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Gangs still prevalent in Utah with members as young as 5, police say

Experts encourage community involvement to keep youth out of gangs

Published: Wednesday, April 23 2014 5:10 p.m. MDT

Graffiti in the area of 150 South Main Street in Salt Lake City, Monday, Nov. 14, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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SANDY — When Unified police detective Esekia "Skee" Afatasi gave his presentation on youth gangs at the Utah Gang Conference a few years ago, he was seeing documented gang members as young as 7 years old.

At the 2014 Utah Gang Conference that started Wednesday at the South Towne Expo Center, Afatasi had lowered that age to 5.

The change came when Afatasi was called to check out gang graffiti at an elementary school in West Valley City. What he found was that a 5-year-old — a kindergartner — had "tagged the whole school."

Afatasi was one of dozens of speakers at the annual convention that aims to educate law enforcers as well as community leaders, teachers and parents about how to help solve the gang problem.

"I think that's the key is we just have to continue to educate. It's 2014 and we started the gang unit back in the early '90s and people are still saying, 'Oh, we have a gang problem?' We just have to continue to educate, educate, educate," said Unified Police Lt. Marianne Suarez, head of the Metro Gang Unit.

Gang violence received extra attention earlier this week after Siale Angilau, 25, was shot and killed by a U.S. marshal after Angilau rushed the witness stand at his own trial to attack a former member of the Tongan Crip Gang. Angilau was also a TCG member.

Organizers and presenters at the gang conference on Wednesday declined to talk about the courthouse shooting, some citing a gag order while the incident is investigated by the FBI.

For some members of the public, the shooting and the prosecution of TCG members that had been going on for a couple of years came as a surprise. Some people told the Deseret News they didn't know Utah had a gang problem.

For others, it was a reminder that a problem that has been around since the late 1970s hasn't gone away.

Juveniles in gangs

Angilau was a star football player for East High School. But just a year out of high school, prosecutors charged Angilau with the first of what would be litany of crimes over the next three years, including attempted aggravated murder, robbery and theft. Some believe he began committing violent crimes as young as 14. He was later accused of shooting at two U.S. marshals during a chase.

For some, his case brought back memories of Siosaia Takai, a former standout football player at Brighton High School. In 2011, Takai, then 19 and a member of the Tongan Crip Gang who went by the name "Spin," was charged in federal court with robbing a convenience store and shooting the clerk.

Others recalled the 1993 shooting death of Aaron Chapman outside the Triad Center, 55 N. 300 West, following a concert. Chapman was shot by Asi Mohi, a West High junior and star football player who told the Deseret News eight months earlier that he'd given up the gang life for academics. Mohi thought Chapman was with a rival gang because of the colors of his clothing.

Chapman's murder sparked an outrage in the community about increasing gang violence. The wave of public outcry reached local and state officials and was the impetus for adding gang issues to the agenda of the governor's special legislative session in 1993.

During his keynote presentation to open the Utah Gang Conference, Salt Lake Deputy Police Chief Issac Atencio talked about the history of gangs in Salt Lake and how the city began seeing gang problems as early as 1978.

He noted several significant cases in the 1980s that changed the landscape of gangs locally: A shooting in 1986 that left a man paralyzed, the shooting of a 15-year-old girl two months later in which that paralyzed man was a suspect, and the shooting death of a gang member in August of 1986 that became the first official gang homicide in Salt Lake City.

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