Gangs still prevalent in Utah with members as young as 5, police say
Experts encourage community involvement to keep youth out of gangs
Ravell Call, Deseret News
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.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, local gangs were being influenced by gang members who were moving in from Southern California. Some of that influence is talked about in the documentary "From Heaven to Hell," which aired on the History Channel's Gangland program in 2013. The documentary looked at the history of Crip gangs in Salt Lake City, and discussed gang-related shootings in 1992 and 2008 during Pioneer Day festivities.
But gang crimes in the city weren't classified differently to include more incidents until 2008 when 7-year-old Maria Del Carmen Menchaca, who went to Riley Elementary School, was shot and killed by a gang member while she played at the corner of her house. Police say a family member who was in a gang was the intended target of the shooting, and Maria was struck by a stray bullet.
Earlier this month, before the courtroom shooting, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank used his monthly chief's message to raise awareness of gangs in the city. Gang activity typically increases as the weather gets warmer, he said. Burbank said the key is for the entire community to get involved.
"If we're responding after the fact, then we're a day late," he said. "No one knows better than those people who live in the neighborhood what's normal and what's not."
Atencio used an analogy of front porches on new home construction. Now that they're being built bigger, families need to use them, he said. "And I think that lends to that community involvement, coming out and watching your kids play in front and watching your neighbor's kids."
Teachers also need to pay attention to what's happening with their students, and not just with their grades, Atencio said.
"If you're just at the front of the classroom teaching and never looking down at a notebook to see if there's gang graffiti or tagging on a notebook, to me you're not doing everything you can be doing if you're not watching, listening for gang slang or how kids are acting or how they're dressing when they come to school."
Afatasi said there are more than 200 documented gangs in the Salt Lake Valley. In 2012 there were three documented gang-related homicides. In 2013 there were six, he said.
In his presentation, Afatasi and others talked about how juveniles are typically lured into gangs between the ages of 5 and 17. They are led to believe that by joining a gang they will receive respect, protection and money. They are drawn to a sense of brotherhood and influenced by the glamorization of gangs on TV and in the movies. A lack of parental supervision also plays a key part, he said.
Some of the warning signs of a juvenile getting involved with gangs include a change in attitude, clothing, new friends, gang-related drawings and tattoos.
"Ask, 'What does that tattoo mean?' Because there's also some significance to them," Burbank said.
Both Burbank and Afatasi also noted that parents needed to monitor social media sites where gang propaganda is frequently posted. Local gang fights are typically posted on YouTube. Several were shown to the audience at Wednesday's presentation.
Earlier this month, the mother of a West High School student thwarted an attack on her son by monitoring threatening messages that were being posted on Facebook.
Atencio also noted that he sees problems with families who move to Salt Lake from another country and the parents don't speak any English and don't understand what their children are doing. He said those families need to be educated about their children's activities. For example, Atencio said he will go to homes and look in a boy's closet and have to explain to the parents, "Hey, look at your son's closet. There's nothing but blue in here. These blue belts, these drawings, everything is blue."
Atencio said he grew up on Salt Lake City's west side and could have fallen into the gang lifestyle, but made a choice to stay away from it.
"I grew up with kids coming around my house that were bad influences. And I think I was in sixth grade, 12 years old, when I decided to hide out in my house and my parents told them I'm not home," he said.
Afatasi noted Wednesday that as a school resource officer, he had been monitoring a young teenager. Afatasi posted the boy's yearbook pictures, and the audience could see how the boy went from being a typical-looking Utah student in the seventh grade to wearing all red by eighth and ninth grade. In 2010, the boy was stabbed multiple times in a church parking lot and left in a coma for six months, Afatasi said.
When he became healthy enough, he returned by filming a gangster rap video in the same parking lot to defy his attackers. But, years later, the boy reportedly found himself despondent with the gang lifestyle, realizing that those who claimed to be his friends weren't there for him when he needed them, the detective said.
The gang conference runs through Thursday.
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