The Gangs Among Us

It was well after the witching hour on the muggy morning of April 6, 1993. Korean-American businessman Choong Il Suh and his wife were asleep in the master bedroom of their ranch style house in the 1100 block of Plumbrook Drive in far southwest Houston, blissfully unaware that a strange vehicle had glided to a quiet stop outside. Their tranquil slumber was soon shattered.

Shortly before 2:30, Choong and his wife were rudely jolted awake, thrust abruptly into consciousness by the shocking appearance of two slender men with ski masks over their faces and vicious-looking pistols clutched tightly in their fists. "We want your money," one of the men screamed, waving his weapon in front of Choong's unfocused eyes. "And your wife's jewelry."

One of Choong's daughters, sleeping in a rear bedroom, also was awakened by the men's abrupt and noisy entry. As her groggy father tried to explain to the belligerent and disbelieving invaders that he had no cash and only a few valuables, she slipped unseen out the back door. Dashing barefoot across the wet grass, she pounded on the door of a neighbor's house and begged the use of a phone. Shaking with fear and anger, she punched in a call to 911.

It is standard operating procedure within the Houston Police Department to respond to home invasion reports with massive force. Experience has taught them that what begins as an uncomplicated forced entry can quickly turn into a hostage situation, a Wild West-style shootout or, worse yet, a slaughter of the intended victims. It is the reasoning of HPD policy-makers that such potentially explosive predicaments can best be defused by sending in a small army. Before the men who had broken into Choong's home could decide how to deal with their victim's intransigence, the police announced their presence.

Realizing he was outnumbered and obviously outgunned, one of the alleged invaders, John Nam, a streetwise 23-year-old Korean who had not long before completed a period of parole after serving a five-year sentence for aggravated robbery, attempted burglary and aggravated assault, reacted prudently. Throwing down his pistol, he flung his arms in the air and meekly surrendered.

However, his companion, a young Vietnamese named Cuong Phu, decided to try to beat the odds. Taking the same backdoor exit that Choong's daughter had used, Phu dashed outside and sprinted down the street. He was spotted almost immediately and several cops took off in pursuit.

About a block away, after glancing over his shoulder and seeing that he was losing ground, Phu picked a darkened residence at random and darted across the yard. Desperate to escape, he kicked in a window adjacent to the front door and plunged headlong into the house, leaving his ski mask dangling on the ripped screen. Apparently planning to cut through the dwelling and exit out a rear door, thereby putting distance between himself and the cops, Phu turned down a hallway and headed away from the direction he had come. What he failed to count on, though, was the surprised homeowner.

Startled out of his sleep just as Choong had been a few minutes earlier, the man reached into his bedside table and grabbed his loaded Beretta. Stepping from his bedroom into the hallway just as Phu was turning the corner, the man lifted his pistol and emptied it point blank into the startled Vietnamese. Phu was dead before he hit the floor. The coroner later dug six slugs out of his body: two from his chest, three from his back and one from his right shoulder. Viewed from the perspective of his own continued physical well-being, Phu's companion, Nam, fared much better. He was soon free on $50,000 bond after being charged with aggravated robbery. But before he could be called to trial he jumped bail and disappeared into the Asian underground, a netherworld of hoodlums -- mostly young, mostly male first-generation immigrants -- who roam the country, traveling from big city to tiny hamlet, committing frequently violent crimes and evading the largely Caucasian authorities, who for the most part are woefully under-trained in combating this relatively new criminal force.

According to the experts, Asian crime -- like Asian immigration -- is on the increase. To put this into perspective one first has to look at the national picture, then narrow the focus to Houston, which plays a larger role in the overall picture than many people realize.

First, there is the issue of immigration. In 1960, the year President Kennedy took office and began escalating U.S. military involvement in Indochina, the number of Asians in this country was reckoned to be 1.4 million. However, by 1990, when the last national census was taken, figures show some 7 million Asian Americans, an increase of almost 600 percent in only 30 years. That figure is expected to jump sharply upward by 1997, the year when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule and a new wave of immigrants is expected to arrive. Currently, even without the anticipated new influx, Asians make up some 3 percent of the total U.S. population (compared to 9 percent Hispanic and 12 percent African-American) and are the country's fastest-growing ethnic groups.

