Kevin Johnson, USA Today, May 26, 2014
Just before gunfire rang out last month in a heavily guarded federal courtroom, Hema Katoa saw the defendant suddenly rise from his chair and charge the man in the witness box who was testifying against him.
It was a stunning development that played out in full view of the judge and jury on the first day of a racketeering conspiracy trial involving an accused gang member who would ultimately collapse on the courtroom floor, fatally wounded by a U.S. marshal.
A month later, the incident is shining a harsh spotlight on the unusual origins of a criminal gang that continues to thrive in a most unlikely place–Salt Lake City–and raises new questions about the extraordinary strategies law enforcement officials are employing to combat the group.
The weight of the morning’s trauma did not fully register until hours later, when Katoa learned that his nephew, part of Salt Lake City’s tightly knit Tongan community who had been swept into the ranks of a brutal affiliate of the Crip street gang, was dead.
Since Siale Angilau’s dramatic courtroom death, Katoa’s days are a mix of grief and the ongoing struggle to “protect” other Pacific Islander children–many ironically brought by families from gang-infested Southern California neighborhoods to be closer to their Mormon faith–from sliding into the ranks of the Tongan Crip Gang.
The courtroom shooting is even more difficult to reconcile with Salt Lake City, home to the Mormon church and the gateway to some of America’s most exclusive ski resorts. Yet the presence of Angilau’s so-called TCG has been an unfortunate reality for more than two decades.
Ron Stallworth, a founder of the state’s gang task force, in 1989 first identified the presence in Utah of the Tongan gang, heavily influenced by the Los Angeles-based Crips.
Attracted by the Mormon church, whose missionaries were active in the Pacific Islands for years, many Tongans first immigrated to Southern California, then moved to Utah in part to escape the gang influence.
But, Stallworth said, “A natural consequence of that move was the transfer of the gang culture.”
Ever since, authorities have been engaged in a constant struggle to contain the TCG as well as an array of 30 other gangs across Utah, according to the Justice Department’s National Gang Threat Assessment.
Though the Tongan gang is small by national standards–by some local police estimates it has more than 100 members–the enforcement effort has become even more difficult in the wake of Angilau’s death.
Of Salt Lake County’s estimated 1 million population, nearly 2% are Pacific Islander and/or native Hawaiian, according to U.S. Census data.
Meanwhile, some community activists are seizing on the incident to question law enforcement’s deadly courtroom response, which remains the subject of a separate federal inquiry. (Angilau, armed with a pointed instrument, likely a pen, was shot several times by the U.S. marshal when he lunged at the witness.)
Since the shooting, the federal government’s prosecution of local gang members under a law initially designed to saddle powerful organized crime figures with long prison sentences–the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO–also is drawing fresh scrutiny from Pacific Islander justice advocates.
“We’re not trying to justify what some of these people have done,” said Inoke Hafoka, a representative of the Utah Pacific Islander Justice Coalition. “We just feel that some of these crimes don’t fit the charges. (Federal prosecutors) are slapping these charges on a whole group of our young men who are being sent away for years.”
Within the ranks of the TCG, Angilau was known simply as “C-Down.”
And in a group known for targeting area convenience stores, C-Down was a prolific operator.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank characterized the once-talented former East High School defensive lineman as “a ringleader” in a group that specializes in violent ”takeovers” of area convenience stores, restaurants and other small businesses.
Between 2002 and 2007, federal court documents detail Angilau’s involvement in at least five local 7-Eleven store robberies, including two on consecutive nights.
In each of those incidents, store clerks were assaulted and one was shot. And in a separate case, Angilau was implicated in the assault of two federal officers.
The incidents, according to court documents, were part of the “work” members perform to “show their dedication to the enterprise.”
Simultaneous allegiances to the gang, family and their Mormon or other religious faiths, authorities said, are common among TCG members–qualities that seem to shatter the profile of the typical gang member. (Although many members are Mormon, Katoa said Angilau was Methodist.)
“I was investigating a drive-by firebombing and when we got the guy, we found the Book of Mormon in his hip pocket,” Stallworth said. “He was studying for his mission while he was out there tossing Molotov cocktails.”
In another notable case, Burbank said, authorities recovered photos showing a suspected TCG member on his Mormon mission, flashing gang signs to his fellow gang members back home.
Stallworth also describes how investigators sometimes located TCG suspects by staking out their churches.
Mormon church officials declined to comment.
Angilau’s death has struck Hafoka in a very personal way.
The activist witnessed his own younger brother, Filikisi “Junior” Hafoka, slide into the ranks of the TCG, even while tending to his family and maintaining tenuous ties to his Mormon faith.
Like Angilau, Junior was implicated in a violent 2007 convenience store robbery and sentenced by the judge who presided last month at Angilau’s trial to 12 years in federal prison.
The sentence left the family shaken and, ultimately, shattered. Just more than two years into his term, the 23-year-old inmate was stabbed to death in a prison riot.
“We’re hesitant to talk about these things,” Hafoka said, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s tough to know how to approach all of this.”
Moana Ulu’ave also is a witness to the turmoil engulfing her community.
“My generation has been hit hard by this,” said Angilau’s former classmate, now a graduate student at Harvard University.
Three years ago, Ulu’ave said, another “good friend,” Kepa Maumau, was sentenced to more than 40 years in federal prison in a related RICO case for a series of gang-related robberies and other crimes.
Burbank said he is wary of law enforcement strategies that could disproportionately punish minorities. But the police chief said the federal charges were appropriate in the TCG cases.
“As long as we focus on the behavior, and in these cases we had people involved in takeover robberies and homicide,” he said.
But Langford, Angilau’s attorney, said the RICO charges represent a misplaced application of federal law against a group that bears no resemblance to the organized crime groups for which the statute was created to fight.
“This isn’t Goodfellas here,” the attorney said, referring to the celebrated 1990 Martin Scorsese movie about the mob. “They had no rule book, no organization. The offenses alleged were spontaneous acts of criminality.”