Grappling With Gangs, Salt Lake City Turns To Racketeering Laws Law enforcement in Utah's capital is using federal organized-crime charges to try to rein in groups like the Tongan Crips. One officer says it's sometimes the only way to send a message to criminals.

Grappling With Gangs, Salt Lake City Turns To Racketeering Laws

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If you think about where city - If you think about cities where gang violence is a problem Salt Lake City is probably not the first place that comes to mind. But over the past decade a Polynesian gang called the Tongan Crips, has been thriving there. Whittney Evans of member station KUER in Salt Lake City takes a look at police efforts to get gang violence under control.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: It's Wednesday night and Sgt. Lex Bell with the Salt Lake County Metro Gang Unit is driving Salt Lake City streets and gathering tips from some of his informants.

SGT. LEX BELL: We live and die by intelligence in the Metro Gang Unit. That is the number one thing we are known for is intelligence. We know who's who in the zoo and we know how to find it out if we need to.

EVANS: In just a couple of hours he picks up a known white supremacist named Richard Bice also known as Danny, who is wanted on weapons violations.

BELL: Danny, are you OK?


EVANS: Several officers enter a trailer home in a Salt Lake City suburb around 10 p.m., and emerge with a 51-year-old gang banger in handcuffs. They direct him into the headlights of the police cruiser and pull from his pockets 12 grams of black tar heroin and some crystal meth, tossing them onto the hood of the car.

BELL: We run into some of them about - every group every night. So I couldn't say necessarily this is who our biggest problem is because it's - it changes.

EVANS: Bell says there are a lot of different gangs in Salt Lake County. Asian, Latino, white supremacist, but it's the Tongan Crip Gang or TCG that's been in the spotlight lately. Last month an alleged member of TCG, 25-year-old Siale Angilau was shot and killed by a U.S. Marshall in Salt Lake City's federal courthouse. He was shot while attacking another gang member on the witness stand. Angilau was the last among a slew of TCG members to stand trial under federal racketeering charges.

MATAIKA TUAI: We were doing things when we were young. You know what I mean?

EVANS: Mataika Tuai served a five year federal prison sentence for his involvement with TCG. But some of his cohorts will serve upwards of twenty years, after having already served time in state prison for their crimes.

TUAI: Stealing chips, you know, stealing beer, you know, I'm not saying it's, good it's not.

EVANS: So nobody’s really making any big money off of this.

TUAI: No, nobody's making money at all. I sure didn't.

EVANS: Many of the alleged TCG members were teenagers when they were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act or RICO, which was originally created to take down the Mafia. The gang is mostly made up of young men of Tongan and other Pacific Islander desent whose families immigrated to Utah after joining the Mormon Church. But you don't necessarily have to be Polynesian to be a member of the gang. Tuai says the shooting death of gang member Siale Angilau in federal court is an example of how Tongans are being unfairly targeted and feared.

TUAI: That punishment will never fit whatever crime he did. Whatever crime they said he did.

EVANS: The crimes these young men committed do not merit federal RICO charges, says Salt Lake City attorney Richard Mauro. He represented one of the accused TCG members.

RICHARD MAURO: Racketeering is reserved for cases like - Al Capone was I suppose the best example that you could talk about, they realize that he had a vertical structure - criminal enterprise had a vertical structure. Money making, drug-dealing, racketeering, those sorts of things, and our clients are simply not those people.

EVANS: Federal prosecutors allege the crimes TCG members have committed are more serious than a few convenience store beer runs. They say the gang is responsible for numerous assaults, armed robberies and even murder, all efforts to protect and expand the gang's presence in the Salt Lake Valley. Sgt. Lex Bell with the Metro Gang Unit says sometimes RICO is the only way to send a message to criminals.

BELL: We know how hard we work and how much we do care about making the world a better place and how frustrating it can be to us to have arrested the same person six times in two months.

EVANS: The Tongan Crips is not the only Utah gang charged with racketeering. Federal prosecutors have used RICO laws to take down other gangs as well, including Tiny Oriental Posse and Soldiers of Aryan Culture. For NPR News, I'm Whittney Evans in Salt Lake City.


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