Story and multimedia by KENDRA WILMARTH
According to the U.S. Census, the population of Salt Lake is roughly 180,000 people. As with any metropolitan city comes a variety of people. With such diversity, large cities like Salt Lake all face a similar problem, gang control.
Gangs first became recognized in Utah as a problem in the early 1990s. Around 3,000 documented gang members are in the Salt Lake Valley, as reported by the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit. For the past 20 years this unit has been working to minimize gang activity.
The SLMGU devised the Salt Lake Area Gang Project. The Project is composed of police chiefs and administrative personnel from agencies that participate in the project. It was designed to identify, control and prevent criminal activity. The Project also provides youth with alternatives to gang life and helps to educate communities about the destructiveness of the gang lifestyle.
“If someone said, ‘Hey you know what … don’t worry about school the rest of your life, let’s party, have sex, do drugs,’ what kid wouldn’t join a gang as a 16-year-old kid?” said Rick Simonelli, a detective in the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit. “They think it’s pretty cool and start hanging around the older kids and they’re drinking, they get to hold a gun and they’ve never held a gun before and they think they’re pretty cool and macho.”
Simonelli has been working for the past six years to help solve the gang situation.
He says Utah has around 25 well-known gangs on the streets right now. Tiny Oriental Posse, or TOP, is one of these gangs. This gang can only be found in Utah and is known as one of the state’s most violent gangs. TOP has been operating primarily out of West Valley City, where most of the members are located in Lake Park, a lower-income apartment complex.
TOP is a Southeast Asian street gang with members of Laotian or Cambodian descent. In 2009, the “big guys,” as Simonelli refers to them, were put in jail under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. In summary, the RICO Act prosecutes offenders in the federal court with the same act they were charged with in state courts. This means their time is doubled and the offenders are sent to federal jails throughout the nation.
“Since the RICO, it’s been pretty quiet because the majority of them have been locked up,” Simonelli said. “There’s only been one shooting done by TOP that we know of for the past couple years.”
Although the gang may not be at large, one member from the Salt Lake area says he will be a TOP gangster for life. D, who asked not to be identified, comes from a moderately wealthy Cambodian family. After his father disappeared and left his family in 2008, D, now 18, moved to Utah with his mother from Southern California.
Within a few weeks of being in Utah he was approached by a group of kids. With one question — “Do you party?” — and a simple “Yes,” D’s life changed significantly. D spent the next couple of months getting drunk after school and skipping classes to get high with his new circle of friends.
“My friends and I went to a party in Salt Lake one weekend. I was pretty drunk and got in a fight with some kid. The next thing I knew I woke up in another house with a bloody mouth,” D said in a phone interview.
D was abandoned by his friends at the party. He woke up a few hours after the fight on an unfamiliar couch. The couch was owned by a 21-year-old attendee of the party who introduced him to the TOP gang.
“I knew we’d be close after that morning,” D said. “ He showed me a new kind of family, people I could trust. I’d do anything for them and they’d do the same for me. We’re not blood, but we’re family.”
D took the UTA bus line to Salt Lake every day after school for the next five months. After being kicked out of his mom’s house, he dropped out of school and moved south from Woods Cross to Salt Lake.
Within months D officially joined the TOP gang. He said carrying around a gun for the first time felt comfortable and made him feel more secure.
“I used to go shooting with my dad, so I knew what I was doing with a gun,” D said.“ I never carried one around though, but I knew I needed it for protection.”
D said most members in TOP own guns, carry guns or at least know where to find a gun if they find themselves in trouble. But how are gang members getting their hands on guns? Simonelli says the Internet makes it easy.
“A lot of them get their guns off of KSL.com,” Simonelli said. “ People buy them easier off the Internet because they don’t have to go through a dealer and fill out paperwork. By federal law sellers off of sites like KSL.com aren’t responsible for who they sell their gun to, but a gun dealer is.”
Now, D’s gun is a crucial part of his life. After his first encounter with a drive-by shooting he says he will never let his gun leave his side. Gangs are well-known for this type of criminal activity. Simonelli said they use this tactic to gain power.
“That’s why they do these shootings and assaults. They want people to fear their gang,” Simonelli said. “That’s how they earn their respect.”
TOP is known for crimes like robberies, aggravated assaults and drive-by shootings. These crimes mainly transpire between gang rivalry. Members of TOP are rivals with another Asian gang called the Oriental Laotian Gang, or OLG. It’s a war between white and blue. TOP members distinguish themselves with white bandanas while their enemy is dressed in blue.
“All those gangs, even though they’re Asian they still fight each other,” Simonelli said.
Members of gangs also get tattoos as a symbol of their loyalty. A popular one among Asian gangs is the dragon tattoo. “It shows a part of their heritage and for them it’s like a sense of power,” Simonelli said.
TOP currently has only about 25 to 30 members, so it is not considered active by the police. However, Simonelli said Asian gangs are harder to track down and operate somewhat differently than most gangs.
“Asian kids won’t snitch on each other,” he said. “ They stay tight with their own and Asians really stay together as compared to other races.”
Kenny Dorrell is the director of Project 180, a prevention and intervention program designed to help kids stay away from gangs. Dorrell said in a phone interview that members of TOP also tend to be more structured. This organization helps them to stay out of jail and off of police’s radar.
Simonelli said although TOP isn’t at large right now, it’s important not to discount them as a violent gang.
“You’ll see the generationals in the gang. It will be really quiet and low-key in the gang one year and then a few years later there will be a few kids that pop up and now the gang is committing all sorts of crimes and becoming active again,” Simonelli said.
While D won’t mention any of the activities TOP is currently involved in, he says TOP is “unstoppable.” D claims he has found a true family on the streets and his loyalty won’t ever die, even if that means taking his own life in the name of TOP.
“I’d give my own blood for my family,” D said. “That’s what we do.”