Along with this population growth has come an increase in Asian organized crime, a phenomenon that the Justice Department says may well become the organized crime threat in this country by the year 2000.

Ironically, one of the reasons for this has been good law enforcement. Throughout much of this century, an emphasis has been placed on crushing La Cosa Nostra, known to most people as the Mafia. Prosecution of this group has been so efficient that once large and influential mobs have been shattered. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Mafia's collapse has left a vacuum in the underworld, a void that is being filled by Asian criminals.

To draw a crude analogy, crime is like a large tree with roots digging deep into American soil. Imagine that the tree has been struck by lightning, represented by the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies. The bolt caused serious but not fatal damage. While the lightning-hit portion of the tree is struggling to survive, new growth is appearing simultaneously. That's Asian organized crime. That growth, already a substantial trunk on its own, has branches which represent the various ethnic groups. There is the Chinese branch, for instance, which in this country deals in money laundering, drug trafficking (upward of 90 percent of the heroin dealt in New York City is believed to have been smuggled in by Chinese gangsters), illegal gambling, extortion, prostitution, loan sharking and pornography. This branch is expected to expand with the change in Hong Kong's status.

The Japanese branch is active in money laundering and gun smuggling, and also participates heavily in the drug trade in Hawaii, controlling 90 percent of that city's market in crystallized methamphetamine.

The Korean branch supports gambling, extortion, loan sharking, prostitution, and credit card fraud.

Chinese, Japanese and Korean Asian organized crime units are known to operate in Houston. And then there is the newest growth: the Vietnamese or Southeast Asian branch.

A little more than a generation ago there was only a handful of immigrants from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Thailand in all of Houston's populous sprawl. But then, in 1975, American-supported governments in Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed like failed souffles within weeks of each other. Laos was a slightly different story but the result was the same: When communist governments took over, an estimated 1 million refugees fled that corner of Asia and migrated to the United States, many of them wending their way to Houston.

All told, there are some 250,000 Asians living in Houston. The two largest groups are Chinese and Vietnamese, each with about 60,000 members. This concentration of Vietnamese is believed to be the third largest in the U.S. after the California communities in Orange County and San Jose. In addition to the Vietnamese and Chinese, the city also is home to an estimated 30,000 Koreans, 10,000 Cambodians and 2,500 Thais and Laotians.

The overwhelming majority of Houston's Asian residents live in clusters near the convention center and along Bellaire Boulevard, with fast-growing enclaves in Inwood, North Harris County and Scarsdale-Seabrook. For the most part, they are law-abiding taxpayers, mainly successful professionals and small businessmen. There is, however, a sizable subgroup that exists outside the law, preying almost exclusively on its fellow Asians but becoming increasingly bold in extending outward into the general population.

This group consists largely of youths ranging in age from their early teens to their mid-twenties. Since a number of them typically band together and act in concert they are commonly referred to as "gangs," although that description applies only loosely in this context, since the resemblance to white, black or Hispanic gangs is superficial at best. By the same reasoning, they are often called "Vietnamese" because Vietnamese are disproportionately represented in this age group as well as in the gangs. In reality, though, a particular gang may have members who are Laotian, Thai, Cambodian, Korean or Chinese. But the bulk of them are, indeed, Vietnamese.

This phenomenon of the Vietnamese street gang is relatively new not only to non-Asian residents but to Houston's law enforcement authorities, who still seem unsure of how to deal with the problem. As recently as the previous HPD administration, authorities were denying there was any gang activity in Houston at all, much less officially recognizing the existence of a threatening group of Asian street toughs. One of Chief Betsy Watson's more perplexing directives was to order officers not to use the word "gang" in compiling incident reports.

Under the current circumstances, that seems almost ludicrous, given streets and schools filled with youths sprouting gang paraphernalia. But while many in Houston may think they know what a gang is, they don't know what a Vietnamese gang is. And there's a significant difference.

The easiest way to describe the Asian gangs may be by delineating what they are not rather than by what they are. In the first place, they are not territorial. Although black and Hispanic gangs may fight over a tract of real property, only rarely is the concept of turf a factor in the actions of Asian youths. Asian gang members are not homeboys.

