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.

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Ken Englade