Grappling With Gangs, Salt Lake City Turns To Racketeering Laws
When it comes to gang activity, most people picture cities like Los Angeles and Newark. But gangs are a problem in unexpected places, too — like Salt Lake City, where law enforcement officials are using federal racketeering charges to try to bring them down.
It's a Wednesday night, and Sgt. Lex Bell is driving on the city's streets, gathering tips from some of his informants. Within just a few hours, he's picked up a known white supremacist named Richard Bice who is wanted on weapons violations. Officers direct Bice, known as "Danny," to a police cruiser and pull 12 grams of black tar heroin and some crystal meth from his pockets.
"We live and die by intelligence," says Bell, who works with the county police department's gang unit. "In the Metro Gang Unit, that is the number one thing we're known for, is intelligence. We know who's who in the zoo and we know how to find it out if we need to."
Bell says there are a lot of different gangs in Salt Lake County — Asian, Latino, white supremacist. He says the police "run into someone from about every group, every night."
But it's the Tongan Crip Gang, or "TCG", that's been in the spotlight in Salt Lake City lately.
In May, an alleged member of TCG, 25-year-old Siale Angilau, was 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 among a group of TCG members who have stood trial under federal racketeering charges.
Mataika Tuai served a five-year federal prison sentence for his involvement with TCG. Some of his cohorts will serve sentences upwards of 20 years. "We were doing things when we were young. You know what I mean?" Tuai says. "Stealing chips. Stealing beer. I'm not saying it's good. It's not ... Nobody is making money at all. I sure didn't."
Many of the alleged TCG gang 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 Island descent, whose families immigrated to Utah after joining the Mormon Church — though you don't necessarily have to be Polynesian to be a member of TCG.
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.
"That punishment will never fit whatever crime he did — whatever crime they said he did," Tuai says.
Salt Lake City attorney Richard Mauro, who represented one of the accused gang members, says the crimes these young men committed do not merit federal RICO charges.
"Racketeering is reserved for cases like — Al Capone was, I suppose, the best example that you could talk about," Mauro says. "They realized his criminal enterprise had a vertical structure — money making, drug dealing, racketeering, those sorts of things. And our clients are simply not those people."
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, they say.
Sgt. Lex Bell with the Metro Gang Unit says sometimes RICO is the only way to send a message to criminals.
"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," Bell says.
The Tongan Crips are not the only Utah gang being 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.