Neither are they seeking identification as a unit. By and large, the groups that operate here, unlike some of the more sophisticated, structured groups that exist in California, have no colors, no secret handshakes, no outward signs of alliance. The majority of the groups don't even have names for themselves.

While one of the cementing factors in black and Hispanic gangs is camaraderie, that's not a major consideration among the Asians. Although members of an Asian gang may indeed be friends, they will gladly welcome another Asian they don't know, perhaps have never seen before and may never see again.

One of the most distinctive, characteristics of Asian street gangs is their fluidity. Local groups have members who drop in and drop out, move in from somewhere and move out to somewhere else. Beyond that, the groups themselves, and not just the individual members, can be extremely migratory. A gang whose members live in the southwest section of the city, for example, may travel to the northeast to burgle cars or deal drugs. Commonly, they move with the same ease across state lines. For instance:

On June 4, 1990, four young Vietnamese men forced their way into the North Harris County residence of a Laotian family, demanding money. When one member of the targeted family arrived home unexpectedly she was shot in the eye. After the robbery, the youths drove to Dallas, then to an Atlanta suburb where a gang member shot a Vietnamese businessman in the head during another robbery. They returned to Houston in December, six months after the home invasion, and robbed a grocery store. After that, they fled again. In February, they surfaced in North Carolina, where they robbed a jewelry store. After that, they drove to Denver, where they teamed up temporarily with another Vietnamese gangster. The group then drove to Wheat Ridge, Colorado, where they crashed a church service and robbed the worshippers. After that, the four were on the move again, heading back toward Houston, when they were stopped by the highway patrol near Colby, Kansas. Their odyssey consumed almost a year and covered a quarter of the nation.

Aprime motivator among Asian gang members, unlike the desire for security and mutual protection often sought by blacks and Hispanics, is money. Above all, Asian gangs are revenue-driven. As a result, their favorite crimes -- home invasions, robbery, burglary, extortion, weapons and drug dealing, insurance fraud, check kiting, credit card abuse, car theft -- all represent activities with an immediate cash return.

Accepting the fact that money is the principal stimulator and mobility the most conspicuous feature, there are two other characteristics about Asian youth gangs that make them stand out: they plan and execute with military precision, and they act with appalling ruthlessness. Just ask Lay Sreng, a Cambodian refugee who lived with her husband, her daughter, two grandchildren and another female refugee in a quiet neighborhood in North Harris County.

On the morning of May 29, 1991, Lay Sreng had a late breakfast with her friend, Samoeurn, who had just returned from working an overnight shift at Intercontinental Airport. About 9 a.m., Samoeurn went to her room to go to bed and Lay Sreng left to drive her husband to work. When she returned about 30 minutes later, she walked into her house and found herself staring down the barrel of a pistol wielded by a 20-year-old thug named Kim Ly Lim, a fellow Cambodian with a record for dealing drugs and selling weapons. There were two other youths with him.

Threatening Lay Sreng with the pistol, Lim ordered her to sit on the floor while he sent an accomplice to roust Samoeurn from her sleep and bring her to the living room along with Lay Sreng's 19-year-old daughter, Pich, and her two grandsons, Jeffrey, 5, and an infant named Priestly.

The youths bound and gagged the women, then ransacked the house looking for money and jewelry. In choosing a target, gang members take into consideration many Asian immigrants' aversion to banks, a habit ingrained from living in countries where financial institutions may be less than reliable. Gang members know that fellow Asians (and the majority of the victims of Asian gangs are other Asians, especially new immigrants), are more likely than not to keep substantial amounts of cash or gold hidden someplace where they can get to it in a hurry.

When they were unable to find anything of value, and when Lay Sreng and Pich refused to lead them to their valuables, Lim leaned over and fired a shot into Pich's heart, killing her. He then calmly shot the five-year-old, killing him as well. Samoeurn was shot in the throat and left for dead. Lay Sreng, who earlier had been beaten into unconsciousness in an attempt to make her give up her jewelry, feigned death. As soon as the youths left, she crawled to a phone and called for help. That evening, from her hospital bed, Lay Sreng did something very unusual for an Asian crime victim: She told police the name of her attacker. This was rare because a large percentage of incidents involving Asian victims go unreported, first because the victim fears retaliation, and second because the same experience that makes some Asian immigrants mistrust banks makes them mistrust policemen even more.

