SALT LAKE CITY — Eight suspected members of a violent street gang allegedly involved in murder and mayhem along the Wasatch Front went on trial Wednesday under tightened security at the federal courthouse.
"Anytime there is a higher profile event like the Brian David Mitchell case or the (Tim) DeChristopher case or in this case the TCG trial, we always raise our level of vigilance, and that could include enhanced security," said David Carnahan, chief deputy U.S. marshal. "It's not going to be obvious to the untrained eye."
TCG stands for Tongan Crip Gang.
In his opening statement, federal prosecutor Stephen Nelson told the eight-woman, six-man jury (including two alternates) that it's likely they've never heard of TCG. But "during the course of the trial, this is going to change."
Nelson went on to describe how the gang identifies itself with street names, clothing, tattoos, hand signs, numbers, graffiti and colors. He called TCG an "enterprise" engaged in illegal activity including armed robberies of popular stores and restaurants, aggravated assaults and a fatal shooting in 2007.
Nelson said the crimes were committed as part of a racketeering conspiracy.
Some of the defendants now on trial have already been convicted of offenses in state court. Prosecutors will attempt to prove over the course of several weeks that those crimes dating as far back as 2002 were part of an effort to further aims of the gang and maintain status within it.
The charges come under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act known as RICO. U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen has called it a powerful tool to dismantle and permanently disrupt street gangs.
In the past decade, the Tiny Oriental Posse, King Mafia Disciples and Soldiers of Aryan Culture have faced RICO charges in Utah.
Named in the latest indictment involving about 30 crimes are Eric Kamahele aka "Smooth," David Kamoto aka "D-Down," Daniel Maumau aka "D-Loc," Kepa Maumau aka "Kap-Loc," Charles Moa aka "Slim-Loc," Sitamipa Toki aka "Tok-Loc," Mataika Tuai aka "Fish," and David Walsh aka "D-Nutt."
They were among 17 suspected TCG members indicted last year. Five have reached plea agreements with prosecutors and four others are scheduled for trial next year.
Each of the eight TCG defendants has his own attorney and the court docket lists 21 total defense attorneys and four prosecutors for this trial alone. Judge Tena Campbell issued an infrequent "decorum" order for the trial banning courtroom spectators from talking to defendants, witnesses, jurors and attorneys and congregating in hallways. Spectators are only allowed in and out during breaks.
Many of those in the packed courtroom Wednesday were women who appeared to be relatives or friends of the eight men.
Defense attorney Fred Metos, who represents Daniel Maumau, told jurors that prosecutors will attempt to play on their passions and prejudices and scare them with descriptions of violent crimes.
"But don't let that happen," he said. "Don't buy into the fear factor."
Metos also advised the jury to consider each charge on its own based on the evidence. "Don't lump them all together and think, 'Gee, there's all this stuff. They must have done something.'"
Rebecca Skordas, who represents Kepa Maumau, said prosecutors must prove a "meeting of the minds" occurred to commit the alleged conspiracy.
Tongan culture, she said, is built on a strong sense of immediate and extended family. And just because her client associates with close relatives who might be gang members doesn't mean he is one himself.
TCG members "jumped" Kepa Maumau into the gang in 2003 when he was 15, she said. But he left and wasn't affiliated with it in 2008 when he participated in three robberies, meaning he wasn't part of a conspiracy, she said.
Contributing: Sandra Yi