, people go outward," he said.

Improving the understanding and respect of Polynesian culture is crucial for schools, agencies and community groups offering assistance, he said.

To unite Utah's Polynesians, Fotu Katoa is planning a June summit on criminal justice, education and economic development. He is frustrated the community's achievements are overshadowed by crime reports.

From cultural festivals to scholarship programs and successful businesses, he said, "we've done so many great things."

A worrying trend

Law enforcement and community leaders are concerned about a recent string of murders involving young accused Polynesian killers.

West Valley City » Prosecutors allege a 14-year-old and three others - Jeremiah Ha'k Williamson, 26, Shardise Olataga Malaga, 19, and Spencer Isaiah Cater, 18, orchestrated a string of robberies that culminated in the murder of JoJo Lee Brandstatt on Feb. 6. Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller has said Brandstatt and the four defendants belonged to rival gangs.

Kearns » Ricky Angilau, 16, is charged with murder in the Jan. 21 shooting of fellow Kearns High School student 16-year-old Esteban Saidi. Police have said the shooting followed a gang-related fight between Angilau and another teen, but Angilau's family insists the rivalry was an ethnic dispute between Polynesians and Latinos.

Salt Lake City» Biu Benjamin Olive, 18, is serving at least 30 years in prison for the March 12, 2008, shooting death of Family Dollar store manager Wallace Knapton, 49. Olive fled with $180 from a register, which he split with a 13-year-old who accompanied him and their 20-year-old getaway driver, Sarah Ataata. She is serving up to life in prison and the boy is in juvenile detention, up to age 21.

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