Three months later, Kim Ly Lim was arrested in Long Beach, California, and returned to Texas for trial. In the spring of 1992, almost exactly a year after the shootings, the youth was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die. His case is under appeal. Before his trial, authorities found the body of his alleged accomplice, Loeur, in a shallow grave in rural Harris County. Although Lim was a suspect, he was never charged with the murder.

To concerned Houstonians and some law enforcement officials, the disturbing news is that Asian crime in general -- and violent crime in particular -- appears to be on the increase. The operative word is "appears" since there are few reliable statistics to back up this assertion. The HPD has little information (or at least makes little information available) on the subject. It has a few officers who specialize in Asian crime but, unlike many other cities with large Asian populations, has no specific unit assigned to deal with the issue. Given the inability or unwillingness of the police to speak on the subject, there are only a handful of people left who can address the topic of Asian crime authoritatively. Significantly, however, they agree that authorities are dealing with more Asian youth crime. They are unsure, though, whether the results they are witnessing are due to a true increase in the frequency of crime or to an increase in the number of people who are reporting it.

Kimbra Ogg, head of Mayor Bob Lanier's Office of Anti-Gang Activity, is one of those in a position to monitor the situation. Before taking her current position she spent five and a half years in the Harris County District Attorney's Office where, as a chief prosecutor, she was exposed to a varied cross-section of crime within the city. Following her tour in the Trial Bureau, she was transferred to the D.A.'s Special Crimes Bureau, where she became one of three assistant D.A.'s specializing in prosecuting gang members. It was there, she says in an interview in her new City Hall office, a bare room in which the moving-in process is still underway, that she became aware of the growing breadth of gang activity. "And," she adds, "a significant percentage of this activity involved Asian gangs."

Precisely what kind of percentage is she talking about?
Ogg shruggs. "Who knows?" she replies. The numbers aren't there because, at least until recently, no one kept the types of statistics that would lead to a retrospective analysis. Under Police Chief Sam Nuchia, however, patrol officers and investigators have been ordered to flag gang-related crimes and note the type of gang that appears to be involved, i.e., black, Hispanic, or Asian.

Although the HPD refused to reveal those statistics, despite several requests, the District Attorney's Office shared figures available to law enforcement agencies throughout the county. According to Kenny Rodgers, the D.A.'s assistant chief investigator, who set up a computer system designed specifically to track this type of crime (called GRITS for Gang-Related Information Tracking System), any law enforcement official in Harris County will one day be able to access up-to-date and accurate information on gang activity. Today, however, the available material is sketchy, mainly because HPD has been extremely slow in entering its figures. Nevertheless, available data shows there are 165 known gangs operating in Harris County. The major players are Hispanic gangs (83), Asian (19) and black (12).

The system doesn't give estimates of the total number of gang members, partly because the situation is so fluid. This is especially true among the Asian gangs. Of the 19 listed Asian gangs, nine carry special flags for law enforcement officers, six of them because the known members include previously convicted felons and three of them because members are known to carry weapons. In comparison, roughly one-third of the Hispanic gangs listed in the computer have members believed to carry weapons, and only two of the 12 black gangs are flagged with a weapons caution. All of these figures are expected to be considerably larger once HPD completely enters its data.

In the absence of precise details from HPD, it appears that Asian youths are involved in gang-related activity out of proportion to their representation in the general population. Ogg did not speculate on why this might be, but one clue might be found in a report issued in mid-May by two well-respected think tanks: the Asian Pacific American Public Policy Institute of Los Angeles and the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA.

In essence, the report said that Southeast Asians, nationwide, are the most welfare-dependent segment of any racial or ethnic group in America. According to the report, more than 30 percent of all of the country's Southeast Asian households need public assistance in order to survive. If this ratio applies in Houston, it might help explain why Asian youth gangs have so many Southeast Asian members: they want the money.

Conjecture aside, the more meaningful point Ogg wants to make is that it is her gut feeling that Asian crime itself -- despite the absence of statistics to confirm it -- is on the increase. This is disturbing, she says, because crime in general in the city is on the decrease.

This observation seems to be substantiated by James Strachan, who, with his Vietnamese wife, publish Houston's only English language newspaper covering the Asian community, the monthly Asian American News. According to Strachan, his newspaper's reports indicate about one gang-related home invasion a week in the city. This represents a considerable increase in recent months, he says, but Strachan, like others who deal with Asian crime, is unsure if this is a true increase in crime or an increase in reports of crime.

Part of the problem Houston police have in dealing with Asian crime is a lack of familiarity with the culture the crime comes from. The HPD has no in-depth training program to help officers recognize the subtleties of dealing with Asian issues. The problems policemen face in trying to deal with Asian criminals are huge, ranging from understanding Asian languages to simple identification of suspects.

On the most basic level, it is not a mere cliche that Asian youths may look very much alike to Caucasian police. It is also true that Asian youths are frequently older than they look. This fact is often exploited by Asian gang members, who frequently try to pass themselves off as juveniles because the legal punishments for adults are more severe. Given the fact that forged documents are readily available, many of them of high quality, it is extremely difficult for law enforcement authorities to prove that a youth who looks 14 and has a paper that purports to confirm it is actually 19. At least it was until Ogg, while serving as a prosecutor, and Charlie Cash, a Westside Division policeman who specializes as much as his department will let him in Asian crime, devised a method that gives scientific certainty to age determination as far as the difference between juveniles and adults are concerned.

Their test case began early in 1993 when a Vietnamese youth named Bang Van Nguyen, along with several others, was accused of robbing some two dozen patrons in an Asian restaurant (a favorite target of Asian gangs) in southwest Houston.

Things began badly for Nguyen when officers found jewelry belonging to one of the restaurant's patrons in his pocket. It didn't help his case when another of the diners picked him out of a lineup. But proving he was one of the robbers was one thing; seeing that he was punished as an adult was another. When confronted with the evidence against him, Nguyen smugly told police that he was only 13 and produced documents to back up his claim.

Cash was certain that Nguyen was lying about his age, but he couldn't think of a way to prove his suspicion was true. Then he had a brainstorm. A few weeks earlier, his teenage son had broken his arm, and during one of his conferences with the orthopedist over his son's condition the doctor explained to Cash how a person's hands and wrist bones develop. By the time a youth is in his late teens, the specialist said, those bones have fully formed.

For Cash, it was a revelation. If a person's wrist bones quit developing around age 18, then a simple x-ray could be used to roughly determine a youth's age. In other words, if the x-ray showed that the wrist bones were fully developed, it would prove scientifically that the person was at least 18, which was all that was needed to have Nguyen prosecuted as an adult. Even better, Nguyen's lawyer could not object to having his client's wrist x-rayed because it is not an invasive procedure and is not covered by constitutional guarantees.

At a special hearing held to determine if Nguyen was a juvenile or an adult, Ogg called Cash's orthopedist as a witness. Based on his reading of the film, the specialist said, Nguyen was 18 or 19, not 13. Impressed by the orthopedist's testimony, the judge decreed that Nguyen was beyond the age of juvenile protection.

Rather than taking his case to trial, Nguyen's lawyer worked out a plea bargain whereby the youth, who had already been indicted as an adult, pleaded guilty. He was subsequently sentenced to a ten-year term in an adult prison.

While the HPD has been dilatory in developing ways to combat Asian gangs, the Harris County District Attorney's Office has been less so, as is shown by the Special Crimes Bureau in which Ogg cut her teeth before joining Lanier's staff.

Designed to operate independently from the Trial Bureau, Special Crimes was created 23 years ago specifically to prosecute organized crime cases. In recent years that has come to include Asian crime. Since it operates autonomously from the more traditional Trial Bureau, Special Crimes is freer to follow its own occasionally unorthodox course.

"We're a pro-active unit," explains the Bureau's Daniel J. Rizzo, a veteran of 11 years in the D.A.'s office. "We don't wait for something to happen. This allows us to get in on the front end of a case rather than the back end." One of the advantages of this, Rizzo explained, is that the Bureau does not have to wait for the HPD to complete an investigation before becoming involved. It has its own investigators who operate closely with the lawyers who will be prosecuting a case once it comes to court, a procedure that makes for a smoother trial and a stronger prosecutorial position.

Although Chief Nuchia has yet to create a separate unit within HPD to deal solely with the Asian crime problem, the Bureau has its own specialist/investigator, HPD Sgt. Russell Dunlap. Unfortunately, he also was prohibited from sharing his information by Nuchia's command of silence.

Rizzo, under no such order, explains how he got an early introduction into both Asian crime and the Bureau's unconventional procedures when he joined the group three years ago. Tipped early in 1991 that two Asian gang figures, Korean Peter Pak and Vietnamese Tolee Nguyen, were trying to arrange for the assassination of HPD Officer Virgil Price, the Bureau launched a sting operation to stop the plot before it could get past the planning stage. Pak was a local criminal, but Nguyen reportedly had been sent in by an Asian gang active in Louisiana, New York, California and Alabama. His assignment was to set up a drug network and an arms-selling operation in Houston. In Nguyen's organization, Rizzo says, a loyal solider was identified as a standup member by being allowed to use the initial "T," sort of like a gold star, as an identifier among other Asians. Nguyen, who was only 20 at the time, could claim five Ts, which meant he was not one to be trifled with.

"What we discovered," says Rizzo, who was assigned to oversee the investigation and prosecution of Nguyen and Pak, "was that they had contacted a prisoner in the Harris County jail about hitting Price." Once Price had been killed, two other officers active in Asian crime investigations -- Charlie Cash and Russell Dunlap -- were next in line.

In an attempt to bring the planned assassinations to an end, investigators set up an intricate scheme that included Price's being photographed doubled over in the trunk of a car, as though he had been killed and his body was en route to a disposal site. The picture then was shown to Nguyen and Pak as proof that the officer had been eliminated. Investigators also set up hidden recorders to capture conversations dealing with the plans. They wound up with 13 hours of tape, enough to convince a grand jury to indict the two Asians, first for solicitation of murder and later for engaging in organized crime.

"What we wanted to show was that the planned hit on Price was not an isolated event, that Pak and Nguyen were organized and had a whole list of people they wanted killed, not just the police officers but a judge and even the district attorney. They wanted to get rid of them one-by-one," says Rizzo.

Pak and Nguyen were tried in June 1992 under the Texas equivalent of the federal organized crime statute; Pak got 18 years and Nguyen, 40. For Rizzo, the Nguyen and Pak case was a sweet victory, but it was only one in an increasing number of cases involving Asians.

"Until four or five years ago the Bureau wasn't getting many Asian cases," Rizzo explained, "but it is my impression that was because the Asian victims were not reporting the crimes. It was a secret problem within the Asian community. Now we're seeing them stand up to the bullies and we're getting more reports."

A Harris County officer who asked not to be identified said that even with the increased number of reports police still do not hear about 25 to 50 percent of the crimes committed against Asians.

Nevertheless, with the increased number of reports, there has been a corresponding jump in the number of prosecutions involving Asian criminals, particularly youth gang members. As is the Bureau's policy in other cases, it is taking a pro-active role in investigating Asian crime, joining with representatives from other law enforcement groups -- the HPD, the Harris County Sheriff's Office (which, unlike HPD, does have an Asian crime unit), school officials and investigators from the Federal Agency of Tobacco and Firearms -- to form a task force specifically to deal with the problem.

As a first step, the task force is taking a systematic approach, carefully compiling a database of suspects using the GRITS program. "People are being followed, tracking devices are being attached to vehicles, crime scenes are being examined more carefully to try to determine if it was the work of a gang," Rizzo says.

The main crime being targeted by those who are focusing on Asian gangs is the gangs' most high-profile crime: home invasion, a crime that, by the most conservative estimates, currently is occurring at the rate of at least one a month.

Home invasions are both feared and respected, feared because there is little that can be done to defend against them, respected because they have a tremendous potential for violence. Asian youth gang members, in their relentless search for cash and valuables, have been known to torture their hapless victims with stun guns, force their heads into toilets, bash babies against walls and threaten the victims with execution. Always, they promise to return if the crime is reported.

Unhappily, these are not empty threats.
Kimbra Ogg recalls one case that developed while she was a prosecutor with the Bureau. In that incident an Asian youth gang had stormed into the Vietnam Kitchen on Milam intending to rob the patrons. One man was shot and killed when he refused to surrender his money.

Several suspects were arrested and indicted, Ogg relates, but when the case came to trial a whole string of people who had been in the restaurant at the time testified they had seen nothing.

"One witness," Ogg says with resignation, "just one person out of all those present, testified against the man charged with murder." Although he was convicted, the refusal of the others to point a finger at the criminals made an impression on the young prosecutor: it taught her just how fearful members of the Asian community really are and why they are so hesitant to report being a victim or to testify later.

Not infrequently, gang members follow up on a robbery by letting a victim know he has not been forgotten, an insidious action designed to intimidate and frighten. In one case, a man whose home had been invaded was reminded not to report the crime by an unmarked envelope he received in the mail. Inside was a snapshot of his children on their way to school. In other cases, children of victims have been approached by strangers at their schools who causally mention, "I hear you had a home invasion." No more is said; no more needs to be said.

What is most disturbing about home invasions is that the potential for serious violence is omnipresent, even under what seems to be risk-free circumstances. Sometimes what begins as a burglary can turn into an aggravated robbery when the would-be burglars are surprised by a homeowner or find someone in the house who is not supposed to be there.

Last December 13 -- a very unlucky 13 for a 17-year-old Vietnamese named Peter Tran -- a homeowner in northwest Harris County took a day off from his job so he could clean up his house after a burglary.

While he was straightening up the mess left behind by the thieves, he heard a noise in a back bedroom and went to investigate, first taking the precaution of arming himself with a pistol he kept in the house. He found Peter Tran ransacking the room. Without asking questions, the homeowner shot and killed Tran, then ran outside to confront his accomplices.

Alerted by the gunfire, three or four other youths -- the homeowner was not sure how many because of the confusion -- jumped in a yellow sedan, identified either as a BMW or a Mercedes, and fled. The homeowner emptied his pistol at the vehicle as it sped away but he was unsure if any of his shots connected. Police said at the time that it was the second home invasion of the day in Harris County.

Despite the existence of the task force and an ever-growing body of intelligence about local Asian gang operations, law enforcement officials still find themselves in a quandary about how to react to home invasions, either planned or actual.

"We can't let them do a home invasion ,period," Rizzo says emphatically. If officers know in advance about a home invasion plan they stop the criminals before they actually enter the house. But if police are called after the gang members are already inside, that poses a different kind of problem.

The most immediate solution is to act quickly and in force, as police did when Cuong Phu and his cohort forced their way into Choong Il Suh's home last year.

At 10 p.m. on April 10, a year and four days after the Cuong Phu incident, three Vietnamese youths forced their way into a house in the 12000 block of Barrett Brae, seizing a Vietnamese woman, Lai Tran, and her 11-year-old daughter. After stripping the house of everything they considered valuable, the youths forced Lai Tran to knock on the door of the house next door.

When the neighbor, 49-year-old Thom Nguyen, answered the knock, the youths forced their way into his house as well. Herding Nguyen and the five other adults in the house into the living room, they tied them up and forced them to the floor. Four children were awakened and taken into the living room as well but they were not bound. For the next hour, gang members took turns beating and kicking the captives while they tore the house apart looking for valuables.

The incident climaxed when a friend arrived to pick up one of the adults. When no one responded to her car horn, the woman walked up to the house and peeked through the window. Hurriedly taking in the situation, she ran back to her car, drove off, and called police.

A few minutes later officers arrived and surrounded the house. The youths apparently didn't know that police had been summoned until one of the officers used a bullhorn to call for their surrender.

One of the youths, unaware that police were at the back of the house as well as the front, broke out a window in a rear bedroom and tried to escape. He was shot and killed. The remaining two youths surrendered shortly before dawn and were charged with engaging in organized crime.

Ken Englade is the author of seven true crime books, including Beyond Reason and, most recently, Blood Sister.


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